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History in the Making: Fedor Emelianenko begins his trek to GOAT status against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Fedor Big Nog
Fedor Big Nog

It almost seems like something out of a movie.

A child is born in the harsh climate of what is now Ukraine to modest -- albeit hard-working -- parents. His mother was a teacher while his father labored with his hands as a welder. Nothing extravagant, nothing beyond their means. They were honest, simple people who relied on their faith in God and each other.

The young boy would grow up to be one of the greatest mixed martial artists to ever live.

From such humble beginnings to fight purses in the millions, Fedor Emelianenko has just about seen it all.

And while he had two years and eleven bouts under his belt before he even stepped inside the Pride Fighting Championships (Pride FC) ring, it was in for the legendary Japanese promotion that his legacy truly began.

"The Last Emperor" is set to face Dan Henderson at Strikeforce: "Fedor vs. Henderson" in less than two weeks (July 30) in a super-fight that is sure to provide fireworks.

But before he does, let's take a look at his career leading up to his first bout with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a fight that would begin cementing the Russian's place in the mixed martial arts (MMA) record books.

High school, trade school, military service. Those three institutions controlled Emelianenko's life until he was 21.

Upon leaving his country's army in 1997, he began competing in Sambo and judo competition, almost always placing and eventually almost always capturing gold.

Three years after being discharged, he made his MMA debut for Akira Maeda's RINGS organization. He rattled off three wins that year which was enough to earn him a spot in the promotion's King of Kings tournament.

Think Pride FC's old grand prixs but throw in the likes of Emelianenko, "Big Nog," Ricardo Arona with Randy Couture and "Babalu" Renato Sobral.

It was in this tournament that the Russian suffered his first -- although highly scrutinized -- loss. An inadvertent illegal elbow from former UFC contender Tsuyoshi Kohsaka opened up a fight-ending cut on Emelianenko's face. The tournament rules betrayed "The Last Emperor" and "TK" was given the win since someone had to advance to the next round.

Emelianenko wouldn't lose again for nearly 10 years.

He would spend another year with the struggling promotion before making the jump to the new top dog in the Land of the Rising Sun: Pride FC.

The winner of the King of Kings tournament Emelianenko was bounced out of, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, was ruling the Pride heavyweight division with an iron fist beating the likes of Mark Coleman, Semmy Schilt, Dan Henderson, and Heath Herring -- the latter of which earned him the company's heavyweight title.

Emelianenko made his promotional debut at Pride 21 and won a decision over the future K-1 World Grand Prix Champion Schilt and went on to face Herring.

Internally, Pride executives were hoping for the American to win and rematch "Big Nog" for the title. With his flamboyantly colored hair, shaved into eye-catching designs, "The Texas Crazy Horse" was a popular fighter in Japan and a money-maker for the promotion.

Instead, "The Last Emperor" brutalized the Texan for 10 minutes until he could take no more.

And just like that, we were presented with what would be one of the best heavyweight rivalries in MMA history.

At Pride 25, they met inside the ring. Let's dive in.

The Brazilian immediately shoots but is rebuffed by the challenger. Confident as he may be, Emelianenko absolutely does not want Nogueira on top of him.

Reset on their feet, the Russian rushes the champion and catches him on the jaw before Nogueira is able to pull guard. 

Each fighter is landing short punches and jockeying for position while trying to maintain a sufficient defense. While Emelianenko is wary of being on his back, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt's guard is nearly as dangerous.

But the champion is finding it hard to mount any significant offense. Emelianenko is keeping his hips square and straight, his body close to his opponent's, and landing ground and pound with amazing accuracy.

This is the tale of the first round. While the commentators are lauding the grappling of "Minotauro," they simply speak in hypotheticals.

"If Nogueira gets this position..." or "All Emelianenko needs to do is make a mistake..." paints a picture of a great fighter who is simply being outclassed.

It's no more apparent than when the Russian lands the champion in the corner. There, unable to maneuver due to being surrounded by ropes and a corner post, Nogueira is subjected to a pounding from the challenger, his head bouncing off the mat several times after being slammed into by the Russian's fists.

Now busted open and beginning to swell, the champion is finally able to sweep his opponent and the crowd erupts. This is exactly what Emelianenko did not want. After nearly 10 minutes of a near-perfect performance, it all might come to a sudden and limb-twisting end.

But as Nogueira attempts to transition to full mount, Emelianenko sweeps the Brazilian back over. "The Last Emperor" was unafraid to dabble in "Big Nog's" guard and also had the chops to hang with him when it came to grappling.

With only two rounds remaining, it seemed that the champion was in for a long night.

Again, Nogueira opens the round with a takedown attempt. Again, it fails.

"The Last Emperor" finds himself in what is quickly becoming his home away from home: "Minotauro's" guard.

Throughout the next five minutes, Emelianenko lands punch after punch to the champion's head while shrugging off and slipping out of every armbar and triangle attempt. The sound of the Russian's glove smacking against Nogueira's skull echoes throughout the Yokohama Arena and is punctuated by an "OH!" from the audience.

A last-second sweep at the end of the second stanza from the champion is the epitome of "too little, too late" for the Brazilian who is on his way to losing his title.

The challenger immediately takes the fight to Nogueira in the final round when he opens up with a takedown attempt. The difference being that the Russian follows through and executes unlike his opponent the previous two rounds.

An armbar attempt from "Big Nog" lights the crowd up but Emelianenko onces again wiggles free. As good as the Russian's defense is, it seems that over 15 minutes of sweating has made latching onto a limb long enough to score the submission is impossible for the champion.

The rest of the fight plays out like a deja vu of the previous two. "The Last Emperor" on top of his opponent, controlling the grappling, while landing devastating ground and pound. It's the last image we see when the final bell finally sounds.

It was an unbelievable sight. The Brazilian kingpin who had nearly crushed tracheas and snapped arms en route to the Pride heavyweight title was just usurped by a little known, near-emotionless Russian who looked like the closest he got to athleticism was teaching an elementary gym class.

Thus began the legacy of "The Last Emperor." Undefeated -- while beating the likes of Nogueira for a second time, Mirko Filipvic, Tim Sylvia, and Andrei Arlovski -- until a shocking upset at the hands of Fabricio Werdum a little over a year ago.

A second, more brutal loss to Antonio Silva, has throngs of fans claiming that the story is over for Emelianenko. But there's at least one more chapter to be written.

Will "The Last Emperor" get his happily ever after?

Or will Dan Henderson put the final nail in the former champion's coffin?

We will see.

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