Heavyweight mixed martial arts used to be synonymous with Russia, or at least with a Russian: Fedor Emelianenko. Although Fedor—who’s now 46—has been on something of a run since Ryan Bader knocked him out in a Bellator Heavyweight World Championship tilt, including an impressive October 2021 win over Timothy Johnson, he isn’t what he used to be. Yet he’s still the near-future of heavyweight MMA in Bellator, given that he’ll be rematched with current champ Bader at Bellator 290 in February. Bader-Fedor has a nice ring to it, as main events go, and hopefully the grand old man will be allowed to “hit the gas”—i.e., use steroids—in preparation for that outing, as he almost certainly did against the lumpy, surprisingly skilled Johnson (he also spent some time in tanning beds, but, Liver King and ball-tanning stuff aside, there’s likely little performance-enhancing benefit to be had there, though maybe it helped fight the seasonal affective disorder that runs rampant in Россия).
All of that aside, this is Fedor’s final fight, so he either retires a champion or retires a loser. Plenty of Russian fighters in his generation and the one immediately after are nearing the end of the line. Vitaly Minakov, another Bellator champ, went from looking like the next Fedor after he brutally sonned Alexander Volkov—himself briefly considered another Fedor, before settling in as a mere Top 5 heavyweight in the UFC—to focusing on regional politics and his family. Kirill “Baby Fedor” Sidelnikov, who trains under Fedor and resembled him 50 or so pounds ago, is now just another tubby “hard out” in the heavyweight ranks. The great striker Sergei Kharitonov and the great submission grappler Aleksei Oleinik, both in their 40s, are still able to beat most of the heavyweight fighters in the world but, owing to their propensity for quitting to fight another day, simply don’t have the drive to do so (both would want you to spell and pronounce the name of the Ukrainian capital as “Kiev,” please and thank you kindly). Andrei Arlovski, a 43-year-old Byelorussian, cashes checks and throws hands (nota bene: he wants you to vote for Ron DeSantis).
Enough with the past, though. Two recent fights seemed to point to the future of heavyweight MMA, which, like the natural gas heating Western Europe, still flows through Russia. In one, Sergei Pavlovich—a 6’3” titan with an 84” reach, only 1” less than 6’9” boxing champ Tyson Fury’s—carefully maintained his distance while beating the charismatic Australian brawler Tai Tuivasa to a pulp. Pavlovich, who has smashed everyone from Kirill Sidelnikov to Derrick “Black Beast” Lewis, seems like the absolute truth; only Alistair Overeem, on a significantly underrated last MMA run of a great career that recently saw the 42-year-old avenging a kickboxing loss to Badr Hari while also failing a drug test, managed to employ the smart cage control and grappling tactics needed to expose Pavlovich’s limitations. But that was four years ago, and Pavlovich has worked with Daniel Cormier and others to improve his grappling, something he joked about with Cormier in the interview that followed his devastation of Tuivasa.
The definitive nature of the Tuivasa win underscored that his prior finish of Derrick Lewis was anything but too soon; complain though he might, it’s clear the durable but limited “Black Beast” was in a bad spot and about to receive the hiding that Tuivasa got. In fact, Tuivasa’s face looked worse after 54 seconds with Pavlovich than it did following two tough rounds with a still-dangerous Junior dos Santos in 2018 or three tough rounds with Ciryl Gane earlier this year. Despite his absurd ape index and odd physiognomy—including a complete lack of a visible chin in a manner that recalls Mirko Cro Cop—Pavlovich may be a more powerful striker than Francis Ngannou, who wouldn’t even attempt to engage Derrick Lewis when they fought. A skilled wrestler like Curtis Blaydes or Serghei Spivac might give him pause, though, so perhaps that will be scheduled next, after Pavlovich—who has been very active in terms of fights this year, if not rounds—takes time to recover.
