For as long as the UFC has existed there have been would-be usurpers nipping at its heels. Some of them came pretty close; PRIDE Fighting Championship undeniably had a monopoly on the sport’s greatest fighters for a time, while in the US, Strikeforce and Bellator built some of the industry’s biggest stars and became viable options for athletes looking to jump ship.
Not every upstart was so lucky. Bodog Fight – the brainchild of offshore gambling kingpin Calvin Ayre – burned out after barely a year of bizarre events in far-flung locations, leaving only faded memories and a reported $40m hole in the balance sheet.
And then there was Affliction; the California-based clothing company that had already proved to be something of a disruptor in the ‘gothic fonts, skullz ‘n’ flamez’ MMA clothing space previously ruled by the likes of TapouT.
While in many ways the aforementioned promotions couldn’t have been more different in terms of product and presentation, they all had one thing in common: Fedor Emelianenko.
As cliched and elitist as this may seem, it’s difficult to understand or appreciate the aura that surrounded Russia’s Emelianenko during the 00s if you weren’t along for the ride.
Fedor fights weren’t just fights; they were occasions.
There was undoubtedly a degree of mythologisation too; fans of the era were fiercely tribal and the ‘UFC vs PRIDE’ debate raged ad nauseum.
In the eyes of half the fandom Fedor wasn’t just the best, he was a God.
That deification itself would have almost certainly made Emelianenko uncomfortable; he was a simple man and a deeply religious Orthodox Christian. But that was part of the alure; there was no trash talk, no flash cars or glimmering bling. Fedor was the silent sportsman, straight-faced, soft-bodied and unassuming.
It just so happened that when he stepped through the ropes, he was the most dangerous human being on the planet.
With his legend riding high in the late 00s and following the collapse of PRIDE, speculation ran rife as to when, not if, fans would see ‘The Last Emperor’ in the UFC.
Of course, it wasn’t to be. With his contact tied up by third parties, negotiations to get Fedor into the Octagon became more trouble than they were worth.
If Fedor – and a select troupe of fellow PRIDE favourites like Josh Barnett, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Sokoudjou – couldn’t fight their UFC counterparts in the Octagon, why not create their own platform to serve up a veritable platter of dream fights to the hardcores?
Upon learning of Affliction’s intentions to enter the promotional fray, the UFC banned the apparel company from sponsoring its fighters, inadvertently giving the MMA upstart a name for its first event.
Affliction: Banned saw Fedor compete on US soil for just the second time in his career, steamrolling former two-time UFC champion Tim Sylvia in a mere 36 seconds.
As impressive as the win was on paper, Sylvia had – perhaps unfairly at that point - become something of a figure of fun and US fans were still not entirely convinced of Fedor’s omnipotence.
With the UFC on the attack (in an unprecedented move they’d counter-programmed Banned by giving away Anderson Silva’s 205-pound debut on free TV), Affliction knew they needed to raise the stakes for his next opponent.
Standing at six-foot-four, sporting a Spartan beard and a nose that could smell around corners, Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski looked every bit the Bond villain’s favourite henchman.
A hulking, snarling heavyweight with a fanged gumshield, alternating between flowing, partially bleached locks and a close-cropped buzz cut, the wild-eyed Belarusian was a promoter’s dream.
Thankfully he possessed just as much substance as he did style, having finished a wealth of high-level opponents in devastating fashion over a career that had spanned Europe and the US, including an emphatic victory over Sylvia for the interim UFC title.
After brutally knocking out Ben Rothwell at Affliction: Banned, Arlovski had been tabbed to fight Josh Barnett, another former UFC champion, in the main event of their October 2008 follow up.
As a result of poor ticket sales, the maverick promotion opted to postpone the entire event until the following January, in order that Fedor vs. Arlovski could serve as the headliner.
It was the number one heavyweight in the world versus the number two. It was PRIDE versus the UFC. It was fantasy MMA in a corporeal form.
The thrill of a fight ultimately comes down to jeopardy; without it, there is none.
If there was a fear around backing Arlovski, even in early 2009, it was his tendency to be so wildly overconfident in exchanges that he’d been knocked stiff on multiple occasions by opponents who’d had no real right to do so.
The jeopardy around Fedor was the perception of his immortality.
Aside from a single, errant punch from pro-wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita in 2003, The Russian had never been seen to take significant damage.
UFC fans had spent years hypothesising as to how their best and brightest would humanize "The Last Emperor". The assumption was that Arlovski would simply be too much for his Russian counterpart on the feet, while his similar Sambo credentials would prove sufficient to neutralise any grappling threat.
Fedor’s looping "Russian hooks" – a technique that saw him launch his right hand over the shoulder with his knuckles turned in, allowing him to immediately slip into bodylocks and throw or trip opponents to the mat – would be no match for the tight, measured kickboxing of Arlovski.
As referee John McCarthy delivered the final instructions, the atmosphere in Anaheim’s Honda Center could have been cut with the only the sharpest of knives. The event, co-promoted by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy and backed by a reality TV star by the name of Donald Trump, radiated the biggest of big fight feels.
The bell rang, and then it happened.
Fedor became human.
Arlovski was anything but timid against one of the sport’s most feared punchers; pressing forward and drawing first blood with a crisp right hand that appeared to unbalance Fedor.
"The Last Emperor" refused to adjust his guard, maintaining his trademark low-slung stance as "The Pitbull" plugged away with rights and low kicks, confidence oozing from every pore in his body.
Fedor began lurching and reaching with his punches, hitting little more than air with anything of significance. Perhaps in a display of pure arrogance, it was Arlovski who tried the first takedown when the pair inevitably clinched up.
Another right hand landed. Then another.
“For maybe the first time in his career…” mused commentator Jimmy Smith, “…Fedor is a little flustered by the speed of Arlovski.”
The Belarusian crashed forward with another combination that kissed Fedor’s jaw, followed by a left teep to the body, pushing the seemingly stunned Emelianenko back into the corner.
This was it. He wasn’t just going to beat Fedor the man, he was going to tear down the legend of "The Last Emperor" in a way that the world would never forget.
Arlovski’s eyes narrowed. As his opponent bounced back off the corner pad, hands by his waist, the roar of the crowed ebbed away into a deafening silence.
Coiled like a spring, he launched both feet off the floor in search of the fight-ending flying knee…
The next sound anybody heard was the warm "thwap" of leather on cheek, as Emelianenko threw fate a curveball, picking "The Pitbull" out of the sky with a single, soul-stealing overhand right.
Arlovski crashed, face-first, legs stiff, eyes open, into the canvas; a chilling visual that instantly cemented its place in the pantheon of highlight-reel finishes.
As for Fedor? There was no celebration. No emotion. Barely a change in expression.
Just a single, gingerly-raised hand. Not in glorification of his victory, but in acknowledgement of his God.