Hong-man Choi was a giant: seven feet two, 350 pounds and with a physique that would have looked ludicrous on an action figure. His ethnicity made him appear even odder; to see fine Korean features stretched over a face so huge, the jaw apparently a full foot from the eyes, was startling and scary. Even in ordinary life, in ordinary clothes, he looked like a character from a fantasy film. In this context, in a fighters' ring under white stadium spotlights, he looked like a gladiator from a science fiction future.
A fearsome kickboxer, who once kneed an opponent in the head so hard the man's forehead split like a watermelon swallowing the up-swipe of a samurai sword, he was the kind of man it made other men nervous just to stand near.
Across from him was a soft-bodied white man, at six feet a midget by comparison. His face was pudgy and impassive; if it wore any expression at all it was one of bemusement. He seemed to be wondering, and you could appreciate the question, why on Earth he was expected to be where he was and to do what he was about to be asked to do.
The bell rang. It wasn't quite as one-sided a fight as you might have expected -- both men landed terrific blows, several of them heavy enough to make those watching at ringside gasp and those watching on television wince -- but it was still a mismatch, ending inside two minutes after a sudden submission. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been allowed. Hong-man Choi never stood a chance.
His opponent was Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian mixed martial artist, sambo champion and judo player who is the greatest fighter in any discipline, and perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport, since Muhammad Ali. For almost a decade, he was both literally and pound-for-pound the best mixed martial artist in the world; considered at his peak he remains, again both literally and pound-for-pound, the best mixed martial artist in history.
When he was at that peak, defeat was not merely a stranger to Emelianenko, it seemed an impossibility for him. Other athletes -- tennis players who actually lose several matches a year or golfers who just about manage to win more tournaments than they don't -- are said to have 'aura of invincibility', and so diminish the word by their association with it. For Emelianenko, 'invincible' almost seemed insufficient.
Until recently, his record had only one blemish: a ludicrous loss to the Japanese fighter Tsuyoshi Kohsaka resulting from the worst decision ever I've seen in combat sport, worse even than the outrage that robbed Roy Jones Jr. of a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics.
The victim of an illegal elbow strike, Emelianenko suffered a cut that left him unable to fight. He should have won by disqualification -- but the officials, needing a winner to compete in the next round of their tournament, advanced his opponent. In the inevitable rematch, Kohsaka suffered a beating so awful it made even MMA addicts quietly question if the sport should be banned.
Emelianenko took fights with MMA's greatest heavyweights, including three with the granite-hard jiu-jitsu master Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and two with the lightning-legged kickboxer Mirko 'CroCop' Filipovic, and beat the brilliance out of them. He took freak show fights with men who seemed superhuman, like Hong-man Choi and the gargantuan Brazilian Zuluzinho, and proved himself a giant slayer.
He recovered from injuries, blows and throws that appeared lethal at the instant they occurred. When Kevin Randleman, fired by the recent death of his father, upended Emelianenko and slammed him down on the top of his head, fans feared Fedor's neck might be broken. But he rose instantly, the impact seeming only to have inspired him, and Randleman was soon beaten.
When Andre Arlovski, the vicious former UFC heavyweight champion, tore into Emelianenko he seemed capable of inflicting the great man's first loss. With Fedor rocked against the ropes, Arlovski unleashed a flying knee that should have ended the fight - but Emelianenko sent out a short punch, a surface to air interceptor, that arrested Arlovski mid-flight and left him face down and open-mouthed on the canvas, in a state somewhere between unconsciousness and a coma.
It was a moment of brutal beauty. Who else would have had the thought-speed to land that punch? Perhaps Ali, perhaps Sugar Ray Robinson, but certainly no one who has ever competed in MMA.
Another UFC heavyweight champion, the six-feet-eight-inch, 300-pound Tim Slyvia, who had said Emelianenko was a 'little shit' he could swat aside, tapped out after 36 seconds when he was given the chance to prove it, and afterwards spoke of having felt the force of a greatness he couldn't have imagined. Such fights exposed the monumental hubris of anyone besides Emelianenko claiming any title that identified them as MMA's Heavyweight Champion of the World.
But recently Emelianenko has fought weaker opposition and, on Saturday, he was stopped in the first round by Dan Henderson, a 41-year-old former welterweight. It was his third straight defeat -- and, indeed, his third straight defeat to come in the first round.
The fight gods can give no clearer message to an ex-champion that his greatness is gone and his time is over. If Emelianenko defies them and continues to compete, he risks absorbing injuries -- likely to the brain or eyes -- that will hamper him into old age, and risks subjecting fight fans to a spectacle as sad as that of an aged Ali being drubbed by Trevor Berbick. Neither he, nor we, deserve that.
Few experiences in life have thrilled me as much as seeing Fedor Emelianenko fight. But I hope I never have to see it again.