By Zach Arnold | August 15, 2011
Perhaps no fighter has been a lightning rod of debate quite like Fedor Emelianenko. If a cut stoppage loss to Tsuyoshi Kosaka in his early career is thrown out, Emelianenko began his career 31-0. In a sport in which the very best fighters in the world all lose at some point, including Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, Emelianenko never did. Instead, he either completely dominated his opponents, like Tim Sylvia, or came back from trouble to score an impressive victory, like he did against Kazuyuki Fujita. It seemed that no matter the opponent, no matter the challenge, Emelianenko invariably would end up with his hand raised at the end of the fight.
The problem is that Emelianenko did this without fighting in the UFC. The result was that two groups of people were constantly pitted against each other in (often irrational) online debates. To many of Emelianenko’s fans, he was a deity of mixed martial arts, an unbeatable force who simply was incapable of losing a fight, and would smash anybody the UFC had to offer. To many of Emelianenko’s detractors, he was a fraud with a career that was protected by his management, beating opponents that were far from the best challengers the sport had to offer.
Now that Emelianenko has lost three fights in a row, many are saying that recent events have proved that people like UFC President Dana White were correct in saying that Emelianenko was overrated and that Emelianenko “sucks.” White has recently gone so far as to say that building a mixed martial arts promotion around Emelianenko is “like having your promotion carried by Kimbo Slice.”
Fighters like Emelianenko are exactly why I’ve created SILVA, my statistical analysis system for estimating how good mixed martial artists are. As a completely objective system, an analysis of Fedor Emelianenko can be done without bias. My aim is to use this statistical analysis to get a reasonable, measured viewpoint about where Emelianenko’s career stacks up against the best of his generation.
The primary tool that I will use to do this is the Victory Score statistic. Victory Score uses the record of the opponent, as well as the record of the opponent’s opponents, to estimate how good an opponent is. This is an approximate measure that won’t always be the most accurate way of rating a fighter, but for the most part, provides a fairly good estimate. My standard for what represents a “UFC-quality” fighter – a Victory Score of at least 65.00 – is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s an estimate that’s based on looking through Victory Scores of hundreds of fighters. For the most part, fighters with a Victory Score of above 65.00 can at least compete in the UFC, and fighters with a Victory Score of below 65.00 would struggle mightily to win in the UFC.
By using Victory Score to rate Emelianenko’s wins, and comparing his career to that of his contemporaries, hopefully Emelianenko’s career can be put into a proper context.
Fedor Emelianenko’s RINGS career
Emelianenko was 10-1 in RINGS, including the infamous cut stoppage against Kosaka. Here are the Victory Scores of Emelianenko’s ten wins:
The only fights worth mentioning here are Emelianenko’s wins against Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Ricardo Arona. The Sobral win easily qualifies as a win against a UFC-quality opponent, but the Arona win just misses the 65-point cutoff, as Arona was just 2-0 going into that fight (but with a win over Jeremy Horn). In any case, Emelianenko leaves RINGS a career 1-0 against UFC-quality opponents.
Fedor Emelianenko’s PRIDE career
Emelianenko was 16-0 from his debut at PRIDE 21 to his final fight at PRIDE Shockwave 2006. Here are the Victory Scores:
• Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (2nd) – 81.48
• Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (1st) – 80.81
• Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic – 75.33
• Heath Herring – 65.95
• Mark Coleman (1st) – 65.94
• Mark Coleman (2nd) – 65.14
• Kevin Randleman – 64.08
• Semmy Schilt – 63.84
• Naoya Ogawa – 63.63
• Kazuyuki Fujita – 63.48
• Mark Hunt – 62.70
• Zuluzinho – 61.67
• Tsuyoshi Kosaka – 59.01
• Gary Goodridge – 55.23
• Egidijus Valavicius – 50.13
• Yuji Nagata – 27.78
All told, this is a pretty harsh view of Emelianenko’s PRIDE career. The only wins that are truly highly rated are his wins against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Cro Cop. The wins against Heath Herring and Mark Coleman make it over the 65-point cutoff for UFC-quality fighters, but only barely. Still, the most important point is that Emelianenko didn’t lose a single time.
At this point, Emelianenko was 26-1 overall, but just 7-0 against UFC-quality opponents.
Fedor Emelianenko’s post-PRIDE career
Emelianenko is 5-3 since his final PRIDE fight. The Victory Scores of his wins are:
• Brett Rogers – 75.88
• Tim Sylvia – 74.78
• Matt Lindland – 74.63
• Andrei Arlovski – 69.79
• Hong Man Choi – 55.56
If Emelianenko had beaten the fighters he lost to, here are what the Victory Scores would have been:
• Antonio Silva – 77.16
• Dan Henderson – 74.04
• Fabricio Werdum – 71.87
Overall, despite building a record of 31-4, Emelianenko’s record against UFC-quality opponents is just 11-3, after reaching a peak of 11-0.
