LOS ANGELES — Respect for Fedor Emelianenko runs so deep in the mixed martial arts community that even a fellow former world champion hesitates to pick against him.
Former UFC lightweight titleholder Benson Henderson will be at Bellator 214 at the Forum in Inglewood, where he’ll corner Henry Corrales in his co-feature bout with Aaron Pico.
Henderson, like so many others, became a fan of the sport during the heyday of the former longtime PRIDE heavyweight champion.
So while none of the fighters asked at Thursday’s Bellator 214 media day came out and picked the 42-year-old Emelianenko to win the Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament finals against an opponent in his prime — Bellator light heavyweight champ Ryan Bader — in Bellator 214’s main event, even a fighter as levelheaded as Bendo paused to give respect for what “The Last Emperor” has accomplished in the sport.
“Fedor is such a legend to me,” Henderson said at Thursday’s Bellator 214 media day. “I grew up watching Fedor, he’s a legend to me. Bader, he’s from Phoenix, he’s a college wrestler like myself, so I have a super hard time going against Bader. I will say for sure that it’s a fight fans don’t want to miss.”
Emelianenko made his name as a smaller, faster heavyweight who still hit like a truck. He proved the latter still holds true in his quarterfinal finish of Frank Mir and semifinal win over Chael Sonnen. But this time out, Henderson said, he’s fighting an opponent who does the same and is younger.
“[Fedor] always made his money being a more athletic, quicker, faster, agile heavyweight, and now Bader is an even smaller, faster [fighter], but strong enough to hang with the big boys at heavyweight,” Henderson said. “But he’s just as quick, just as fast, maybe even quicker and faster and more agile that Fedor is. So who knows how it might play out? Bader might pressure him the whole time and take him down, take him down, take him down. We’ll see. Who knows?”
Jake Hager, the former WWE star known as Jack Swagger, makes his pro MMA debut on Saturday night against J.W. Kiser. Hager has a legit athletic background as a former college wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, and while he holds the same respect for Fedor as everyone else, at the end of the day, he’s siding with his fellow wrestler in former Arizona State standout Bader.
“I’m so looking forward to it,” Hager said. “I think it’s going to be a hell of a fight, I think it’s going to go multiple rounds. I want to pick Bader though, I want to go with my wrestling community. That’s not a disrespect to Fedor, you saw how he handled Chael’s takedowns. Bader is going to be a little bit bigger, a little bit longer, maybe he’ll have more success, but, just the wrestler in me wants to see Bader become a true champ champ.”
Kiser, for his part, says that whatever happens in his fight with Hager, he hopes he’s able to turn around and get back out to the arena to watch the main event. As the 40-something Kiser sees it, picking the winner is a matter of whether you want to side with your heart or with your mind.
“I hope they get me cleaned up on time to get my ass back out there and watch this fight,” Kiser said. “I have so much respect for both fighters. I don’t have a prediction. What I want to see is MMA at its best with the very best. Absolutely, Fedor is the greatest heavyweight of all-time, without a doubt this guy is the greatest. And Bader is in his prime, and if I had to say, I would pick Bader if I had too, but we know at the same time what Fedor can do. And I’m an old guy too, so I have all the respect for him. My heart goes with Fedor, my brain goes with Bader.”
Pico, for his part, says that he picked Bader to win the Grand Prix as soon as the brackets were announced. And watching Bader dispatch of “King Mo” Lawal and Matt Mitrione has done nothing to dissuade his choice.
“I think Bader is going to win,” Pico said. “I picked Bader to win the whole thing when they first announced the tournament. He’s young, he can wrestle, and I don’t think he’ll stand with Fedor. I think he’ll take him down. Bader’s a tough guy.”
On that, Pico and his opponent, Corrales, ultimately agree.
“I haven’t given it much thought here, but I can definitely see it going both ways,” the MMA Lab fighter said. “If I was putting money on it I would go with Bader, because I went for Fedor last time. Bader’s also an Arizona guy too, so I’ll lean toward him.”