The Meadowlands has seen its share of one-name star performers. Naturally, we'll start with Bruce, aka Bruuuuuce, as the native son of New Jersey is referred to by the thousands who've sung along with him over three decades at both the arena and the stadium in the swampy shadows of the New York City skyline. The sports and entertainment mecca's old football stadium, demolished last year and replaced by more luxurious accommodations, also was home for many seasons to a giant presence in blue, recognizable not necessarily by his first name but certainly by his initials, LT. Then there was the global sports luminary who in the late '70s used to kick around the place, an effervescent figure who goes by the name Pelé.
Now comes Fedor.
Fedor Emelianenko, the Russian heavyweight whose 29-fight unbeaten streak over nearly a decade made him a legendary figure in mixed martial arts, is clearly the star attraction of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, which gets under way on Saturday night at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. He faces Brazilian behemoth Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in the main event of a card that'll be televised on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET, with prelims on HD Net at 8. Also on tap for the evening is another first-round matchup, between former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski and ex-Pride and K-1 fighter Sergei Kharitonov, plus three reserve bouts to determine who'll step in if anyone withdraws from the Strikeforce tournament with an injury.
The Grand Prix is an audacious venture, pitting eight heavies in a single-elimination competition that, if all goes as planned, will produce a champion by the fall. Not a Strikeforce heavyweight champion, mind you -- the organization already has one of those, Alistair Overeem. The Dutchman with the comic book superhero physique is one of the entrants but won't be putting his title on the line until a Grand Prix champ is crowned and awarded a shot at the belt. (If Overeem wins the tourney, he'll presumably be required to fight himself.)
OK, that last part is just me making fun, something Strikeforce has had to withstand quite a bit as the quirky details of this event have emerged. It's not set up as a seeded tournament, for instance, with the top two fighters placed in opposite brackets and on course for a collision in the final. Strikeforce doesn't want to wait that long.
"One thing about tournaments is that very rarely do you get the finals matchup you were expecting or hoping for, whether because of injuries or upsets," said Scott Coker, CEO of Strikeforce and a veteran of martial arts tournaments from his days running North American operations for the K-1 kickboxing organization. "So we just said, let's create the best fights we can in every round."
That means Fedor and Overeem are on target for a second-round matchup. Or not. "You know what?" Coker said. "It might be that neither guy makes it to the second round. You never know in this sport."
Uncertainty seems to be the name of the game in the Grand Prix. Other than Fedor, everyone in the tournament has a question mark attached to his name. Overeem, by bouncing back and forth between MMA and kickboxing, has been labeled a commitment-phobe not dedicated to this sport, despite his shiny title belt. Silva nearly lost to a light heavyweight in his last bout. Arlovski has dropped his last three fights, two by brutal KO. Kharitonov has fought only once in each of the last three years. Josh Barnett is a major talent who's perpetually in major hot water, having failed three drug screenings in recent years. Fabricio Werdum, despite handing Fedor his only loss in nearly 10 years last June, is widely perceived as a one-dimensional ground fighter. And Brett Rogers, last seen being swarmed and quickly put away by Overeem in May, has lost the luster he earned back in 2009 by giving Fedor his toughest fight in years.
None of that sways Coker from his mission of pumping up this tournament as "a historical event," saying, "When is the last time you saw this caliber of mixed martial artists fight each others until the last guy standing is the king? Not since the heyday of Pride in Japan have I seen a tournament of this proportion."
It was a different combat competition, though, that truly inspired the Grand Prix: the Super Six boxing tournament, also televised by Showtime. Coker is a longtime boxing fan, growing up at the tail end of Muhammad Ali's career. He remembers watching Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran during "a great era for the sport." But when he started watching the Super Six, the only fighter he knew a lot about was a fellow Northern Californian, Andre Ward, at present the Super Six tourney points leader.
Now Coker knows a little more about several other super middleweight boxers, from Andre Durrell to Glen Johnson to Europeans Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham. "I think the beauty of the Super Six is that it has created a lot of new stars, guys I had never seen fight but are really good," he said. "I thought we could do something similar with MMA to showcase our heavyweight division." So Coker met with Showtime VP of sports programming Ken Hershman, "and he understood the concept, because they were already doing the Super Six."
