Heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko finally has an opponent for his previously announced return to fight on home soil in Russia.
The 44-year-old Emelianenko will face veteran American slugger Tim Johnson on Oct. 23 in the main event of a Bellator MMA card from VTB Arena in Moscow, the promotion confirmed on Thursday. The event, titled Bellator Moscow: Fedor vs. Johnson, will air live in the United States on Showtime although the start time has yet to be determined.
Johnson (15-7) challenged unsuccessfully in June for the Bellator interim heavyweight championship when he dropped a competitive five-round decision to Valentin Moldavsky at Bellator 261. Emelianenko was in the corner of Moldavsky at the fight as head trainer for Team Fedor.
A native of Minnesota who fights out of Las Vegas, the 36-year-old Johnson said he began campaigning for the bout while getting stitched up in the locker room following the loss to Moldavsky and ultimately accepted an offer, calling it the biggest fight of his career.
"The name power doesn't matter where you are at -- everyone knows Fedor," Johnson told CBS Sports. "Even the most crude fight fan who started watching the sport weeks ago knows who Fedor is.
"He is the G.O.A.T. He has still got knockout power and that doesn't go away. Father Time catches up to all of us but the one thing that will delay Father Time is your knockout power. Fedor is probably the best to do it."
Emelianenko (36-6, 1 NC) is 3-2 under the Bellator banner since making his debut in 2018. The former PRIDE heavyweight champion who went undefeated fighting for multiple promotions between 2001 and 2010, last fought in December 2019 at Bellator 237 in Japan when he scored a first-round TKO of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.
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Widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight in the sport's history, Emelianenko returns to fight in Russia for the first time since a controversial decision win against Fabio Maldonado in 2018 at Fight Nights Global 50. Emelianenko last competed in Moscow when he snapped a three-fight losing skid -- all under the Strikeforce banner -- by winning a decision against Jeff Monson in M-1 Global.
Emelianenko, who has an additional fight remaining on his Bellator deal after the Johnson fight, hasn't hinted either way as to whether this could be his career finale. Johnson, however, would have no problem retiring a legend even though he admits it's far from his goal entering the bout.
"[I'm] not trying to put a name on myself, I just want to go out there and get the fight over as soon as possible," Johnson said. "My last fight went 25 minutes and I hate 15-minute fights, let alone 25. The longer the fight goes, the more the chance that something could happen."
Despite his loss to Moldavsky, which snapped a three-fight win streak in which the accomplished wrestler underwent a resurgence as a knockout threat, Johnson was "incredibly happy" with his performance because he was the one bringing the fight to his opponent throughout.
"Moldavsky is a stick-and-move kind of guy and really doesn't push the pace too much. I think a lot of fans who knew him and knew the old me probably thought it was going to be a snorefest," Johnson said. "I'm happy I made him fight and made him come out of his comfort zone a little bit. That's the kind of fighter I think I have evolved into. I'm not the kind who sits back and tries to grind out a win anymore. That part of my career is kind of over."
Despite a public challenge from former UFC champion Josh Barnett and various speculation involving possible rematches against Matt Mitrione and Fabricio Werdum, Emelianenko ultimately chose Johnson for his homecoming. Asked whether his performance against Moldavsky served as a de facto tryout for a fight against Emelianenko as the Russian great watched from cageside, Johnson said he was unsure about the motivation.
"Maybe it's a little bit of both," Johnson said. "Maybe he thinks there is a lot of things he can take advantage of by watching me fight. Maybe there are a lot of holes that he thinks he saw or maybe I did enough to impress him that maybe he thinks I deserved a fight with him."