Today in MMA History: Fedor Emelianenko caps winning streak; Brett Rogers begins dark descent
(Editor’s note: This story first published on Nov. 7, 2017.)
It was only eight years ago and yet the MMA world was such a different place. For one thing, Strikeforce still existed. For another, a heavyweight by the name of Brett Rogers was undefeated.
And the great Fedor Emelianenko? He was still great, with a streak that included 27 fights without a defeat, stretching through the demise of PRIDE and into the uncertain future that followed it.
He didn’t know it then, but Emelianenko was about to notch the last win in his streak before the wheels fell off. And Rogers, who was about to suffer the first loss of his pro career, would soon find that to be the least of his troubles, as his personal life unraveled and he went from jail to the streets of downtown Minneapolis and back again.
But on Nov. 7, 2009, they were the stars, these two heavyweights fighting in the primetime main event of Strikeforce’s debut on the CBS network. Before it was over, more than 5 million people would tune in to watch – and they got a finish that would repeat itself in GIFs and viral videos for years to come.
The first thing to know about that night is who Emelianenko was back then, and what he meant to his new friends at Strikeforce. For much of the decade, the Russian heavyweight had been an unbeatable enigma who North American fans only glimpsed from afar, but couldn’t get enough of.
On MMA forums, you found serious discussions about how he would do in a fight against a grizzly bear. Thanks to help from Photoshop and Michelangelo, soon Fedor could be seen armbarring God. The more he seemed to resist this sort of attention, the more fans heaped it upon him. Fedor was a phenomenon that even he couldn’t control.
After dominating the competition in PRIDE, where the heavyweight division was generally thought to be stronger than in the UFC, Emelianenko slowly gained the consensus title of world’s best heavyweight. Sure, his impressive record in Japan was padded with New Year’s Eve freak show wins over the likes of Zuluzinho and Hong-Man Choi, but after the UFC bought PRIDE (without securing promotional rights to Emelianenko in the process) and ultimately dismantled it, he’d also racked up legitimate wins in the U.S. with the upstart Affliction MMA promotion.
Affliction held two MMA events between July 2008 and January 2009, and Emelianenko headlined both. First he demolished former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia in 36 seconds, which even longtime Emelianenko detractor Dana White had to admit was impressive, then he rebounded from a rough start against Andrei Arlovski, another former UFC champ, to knock him out cold with a single punch in the first round.
The lasting image from that fight was a haunting one, with Arlovski facedown on the canvas, eyes open but seeing nothing, looking for all the world like a dead man while Emelianenko strolled calmly away.
All this was supposed to lead to a climactic clash with Josh Barnett at Affliction’s third event, dubbed “Trilogy,” but a last-minute drug test failure by Barnett resulted in the event being cancelled and Emelianenko finding himself once again without a fight promotion to dominate.
It didn’t take long for the UFC to come calling. The UFC President White described his focus on signing Emelianenko as an “obsession.” Later reports described an island getaway in Curacao, where the UFC offered Emelianenko a multi-million dollar contract, a blockbuster fight against former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, and, to sweeten the deal for Emelianenko’s handlers, even reportedly offering to purchase M-1 Global, the fight promotion owned and operated by Emelianenko’s longtime manager Vadim Finkelchtein.
While Emelianenko and M-1 Global officials would later refute some of those claims about the grandiosity of the offer, the end result was that negotiations failed and Emelianenko soon signed a deal with Strikeforce, which agreed to give M-1 Global partial billing as a co-promoter. White harbored resentment over the meeting for years, later recalling that he’d warned Emelianenko and his management that the heavyweight was “one punch away from being worth zero.”
Rogers hoped to be the man to land that punch in the fall of 2009. And why not? He’d come seemingly out of nowhere to make a name for himself as a terrifying knockout artist in EliteXC. He’d even fanned the flames of a rivalry with internet sensation Kimbo Slice, only to see Slice defeated by a light heavyweight in an upset that would bring down the entire company.
Along with a host of others, Rogers was scooped up by Strikeforce in the aftermath, and in his second fight with the promotion, he surprised everyone with a 22-second knockout of Arlovski, who was less than six months removed from his near win turned sudden defeat at the hands of Emelianenko.
Rogers had power. He had confidence. He had about five inches and 30 pounds on Emelianenko. Plus, he’d yet to lose a fight. This big man with the mohawk, the one who’d come out of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects and then fought his way to fame while working a job changing tires at Sam’s Club, could he be the one to dethrone an MMA great?
The fight headlined a four-fight network TV card on CBS, live from the Sears Centre outside Chicago. On the undercard, future UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum edged out Antonio Silva via unanimous decision, and then-Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi came on to TKO Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou in the second round. In the penultimate bout, Jake Shields outpointed Jason “Mayhem” Miller over five rounds for the Strikeforce middleweight title.
When the ominous gong sounded near the end of the night, it could only mean one thing – Fedor was coming.
“He is considered to be the one fighter in the world with no flaws,” said CBS commentator Gus Johnson said of Emelianenko as he made his way to the cage.
Looking at the tale of the tape before the fight started, former UFC champ turned commentator Frank Shamrock described Rogers as “a literal giant.”
“Can Fedor kill the giant?” he asked.
During introductions, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. added a little extra flair when he referred to Rogers as a “top-ranked heavyweight” and “undefeated big-time striker.”
