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The Last Emperor’s Last Stand?

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Fedor. There was a time when the name alone sent shivers down the spine of the sport’s toughest heavyweights. The man who took the mantle of the greatest heavyweight in the sport from Minotauro Nogueira and went 28 fights without a loss. The man with the thousand yard stare who seemed to have ice water in his veins, lived in the same tiny Russian village where he grew up and generally eschewed the outside world. The man cloaked in an aura of invincibility.

The Last Emperor’s Last Stand?

Things move very fast in the world of mixed martial arts. The once invincible Fedor could have his third straight loss after Saturday night. Those words seemed impossible just over a year ago. Then came the fight against Fabricio Werdum. Fedor floored Werdum early than jumped into the jiu-jitsu wizard’s guard to follow up. Werdum locked in a triangle and Fedor tapped out. Time stood still. Fedor fans were quick to come to his defense. “He over-committed against a submission ace” and “everyone makes a mistake once” were commonly heard. When the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix was announced, many observers figured it would be Fedor’s redemption. His first round match-up against Antonio Silva would be favourable for the Russian. He’d beaten larger opponents before and the skill and experience levels were on his side. But Silva held down Fedor and punished him for two rounds before the doctor stopped the fight. There were no excuses to be had this time around. He was simply beaten.

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The detractors came out of the woodwork. Fedor was now too old, too slow, too pudgy they said. He was worn down, he didn’t take his training seriously enough. Everyone had an opinion on why Fedor suddenly looked like mere mortal. After initially musing about retirement, Fedor decided that he did not want to end his career on that note and vowed to return. Strikeforce brass decided to match him up against a man who is a legend in the sport but not a natural heavyweight, Dan Henderson.

What the man known simply as “Hendo” lacks in size, he makes up for with a wealth of experience, Olympic wrestling background and crushing right hand. The current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion is the only man to hold titles in two weight classes at the same time, a feat he accomplished by knocking out Wanderlei Silva to add the Pride 205 pound title to the one he already held at 185. He has also competed at heavyweight early in his career, winning the RINGS King of Kings tournament by defeating Minotauro Nogeuira, Gilbert Yvel and Renato “Babalu” Sobral on the same night. He is also the first man to main event both a Strikeforce and UFC card, and the only man to main event in Strikeforce, UFC and Pride.

Fedor seems to realize this is his chance at redemption and is preparing accordingly. He has perhaps realized that training basically by himself was not going to result in the improvements he wanted to make so he has done what once seemed unthinkable and taken his training camp on the road. He has gone to Holland to train under K-1 legend Ernesto Hoost and was recently seen sparring with 22-0 pro boxer Denis Lebedev. The results from a physical standpoint appear to have paid off as Fedor looks to be in the best shape of his career.

While this is the most high-profile fight that Strikeforce has ever put on, what will happen to the loser of the fight remains a mystery. If Fedor loses his third straight fight to a fighter below his weight class, the calls for his retirement are sure to be loud. Henderson is on the last fight of his current contract, an agreement he signed after an acrimonious split from the UFC. Now that Zuffa also owns Strikeforce, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a loss could convince the Zuffa brass that they don’t want to be in the Dan Henderson business, despite his 205 title.

The fight itself will be interesting stylistically and poses many questions. Will they choose to keep the fight standing and exchange powerful right hands? Will it turn into an exhibition of combat sambo versus greco-roman wrestling? Can Hendo still compete as a heavyweight? Most important of all, will we see the last stand of “The Last Emperor”? Come Sunday morning, we will either be heralding the comeback of quite possibly the greatest fighter ever, or we will be writing the epitaph of a legend.

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