How does Fedor Emelianenko rate among his contemporaries?
Particularly, how does Emelianenko’s ability to beat quality competition hold up against the greatest heavyweights in MMA history? Here’s a list of the best fighters that the UFC and PRIDE had to offer in the heavyweight division over the years, their peak record against UFC-quality opposition, and their current record against such opposition.
• Fedor Emelianenko: Peak – 11-0, Current – 11-3
• Josh Barnett: Peak – 8-1, Current – 15-5
• Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: Peak – 11-2, Current – 16-6
• Mirko Cro Cop: Peak – 8-1-1, Current – 13-8-1
• Randy Couture: Peak – 7-3, Current – 12-9
• Tim Sylvia: Peak – 6-2, Current – 8-6
• Frank Mir: Peak – 5-4, Current – 5-4
• Andrei Arlovski: Peak – 7-4, Current – 7-8
It’s very much worth noting that Emelianenko did not compete against quality opposition as often as his PRIDE contemporaries in Josh Barnett, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Mirko Cro Cop. When historians look back on Emelianenko’s career, they will certainly lament some of his prime fights being wasted on guys like Zuluzinho and Hong Man Choi.
It’s also worth noting that, naturally, there are differing levels of “UFC-quality” opposition. Emelianenko’s wins against Mark Coleman and Heath Herring are on the low end of the “UFC-quality” range. Emelianenko also has two wins against opponents from lower weight classes: Renato “Babalu” Sobral is a light-heavyweight and Matt Lindland is a middleweight. However, all of the fighters on the above list share at least one of these problems. For example, Cro Cop has wins over Kazushi Sakuraba and Wanderlei Silva, and Tim Sylvia has relatively low-rated “UFC-quality” wins over guys like Assuerio Silva and Jason Riley.
With all of that having been said, at least according to this measure, there isn’t a single heavyweight fighter who can match Emelianenko’s resume. Emelianenko had the best peak record against UFC-quality opposition at 11-0, and even with his recent three-fight losing streak, still has a better winning percentage than any of the division’s best fighters from 2001 to 2006. On top of that, Emelianenko has defeated four of the fighters on this list in head-to-head matches: Nogueira, Cro Cop, Sylvia, and Arlovski. The only other fighter to even face four of the other fighters on the list is Nogueira.
While this measure is far from the be-all and end-all of determining who the best heavyweight fighter of all time is, as far as I’m concerned, the facts all point to Emelianenko being that fighter. None of the fighters listed above have a resume as good as Emelianenko’s, and neither of the recent UFC heavyweight champions (Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar) have been fighting long enough to warrant being included in the discussion.
How does Fedor Emelianenko rate all-time?
While Emelianenko’s relatively low percentage of fights against quality competition isn’t enough to knock him out of the top spot among heavyweights in my opinion, it really starts to hurt when discussing his status as the best all-time fighter in mixed martial arts. In the welterweight division alone, Georges St. Pierre is currently 14-1 in his career against UFC-quality opponents (with Matt Serra missing the cut), and Jon Fitch and Jake Shields are each 12-2-1. Anderson Silva is an astonishing 18-1 against such opponents. In the lightweight division, Frank Edgar is 9-1-1, Gilbert Melendez is 12-2, and Shinya Aoki is 17-4. Chuck Liddell peaked at 14-2 (before retiring at 15-7).
While I wouldn’t necessarily rank all of these fighters ahead of Emelianenko on an all-time basis, this serves to illustrate that a lot of fighters who are still in their prime have competed against quality opposition as many times or more than Emelianenko, and did so very successfully. Even though none of them achieved an 11-0 record as Emelianenko did, Emelianenko’s relative lack of high-level fights prevents him from being the #1 fighter of all time in my opinion.
I mentioned earlier that Cain Velasquez hasn’t had enough fights to be in the discussion for best heavyweight fighter of all time yet. However, Velasquez has had an amazing career start. Already, Velasquez is 6-0 against UFC-quality opposition despite having only having a 9-0 overall record. Velasquez has a big fight coming up in November, when he is slated to defend his title against Junior dos Santos, who himself is 7-1 against UFC-quality opposition. Whoever wins that fight will be in great position to make a run at becoming the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time.
“Greatness” is a subjective term, and everybody is going to have a different idea of what greatness in MMA truly is. I understand that the approach I’ve outlined is just one way to answer the question of whether or not Fedor Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. For me, it’s an emphatic answer, one that should put to rest the notion that Emelianenko wasn’t ever all that good, or anything like Kimbo Slice in any way. Don’t get me wrong, I think that a guy like Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos could take the mantle from Emelianenko with a few more key wins. But as of right now, as far as I see it, Emelianenko is the best heavyweight ever.