After turning down a lucrative offer to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship last fall, Fedor Emelianenko has since changed the face of mixed martial arts' heavyweight division.
In response to Emelianenko's decision, Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski -- some of UFC's biggest names who have each held the heavyweight title -- chose to leave the promotion and seek the best fighters in their class elsewhere.
While Couture remains in limbo as lawsuits over his resignation play out in court, Arlovski and fellow ex-UFC champ, Josh Barnett, prepare to battle in Affliction's debut event "Banned" in Anaheim, Calif., on July 19. In the card's main event, Sylvia (26-5) gets his shot at the renowned Emelianenko.
"Fighters want to know not if they're the organizational champion, [but] if they are truly the No. 1 guy on the planet," said Pat Miletich, Sylvia's longtime trainer. "As both a fighter and a fan, that's common sense."
Affliction, a high-end clothing label that established it roots in MMA through sponsorship of fighters, Saturday's pay-per-view event (airing at 9 p.m. ET) features up to five of the world's top 10 heavyweights, depending on the rankings. Emelianenko, an unassuming 31-year-old Russian who's dominated the division since 2003, tops every list.
"It's a huge opportunity for me," said Sylvia, a 6-foot-8, former two-time UFC titleholder. "Fedor's ranked No. 1. It's my first fight out of the UFC, the WAMMA belt is on the line. It's just time to prove everyone wrong once again. [Emelianenko's] fought big guys -- he hasn't fought big guys of my caliber. I think that's going to play a role."
Despite Sylvia's considerable size advantage and résumé that includes more experience against quality opposition in the past three years, few outside of the American's camp expect a victory for him.
"His size is certainly a factor but it's also a reason I'm so excited to take this fight -- not only because of his size but also his talent," Emelianenko said. "I feel it's a good opportunity to [disprove] any doubters about my skills or that I've been away from the ring for a while."
Meeting in the Honda Center, which, according to Affliction vice president TomAtencio as of Wednesday, had 10,700 of its 13,000 seats sold for a $2 million gate, neither Sylvia or Emelianenko should anticipate a home-field advantage when they face off in the first sanctioned fight of the World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts, a new organization aimed at promoting the sport's integrity and unifying its results and rankings.
But, for Emelianenko, Saturday introduces him to American MMA fans, many of whom are merely casual followers and have just recently caught on to the sport's rapid growth. Though he fought in the States in 2006 when the Japanese promotion, PRIDE Fighting Championships, hit Las Vegas, Emelianenko fought at a time when MMA was just getting its first taste of mass-appeal. Plus, PRIDE's organizers were hardly adept at catering to a North American audience.
For Affliction, which joined European promoter M-1 to feature Emelianenko, much of the event's marketing centers on pushing the champion's image into Russian communities throughout America. As Russia's most popular athlete (according to a poll conducted among the country's sports fans), Emelianenko and his camp recognize that establishing his name here is crucial to propelling his status as a popular staple in MMA.
"It's very important for me just to come to the United States, not just to have the U.S. fans appreciate what I do, but also to represent my country and make sure people know about Russia," Emelianenko said.
At least one man of similar descent plans on paying special attention Saturday.
"Of course I'm going to watch," said Arlovski, the 29-year-old Belarusian who faces the 29-5 Ben Rothwell on Saturday. "I want Fedor to beat Sylvia. I believe 100 percent that Fedor will win."
A clash between the "The Pitbull" and Emelianenko might make for a major success on Affliction's second offering. If not, Arlovski (12-5) is convinced that the plethora of talent signed to Affliction is a plus for him. After all, had he remained with the UFC, it's unlikely he would have had the opportunity to fight several of the heavyweights on Affliction's card.
Among such highly touted heavyweights Arlovski may one day fight is "The Baby-Faced Assassin" Barnett. Upon capturing the UFC heavyweight crown against Couture in 2001, Barnett was accused of using steroids, though testing protocols were disputed and positive results were never made official. In lieu of the scandal though, Barnett (25-5) left the UFC for Japanese-promoted MMA and pro wrestling. And he thrived. Meanwhile, a contentious relationship with UFC management virtually guaranteed Barnett would never return to the company -- not that he minded.
With the belief that Affliction is a "great place to start" the next phase of his career, Barnett takes his first step by trying to avenge a knockout loss to the 16-7 Pedro Rizzo. Rizzo plastered Barnett with a right hand at UFC 30 in 2001. Seven years later though, odds makers have established Barnett as a hefty favorite.
If, as Barnett anticipates, Emelianenko defeats Sylvia (who also was involved in a steroids scandal, but officially tested positive during his time as UFC champion), then an Emelianenko-Barnett showdown is likely for February 2009.
But on Saturday, the former UFC champions and other contenders put their past behind them and embrace the opportunity to test themselves against the best in their class -- both in Anaheim and in future bouts with the promotion.
"Realistically it doesn't make a difference for me if the fighter came from UFC or not," Emelianenko said. "UFC doesn't really play a role in that. What's most important is that the fighter that I'm fighting with is of the highest caliber and a world-class fighter. And I'm happy that that's the case."