EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- First the fans were shocked by what they saw. Then they were stunned by what they heard.
Just minutes after he'd brought chills to the Izod Center simply with his slow, stoic walk to the cage for the main event, Fedor Emelianenko sent a couple more shock waves through the crowd as he was stopped by Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in a first-round matchup in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix on Saturday night, then suggested -- stopping just short of saying outright -- that this might be his last time in the cage.
"Something went wrong from the very beginning, and I couldn't readjust myself," Emelianenko said through a translator in an interview amplified for the fans afterward, his right eye swollen so closed that the entire side of his face was deeply reddened. "Maybe it's time to leave."
At that, the crowd's cheers turned to deafening silence. And Fedor went on: "Yes, maybe it's the last time. Maybe it's high time. Thank you for everything. I spent a great, beautiful, long sporting life. Maybe it's God's will."
It was the biggest letdown this building has seen since the night Springsteen opted not to come out for a fifth encore.
Was there ever a doubt that Fedor was the star of this show? When he appeared on the ramp leading to the cage before the fight, there was no need for the pyrotechnics Strikeforce had been using for much of the evening to get a rise out of the crowd. Every fan in the mostly full house was standing, and a roar unlike anything heard all night followed him down the ramp as he slowly, methodically walked to the cage to deep-voiced Russian Orthodox music. It was as if someone had opened the arena door and let the cold air in, as there were chills all around. By contrast, "Bigfoot" hoofed it out to an Eminem rap that, despite all the Grammys, received a tepid response.
The fight also started well for Fedor. He came out swinging, not just with single shots, but with explosive combinations. He'd miss with a punch, but there'd be one right behind it that connected. Before long Silva had seen enough and tried to clinch, but Emelianenko had a bounce in his step and, with the crowd chanting "Fedor! Fedor! Fedor!" he fended off the big Brazilian. Silva did manage to snap back the head of "The Last Emperor" with a right hand, and Fedor retreated a step or two. But this was the Russian's round. He took down the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and went on attack, showing no hangover hesitancy from his submission loss to Fabricio Werdum last summer. He couldn't inflict any damage, however, and the fight was soon back to standing. Silva then got a takedown of his own, but there were just seconds left in the round. Still, it was a preview of what was to come.
Fedor came out for the second and unloaded an overhand right that, had it connected, would have ended the night for Silva and all of his family. But "Bigfoot" ducked underneath and got the takedown, going right into half guard. Blanketed by the big man, who weighed in at 264 pounds on Friday to his 230, Emelianenko would not again get to his feet again until the round ended. For the better part of five minutes, Silva worked from half-guard, then side control, then north-south position, then side control again and finally full mount. Fedor could not budge, so he gave up his back and Silva worked for a choke, then switched to an ankle lock. Then Fedor reversed into an ankle lock of his own, and the building erupted. But within seconds the round was over.
When Fedor stood and started toward his corner, he wobbled as if he'd consumed a few too many shots. He had. His face was reddened and swollen. And before his cornermen had a chance to work on him, the cageside doctor was examining him and asking questions through a translator. Next thing you knew, Silva's corner was celebrating.
"All the people say 'Fedor, Fedor, Fedor,' " said Silva. "I trained hard, too, and I showed it to the world now. I want the best heavyweights in the world."
Will he get them in this Grand Prix? Who knows? He might even get Fedor again. At the postfight news conference, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker suggested that Emelianenko, who suffered his second straight loss after a decade-long 29-fight winning streak, might reappear in the tournament as an alternate if one of the surviving fighters is injured. That must have been great news for Shane Del Rosario, who earlier in the evening ran his record to 11-0 with a first-round submission of Lavar "Big" Johnson (best nickname in sports?) in a fight ostensibly held to fill that very alternate role that Coker seems to want to set aside for Fedor, should the Russian be willing.
As absurd as that sounds, you can hardly blame Coker, who might have suffered the biggest letdown of anyone on this night. Strikeforce and its ambitious tournament not only saw its most legendary fighter vanish but also lost arguably its second-most-marketable name. Former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski was knocked out in the co-main event by the relatively anonymous Sergei Kharitonov.
After Arlovski was introduced as "the former heavyweight champion" -- why give the competition a nod? -- he actually looked like a revitalized fighter for a while. Trying to rebound from three straight losses, he kept his distance, kicked, jabbed and got out. Kharitonov, meanwhile, did little at first but test the waters with some lazy jabs. Then he wobbled Arlovski with a straight right, and as the fighter began to retreat, Kharitonov went into pursuit. With Andrei trapped against the cage, Sergei dropped him with a nasty right and pounced on him for the finish.
It was the most explosive pounding seen in this building since Scott Stevens was body checking everyone in sight during his rugged New Jersey Devils career. And Kharitonov's final punch, which came with Arlovski already woozily on his back, was the biggest hit of the night and left the former champ stiff and glassy-eyed.
But while Kharitonov was mighty impressive in the fight, he still has some serious work to do on his postfight. He began his interview in the cage by noting how many Russians were in the place, and as he took in the scene he yelled, "Russia is the best!" Not exactly the way to charm a crowd on the old U, S of A.
The predictable response: "Boooo!"