For weeks, the MMA world was abuzz: the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, if not the greatest fighter of all time, period, was to return. Fedor Emelianenko, otherwise known as “The Last Emperor,” was returning to the sport after three years of retirement. At long last, thought fight fans, we would see Fedor fight the best fighters in the UFC. Perhaps he’d work to get revenge against current UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, the first man to beat The Last Emperor in a decade. Or perhaps he would sign with Bellator MMA, and take some freakshow fights against the likes of Bobbly Lashley and Kimbo Slice. While the sporting merit of such bouts would be questioned, the entertainment value would not.

What no one expected was for Fedor Emelianenko to sign with an upstart Japanese MMA promotion led by the man who ran Pride — Nobuyuki Sakakibara, the President of Dream Stage Entertainment, also behind Dream. Pride was the biggest MMA outfit in the world at its peak, before allegations of links to the Japanese mafia led to its downfall and eventual purchase by the UFC. Fedor was its biggest star, a household name for fight fans around the world. So it makes sense that he wished to return to work for the man who gave him his big break.

His motivations beyond that, however, are muddled. When asked about his return, on a Bellator show, no less (the promotion will do some form of co-promotion with Pride 2.0 — which is clearly not the new promotion’s name — if only because it will air on Spike TV, Bellator’s current home), Emelianenko claimed he was coming back because he was a fighter. No more, no less.

Yet should a fighter not want to face the best? The best is not an unnamed opponent in an upstart MMA outfit. The best is, well, the best.

Still, aside from being a fighter, Fedor has always been a businessman. While there was no demand of co-promotion with Russia’s M-1 this time around as far as negotiations with Emelianenko were concerned, it was clear he wouldn’t settle for a basic UFC contract (something Andrei Arlovski and Mirko Cro-Cop, two of the biggest names still active from Fedor’s prime, were willing to do). While the heavyweight legend teased fans on social media with a photoshop of him at a UFC weigh-in, it was clear that he had his sights set on a huge payday. Which he reportedly got, with a $2.5 million deal for fighting in Japan on New Year’s Eve (it is believed that he has a deal for a second fight as well).

Chalking his motivations up to money alone, however, would be over-simplifying the matter.

Fedor, perhaps, is loyal to a fault, and dreaming of yesteryear, when he dominated Pride in Japan. While some of his aura — his mystique — was shattered by his three Strikeforce losses on American soil towards the end of his career, in Japan, he will retain his image of the unstoppable giant slayer, the man who really only needed a first name.

At the same time, this may also be a business tactic: look what I can get outside the UFC, Dana White. Now maybe you should consider upping your offer.

There is still a chance that Fedor signs with an American promotion. Scott Coker’s words, that he’s not interested in Fedor at the moment, but perhaps “a couple years down the line, or next year, or whatever” from a recent interview were telling. It’s likely that even then, he had a hint of where the Russian fighter was headed, and it clearly wasn’t his own yard over in Bellator.

And so we play the waiting game. In the meantime, Sakakibara has said that Fedor’s opponent will “mean something for the future of MMA.” For that to be the case, it cannot be an unheard of fighter. That would mean nothing for the future, because there is one of two outcomes: Fedor crushes a can, or a can upsets the man considered to be the best ever.

It will also not be Kimbo Slice, or any Bellator fighter, apparently, according to the most recent word from Scott Coker. Which leaves a very small number of relevant fighters, or a retired fighter not under contract elsewhere. Randy Couture would be the most interesting option, but in his fifties, does even Couture mean something to the future?

Fedors next fight, more than anything, seems to be about the past, about returning to his roots. Still, it hasn’t done anything to take away from the fact that in the MMA world, he is something of an enigma, as hard to figure outside the cage/ring as inside of it. Is he looking for a payday? A return to Glory? To challenge himself? To remain relevant? Who will he fight, how will he look, were those Strikeforce losses a sign, or a string of bad days and rough outings?

As always, with Fedor, there are more questions than answers.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.