It ended up being a thrilling moment for Emelianenko (40-6 MMA, 4-2 BMMA), but it also had the potential to be very sad. The betting odds had Johnson (15-8 MMA, 3-4 BMMA) favored to travel into enemy territory to win. That wasn’t unjust, either, because it was hard to know what version of the former PRIDE FC champ we’d be getting after he spent nearly two years away from the sport.
During Emelianenko’s layoff he celebrated his 45th birthday, and also had a severe case of COVID-19 that briefly put him in the hospital. It seemed entirely possible he would show up as a deeply compromised version of himself and be in over his head against Johnson, who had a more than 30-pound weight advantage.
To the delight of pretty much everyone outside of Johnson, his team, his family and his friends, Emelianenko turned back the clock and delivered a vintage 108-second knockout. It was fast, it was painless (for Fedor at least), and it was devastating. A truly feel-good moment all the way around.
The question now, however, is what does Emelianenko do from here? He has so much to be proud in his career, and it’s hard to fathom him putting together a more perfect moment than what happened on Saturday in front of his own people in Russia. It was perfect in every sense, and if I was his personal advisor, I’d strongly encourage him to close the door on the competitive chapter of his life.
But as we’ve seen so many times before in combat sports, almost no one retires when it seems to make the most sense. Moreover, Emelianenko has one fight remaining on his Bellator contract, and his services don’t come cheap. Leaving that money on the table would be foolish to a degree, and it’d be hard to blame him for wanting to collect it.
Given that, there seems to be two plausible scenarios for Emelianenko. He can either play it safe and pursue a winnable matchup that boost his chances of ending his career on a win, or he can shoot for the stars and try to go out on the highest of highs.
The fact Emelianenko chose Johnson for this matchup at Bellator 269 hints he’s thinking about the latter. Johnson entered the fight No. 2 in the Bellator heavyweight rankings, and Emelianenko picked him because he wanted to show he belongs at the top of the division and is relevant to the title.
A rematch with Bellator heavyweight champ Ryan Bader could offer Emelianenko his fairytale finish. We saw how that fight played out already, and it didn’t go well for Emelianenko. However, Bader (28-7 MMA, 6-2 BMMA) has since been knocked out twice and looked like a more aged version of himself in recent fights. Perhaps that means he’s vulnerable. Or not. But if Emelianenko wants to take the risk and go for glory, then this is the obvious option.
It would take some maneuvering, of course. After Bader got ousted from the light heavyweight grand prix against Corey Anderson, he’s targeted to return to heavyweight for a title unification bout with interim champ Valentin Moldavsky. Conveniently, Moldavsky is one of Emelianenko’s pupils and teammates, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he offered to step aside and let his mentor fight Bader instead.