Just five years ago, if you had asked the knowledgeable MMA fan who the greatest fighter of all time was, the common answer would have been Fedor Emelianenko. And at the time, it wasn’t really even all that close. Sure, there were other great fighters in MMA, and names like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture or Wanderlei Silva could have hypothetically made their way into the mix, but in terms of overall dominance and accomplishments, Emelianenko stood alone.

Fast forward to less than a decade later, and Emelianenko is barely even mentioned in the same breath as the current front-runners vying for the title of MMA’s GOAT. Anderson Silva is currently the popular pick, but Georges St-Pierre has been nipping at his heels for years now, and the amount of success Jon Jones had had at such a young age has started to help “Bones” pick up steam in the conversation. While all three of these fighters are undeniably special, it’s hard not to wonder how Emelianenko fell out of the mix in just a few years. After all, going from greatest of all time to just another legend of the sport within the time it takes for a kid to reach grade school seems a bit crazy.

It may seem a bit obvious, but the main reason Fedor was knocked off of his mantle was because he did the one thing that could have hurt his legacy: he lost. Before he joined the Strikeforce promotion in 2009, Emelianenko’s MMA record was practically flawless. Outside of a bogus loss due to cut back in 2000, Fedor completely dominated the Japanese MMA scene when it was at its best, beating everyone from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic during their respective primes. It was only after over a decade of punishment that Emelianenko started to slow down, and unfortunately for “The Last Emperor,” the worst run of his career came when he was billed as the savior of Strikeforce.

After a successful debut against Brett Rogers, Emelianenko went on to drop his final three fights in the Strikeforce promotion, getting stopped in all three losses. Fedor ended up rebounding with three solid wins to end his career, but the damage had already been done. Despite all of his past accomplishments, Emelianenko was no longer considered the greatest.

Admittedly, Emelianenko’s Strikeforce run was a complete disaster. Going 1-3 against top competition is usually forgivable, but this was the great Fedor Emelianenko. Guys like Fabricio Werdum and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva were supposed to be little more than punching bags for “The Last Emperor,” not fighters who could take him out in less than three rounds. Even though it appeared Emelianenko was just a victim of too many wars and too many punches to the head, the question has to be asked as to whether or not Emelianenko was ever as talented as his modern-day counterparts.

Throw Emelianenko in his prime into the modern-day UFC heavyweight division, and is it a guarantee that he wins the belt? It’s a tough question. As good as Fedor once was, the overall skills of Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos may have been too much for the Russian to handle, and he may have been just another top contender that couldn’t quite win the strap. Can we really call a fighter the greatest of all time if we aren’t sure that he could dominate in the modern era?

NBA fans have no doubts that a prime Michael Jordan would still be able to dominate in 2013. The same can be said of Wayne Gretzky in the NHL or Jerry Rice in the NFL. If we threw them into a time machine and brought them to the here and now to play hockey or football, there’s no doubt that they would still be able to rule their respective sports. Some athletes are just so talented that they transcend eras. It’s tough to imagine Emelianenko as one of those guys.

There’s no doubt that Emelianenko was the greatest fighter of his era, but there’s a reason that MMA is called the fastest growing sport in the world, and it doesn’t only have to do with television viewers. The evolution of MMA has been pretty well documented, and everyone knows how the sport has gone from wrestler vs. boxer to mixed martial artist vs. mixed martial artist, but the talent gap between the modern eras of MMA has been more difficult to comprehend. Fighters like Emelianenko and Randy Couture were able to become complete mixed martial artists and fully adapt to modern MMA, but while they were ahead of the curve, most of their competition wasn’t as quick to catch on. As a result, the well-rounded fighters were able to feast on one-dimensional opponents, and guys that were extremely well-rounded, like Emelianenko, had a much easier time stringing wins together than today’s top fighters, who will mostly encounter adversaries that have given equal attention to all facets of the sport, from wrestling to jiu-jitsu to boxing to Muay Thai.

So while Emelianenko isn’t quite Jordan-esque in his ability to thrive in any era, he’s definitely somewhere in the Wilt Chamberlain range. Would Wilt have been able to score 100 points in a game against a current NBA team? Not a chance, but a prime Chamberlain may be able to compete in the modern NBA. The same applies to Fedor. In the modern UFC heavyweight division, he probably isn’t going to win over 20 straight like he did back in the day, but it wouldn’t be surprising if “The Last Emperor” was a solid contender.

MMA hasn’t quite stopped growing yet, and until it does, the greatest fighter of all time is always going to be whoever the best fighter in the world is at that given moment. Right now, that man is Anderson Silva. Until someone is able to knock “The Spider” off his spot at the top of the sport, Silva is going to the best fighter of all time. However, the sport still isn’t done evolving, and once Silva suffers a defeat, don’t be surprised to see Jones or someone else rise to take his place and assume the title of GOAT.

It may seem like a shame that Emelianenko is already all but removed from GOAT consideration, but no matter how fondly MMA fans remember the past, it’s hard not to look forward to the future. As good as Emelianenko was, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing someone even more incredible in Anderson Silva, and when “The Spider” hangs up his gloves, we’ll be treated to an even greater mixed martial artist who comes along to take his place. As unbelievable as Silva is, he’s only going to be able to hold on to his greatest of all time moniker for a little while longer. As long as the sport keeps evolving at such a high rate, the GOAT is going to keep on evolving right with it.

Photo: Fedor Emelianenko (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)