If he goes straight to a match for the UFC heavyweight strap, the result will likely be akin to ONE Interim Heavyweight World Champion Anatoliy “Sladkiy” Malykhin’s dissection of masterful Dutch grappler Reinier de Ridder. ONE light heavyweight title holder de Ridder was heavily favored in this match, including by me, for reasons that made little sense once the match began. ONE’s much more sensible rules regarding weight classes, established due to a ban on weight-cutting via dehydration, favored the tank-like Malykhin; there, light heavyweight has a maximum weight of 225 pounds, which the 5’11” Russian, 79” inch reach and all, was able to reach with ease (looking little different, in fact, than when he fights at 245-plus pounds).
This was a sad bout for de Ridder, who is still ONE’s middleweight (205 pounds) champ and was coming off impressive submissions of Aung La N Sang (whom he also beat by decision a few months later, claiming his other belt), Kiamrian Abbasov, and Vitaly Bigdash. Against those men—none truly small, but also none particularly massive—the heretofore-undefeated de Ridder was like a man toying with boys. Against de Ridder, Malykhin appeared likewise. De Ridder’s punches didn’t damage a heavyweight who’d already finished powerful foes like Kirill Grishenko, Alexandre Machado, and Alexei Kudin. De Ridder’s grappling, his signature skill, came to naught when Malykhin, who had obliterated the Iranian Greco-Roman specialist Amir Aliakbari last year, couldn’t be budged.
While the Pavlovich fight had been a rapid-fire deconstruction, Malykhin’s title win was much more of a slow burn. Viewers saw de Ridder’s blows bouncing harmlessly off Malykhin’s shoulders—the big man has decent heavyweight for someone who appears dense to the point of inflexibility—while each hammering shot from Malykhin, thrown with a propulsive leap off the back foot, in the style of Fedor, made a sickening thud as it landed. The impressive thing, from de Ridder’s standpoint, is that he ate so many of these potatoes before going down; any single one would’ve laid lesser men “among the swee’peas,” as Popeye the Sailor was fond of saying. After the fight, Malykhin joked about dropping down to middleweight—perhaps manageable for him, given his height—and taking de Ridder’s other belt, which would make him the only “champ-champ-champ” in the history of the sport.
The real challenge for Malykhin will come when ONE Heavyweight World Champion Arjan Bhullar returns from his injury hiatus to settle the matter of the Russian’s interim title. As with Curtis Blaydes in the UFC, Bhullar’s a great wrestler with above-average boxing skills; unlike Blaydes, Bhullar, for all his agility and quickness, remains a baby-fat 245 pounds, and the same strength Malykhin brought to bear to foil de Ridder’s takedowns could frustrate Bhullar’s as well. It’s not a fight any sane person would want to take, at least after they’ve heard Malykhin’s fists colliding with the flesh of Aliakbari, Grishenko, and now de Ridder. Bhullar looked good in his two ONE outings, decisioning Mauro Cerilli and finishing an aging Brandon “the Truth” Vera (who now has more free time for his QAnon speculations). However, Malykhin is a UFC-caliber main event fighter entering his prime, and Bhullar never fought the cream of the crop during his 3-1 tenure in that promotion (nor, for that matter did he finish anyone, though his Marcelo Golm win looks much better in retrospect).
Are Pavlovich and Malykhin destined to finish atop the heavyweight mountain, colliding in some far-distant UFC title fight? Probably not. Heavyweight fortunes rise and fall with a single punch, which is why Curtis Blaydes—who’s been nearly perfect in the UFC save for the three punches that cost him three big fights—has never fought for that company’s strap. Pavlovich crumbled against an aging Overeem, and Malykhin hasn’t been tested by anyone of true quality. Even a win over Arjan Bhullar, which seems likely, leaves much unsaid. For the big boys, as for all of us, the past is history, the future’s a mystery, and today…well, today’s a gift, which is why they call it the present. Keep winning those fights until you can’t win anymore; keep making those moves until you’re all out of moves.