In the opposite corner, Emelianenko was as implacable as ever, standing stone-faced and stoic as his corner hoisted the WAMMA (World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts) title that he’d won almost without seeming to notice or care a year earlier.
If Rogers was intimidated by the great Fedor, he didn’t show it early on. A jab from Rogers in the opening seconds of the fight smashed Emelianenko’s nose, drawing blood that would flow everywhere over the course of the opening round. After being taken down quickly, Rogers got back up, looking to use his weight to suffocate the smaller Russian against the fence.
After once again gaining the space he needed to strike, Emelianenko hurt Rogers with a sharp left hook, then took him down as Rogers covered up and retreated.
“MMA is considered a game of human chess,” commentator Mauro Ranallo said as Emelianenko worked short strikes from the top position. “Fedor is the Kasparov of combat, and that jab by Rogers has awoken the beast.”
“Can Brett Rogers be Bobby Fischer?” replied Johnson, thereby bringing an end to the chess metaphors for the night, now that the only two players most people could name had both been mentioned.
Emelianenko gave Rogers a chance to get back in the fight when he tried for a kimura that allowed Rogers to roll on top. For his sins, he was punished with some solid ground-and-pound from Rogers, which Emelianenko managed to stop by threatening with one of his slick armbar transitions off his back.
By the time the bell rang to end the first, Rogers looked weary from his efforts, while Emelianenko just looked bloody. As usual, Emelianenko’s face betrayed not even the barest hint of emotion as he came out of his corner for the second.
Soon he was back up on his toes, bouncing around with his hands held low, searching for his opening as Rogers waited, feinting from afar but seemingly unable to convince himself to throw.
That was all it took: that moment’s hesitation. In one smooth motion, Emelianenko flung himself forward with a right hand that crushed Rogers’ jaw, dipping his head low and he punched, his shoulder colliding with the big man’s body after he connected.
Rogers’ head jackknifed to one side, and then he crashed to the floor, arms out at his sides before he gained just enough awareness to roll away from the follow-up strikes that were already en route.
Referee John McCarthy waited just long enough to see Emelianenko bounce a left and a right off Rogers’ unresponsive and only partially protected head before he stepped in to call it off. The cage flooded with the usual cast of Emelianenko’s friends and associates and hangers-on, from the bearded priests to the money men in suits.
“I don’t know who’s happier, Fedor or his entourage,” said Ranallo.
When the camera found Rogers, he was sitting up, looking from side to side like a man who’d just awoken from a frightening and confusing dream, only to find that a party had somehow broken out in his bedroom.
For the official announcement, Emelianenko stood in the center of the cage, draped in the Russian flag with the cut on his nose suddenly looking like no more than a scratch. He was so happy, he may have even smiled.
Both men’s lives and careers would take a turn after this night. That one punch White had predicted, the one that would render Emelianenko abruptly worthless? Instead it was a submission – a triangle choke/armbar combo from Werdum the following June – and instead of sapping Emelianenko’s glory all at once, it set off a slow leak that continues still.
After the loss to Werdum to snap his streak, Emelianenko would lose his next two fights in Strikeforce, first a doctor stoppage against “Bigfoot” Silva and then a TKO loss to Dan Henderson.
He rebounded in 2011 with a return to more friendly confines and matchmaking, reeling off a series of wins of questionable value in both Russia and Japan. In June 2016 he took on former UFC light heavyweight Fabio Maldonado in St. Petersburg and was nearly knocked out before winning a highly questionable decision victory that still stands as perhaps the best possible example of “home cooking” from MMA judges.
In his most recent outing, Emelianenko was reunited with former Strikeforce President Scott Coker, who needed two tries to successfully get the 40-year-old Emelianenko into the Bellator cage. Once there, it took all of 74 seconds for him to be knocked out by former UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione.
Rogers’ downward spiral would prove to be much darker. Even after the loss to Emelianenko he somehow managed to challenged Alistair Overeem for the Strikeforce heavyweight title in his very next fight. Overeem ran through him easily for a first-round TKO, and Rogers would go on to lose two of his next three, including a submission loss to Barnett in the opening round of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix.
But after the UFC purchased Strikeforce, Rogers was among the first of the contract casualties after news broke that he’d been arrested for a particularly horrifying incident of domestic violence. UFC President White announced that Rogers had been cut, effective “immediately.” Rogers pleaded guilty to the charges and served a 60-day sentence.
He would later sign with Bellator in an attempt to turn both his life and his career around, but he only fought twice for the organization, splitting a pair of bouts.
Rogers was arrested again earlier this year, this time on sexual misconduct charges for allegedly groping multiple men in a Saint Paul, Minn., public library over a period of several months, during which Rogers was reportedly homeless. While incarcerated, he was also accused of groping a cellmate, eventually entering an Alford plea to three separate charges in May, just a little over two years after his last MMA fight, a decision loss to Derrick Mehmen.
“I know that I fell down pretty hard,” Rogers said after he first signed with Bellator a year after his domestic violence arrest. “But I want to prove to people that you can bounce back. You can, if your heart is in it and you know your mistakes.”
For Rogers, the mistakes were just beginning. Not that he could have known back then how far he still had to fall.
“Today in MMA History” is an MMAjunkie series created in association with MMA History Today, the social media outlet dedicated to reliving “a daily journey through our sport’s history.”
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