Would this Grand Prix have been possible, though, if Werdum hadn't sullied Fedor's air of invincibility last summer? After all, would fans be interested in watching any of these other guys against "The Last Emperor" if they hadn't seen someone actually beat him? Coker believes so. "Fans just want to see the best guys fight," he said. "And even before Fedor lost, all of these other heavyweights wanted a piece of him. When you're the man, there are always guys lined up to fight you."
And Coker insists that the guys he's lined up provide formidable competition. "For Fedor to win this tournament, he will have to have to beat 'Bigfoot,' then either Alistair or Fabricio, then maybe Josh. So if he wins it, he clearly will have earned it," the Strikeforce boss said. "Whoever wins this tournament, whether it's Fedor or Alistair or someone else, is the greatest heavyweight on the planet, as far as I'm concerned. Right now we've got the best heavyweight division in the world."
That's debatable, with the UFC able to trot out champion Cain Velasquez plus top guys Junior dos Santos, Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin, among others. But the mere fact that Strikeforce vs. the UFC is even a fair fight at heavyweight is a positive for Coker & Co., which clearly plays second fiddle at every other weight class. Staying with the heavies for the time being, though, Coker makes a case for his: "I consider Cain Velasquez a friend, and I think he's a great fighter. But when you talk about Fedor or Overeem or Barnett, those are guys I think would beat Cain. Even a guy like Kharitonov, who has one-punch knockout power and has beaten some great fighters in the past. Cain would have his hands full in this tournament, and I think he knows it."
Really, Scott? Kharitonov over Velasquez? That's the kind of promoter-speak that no doubt would launch Dana White into one of his expletive-laden promoter-speak riffs. Yet Coker's point actually sheds light on something that's not in dispute: While any UFC vs. Strikeforce talk is purely hypothetical, the Heavyweight Grand Prix is tangible. It's happening. Someone is going to win. And we might get to see some great fights along the way. "Just kick back and enjoy this," Coker said, "because it's going to be a fun ride."
To help us kick back, Coker offers some reassurance about the question marks facing all those who aspire to conquer Fedor in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix:
• Josh Barnett: "He's made mistakes, but he's paid for them. It's time to move on. Should we ban him for life because he's had a situation or two? The guy tested clean several weeks ago in front of the California State Athletic Commission before his hearing with them, and we're going to be testing him throughout this tournament. If something should show up in one of those tests, we're going to have an issue with him. But at this point my feeling is, let the guy make a living, let the guy fight. Josh is a nice guy, and he clearly is one of the greatest heavyweights in the world. Let's judge him by what he does over the next year."
• Alistair Overeem: "Last year Alistair's manager, Bas Boon, came to me and said, 'Look, Scott, Alistair wants to fight in the K-1 tournament. I know we have an agreement with you, but this is important to him.' I went ahead and signed off on it, because I understood why it was important to Alistair. As a martial artist, winning K-1 would be a monumental accomplishment, especially while also being the Strikeforce heavyweight champion. And Alistair did it, which means he now can call himself the greatest striker in the world
• Fabricio Werdum: "You hear all these fans say, 'Oh, Fabricio got lucky; Fedor just got caught.' But if you look closely at their fight, you'll see that Fedor escaped from the triangle initially but then went right back in to try to punch Werdum. And Fabricio put him right back into the triangle, took his time, adjusted his angle and finished him. This guy is one of the baddest Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters on the planet, an Abu Dhabi champion many times over. His skills are unbelievable. He also submitted Alistair four years ago. This tournament is a great opportunity for Fabricio to show that those wins were not a fluke."
• Andrei Arlovski: "The beauty of this tournament is that you're going to get your shot. What you do with it is up to you. Andre is at a crossroads in his career, and it's time for him to either step up or maybe re-evaluate things. I think he knows that. And he also knows that if he wins this tournament, he's going to be the man again."
• Antonio Silva: "He did have trouble with Mike Kyle in his last fight, but Kyle is a guy who fights at both light heavyweight and heavyweight. He's not a little guy. And in fairness to Bigfoot, when you train for and study a certain opponent, and suddenly a different opponent comes in [after Valentijn Overeem was injured in training], sometimes it's hard to make that adjustment. I think that's what happened here."
• Sergei Kharitonov: "He might not have fought many MMA matches in the last few years, but Kharitonov has been active as a kickboxer. And I'll tell you what: He's the last guy to beat Alistair. He's beaten Fabricio Werdum. This guy is no joke. He's going to come with guns a-blazing."
• Brett Rogers: "He's a powerful guy who can knock out anyone in this tournament. That makes him worth watching."