For the retirement fight of Fedor Emelianenko, one of the greatest ever to compete in mixed martial arts and the icon of an era gone by, there was a who's who of MMA legends gathered at Bellator 290 in Inglewood, California, on Saturday night to give one of their own a proper send-off.
They ended up being reminded that this is not a sport that ushers its greats out of the game gently.
Emelianenko, 46, challenging Ryan Bader for the Bellator heavyweight championship in the main event at Kia Forum, was stopped via TKO in the first round of a bout in which he was dominated. In some ways, the fight played out even uglier than their first meeting in 2019, when Bader knocked out Emelianenko in 35 seconds.
This time the fight lasted 2 minutes, 30 seconds, but it was apparent from the start that this was a mismatch, as Emelianenko was winging wild punches and missing badly. Less than a minute in, Bader dropped him with an overhand right, and that began a bludgeoning that left Emelianenko facedown on the canvas, bloody and helpless, until referee Herb Dean jumped in to wave it off.
It was a gruesome finish. And yet the night somehow managed to end gracefully.
There was a celebratory vibe that was kicked off by Bader (31-7, 1 NC), who, when interviewed inside the cage, called his victory "bittersweet," drawing applause when he paid tribute to Emelianenko.
"I idolized him, like every other MMA fan and fighter coming up," Bader said, before addressing the crowd directly: "Get on your feet and give that man a hand for what he's done for the sport."
Emelianenko (40-7, 1 NC) was a dominant figure in the formative years of MMA, going unbeaten through 28 fights from 2001 until 2010. He defeated many of the best heavyweights in the world during that period, winning the Pride and WAMMA championships.
Some of those whom Emelianenko fought during his two-decade career were in attendance to honor him Saturday night, and so were other legends of the sport. As Emelianenko was being interviewed, Bellator brought into the cage some of the biggest names in MMA history: Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Mark Coleman, Frank Shamrock, Dan Henderson, Matt Hughes, Josh Barnett, Renzo Gracie, Rampage Jackson and Chael Sonnen. Emelianenko took note of their presence and smiled, shaking hands with all of them.
"On one side, I am sad that I didn't deliver on the fight, as I wanted to," Emelianenko said in Russian through an interpreter. "But on the other side, I'm so happy that all of these people are here cheering for me and all these veteran fighters who have walked the path with me for the past 20 years are here to greet me. So I'm very happy."
The Emelianenko retirement fight was just one of two championship bouts at the top of the Bellator 290 marquee. Johnny Eblen successfully defended his middleweight title in the co-main event, remaining undefeated with a gritty domination of Anatoly Tokov, a 32-year-old Russian who is coached by Emelianenko.
After a back and forth first round and a half, Eblen (13-0) took over, grinding out Tokov by piling up double figures in takedowns to secure a unanimous decision (50-45, 49-46, 49-46). Tokov (31-3) saw a seven-fight winning streak come to an end.