Before mixed martial arts broke into the mainstream, led by Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, it still had a core of fanatical followers. And among those early adopters there was no more revered figure than the heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. Yet he never fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Emelianenko, a Ukrainian-born Russian, became a cult favorite of early M.M.A. fans for a string of devastating knockouts and an eight-year, 28-match undefeated streak that came in promotions like Rings, Pride and Strikeforce. Many of his bouts were in Japan, where M.M.A. was booming. That meant that for American fans, the fights were often not seen on television but glimpsed in clips dug up online, which somehow deepened Emelianenko’s legend.
His winning streak is long over. But Emelianenko is still fighting at age 42 and will go on Saturday in a Bellator heavyweight semifinal against Chael Sonnen, 41, a U.F.C. veteran, at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
Emelianenko, known as the Last Emperor, became known for powerful punching and making quick work of his opponents, including victories during his streak of 54, 36 and 26 seconds. Plenty of fans and commentators still call him the greatest heavyweight ever, noting that his victims included several former U.F.C. champions.
Every year or so throughout the 2000s, a rumor would go around that Emelianenko was finally going to the U.F.C., prompting glee on message boards and chat groups. But it never came to pass. Emelianenko seemed to be making enough money as the headliner in the other promotions that he never felt the need to move.
The U.F.C. reportedly chased Emelianenko for years but could never make a deal. Emelianenko has said that it was just business: He did not like some provisions of the U.F.C. contract, and he disagreed on its promotion plans. Other reports suggested his team wanted more control than the U.F.C. was willing to cede.
Eventually, in 2010, Emelianenko lost a fight, and then a few more. And he slipped out of the consciousness of many fans.
But he kept fighting. In April, he won a quarterfinal match for the heavyweight championship of Bellator, the biggest M.M.A. promotion after the U.F.C., defeating Frank Mir, a former U.F.C. heavyweight champion. The fight was reminiscent of his battles of yore: a knockout in 48 seconds. Now he is two fights away from the Bellator title. The fight card will be telecast on Paramount Network in the United States, starting at 9 p.m., Eastern time.
Bellator has its share of up-and-coming mixed martial artists, but has also marketed veteran fighters who made their names in the U.F.C. The former champion Benson Henderson, Timothy Johnson and Cheick Kongo are all on Saturday’s card. Matt Mitrione, Roy Nelson, Rampage Jackson, Wanderlei Silva and Rory MacDonald are among the ex-U.F.C. stalwarts who have fought in Bellator this year.
Bellator is trying to sell the Emelianenko-Sonnen fight as an old-fashioned United States-Russia rivalry and filmed a promo with the brash Sonnen in an Uncle Sam-style outfit, with modern allusions to Russian “meddling.” “I felt ridiculous,” he said later.
When he wasn’t clowning, Sonnen acknowledged the challenge ahead of him: “I’ve never dealt with power like I’m going to have to deal with Fedor.”
For his part, the taciturn Emelianenko responded to Sonnen’s taunting, including remarks about his physique, through an interpreter. “I agree that my body’s not the bodybuilder’s body. In the cage, there are different measurements,” he said with chilling calmness.
How much longer can Emelianenko keep going into the ring? The hard truth is, as Sonnen put it, “Every fighter’s career ends the same, which is face down and embarrassed.”
“We do not speak about retirement at the moment,” was all the taciturn Emelianenko would say of the matter. The consensus is that Emelianenko is far from done: He is more than a 2-1 favorite over his slightly younger opponent.