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!"
Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots: Chad Griggs is best known for his impressive pair of sideburns. No, that's what he used to be best known for. Since August, his claim to fame has been that he burst the bubble of Bobby Lashley as well as the Strikeforce publicity machine by rendering the ex-pro wrestler unable to continue. On Saturday night he came out firing again, and Gian Villante met him with his own firepower. However, Griggs's punches were more accurate -- he connected on 31 of 38, or 81 percent, to Villante's 44 percent -- and he soon had a wobbly fighter in front of him. Villante landed a glancing head kick to slow Griggs for a moment, but after checking to see if his sideburn was intact he went right back on the attack, dropping Villante twice before referee Yves Lavigne decided at 2:49 that one of the sock 'em robots had been rocked enough.
It's Not All in a Name I: He isn't the Strikeforce heavyweight champion. He isn't the cofavorite to win this Grand Prix. But Valentijn Overeem has distinguished himself as more than just the older brother of belt-holder Alistair. If you look deeply into the 28-25 record he's built over a 15-year career, you'll find victories over Randy Couture (back when "The Natural" was a preteen, I believe) and Renato "Babalu" Sobral. Valentijn's opponent, Ray Sefo, entered the cage with an even more impressive fight pedigree. But being a five-time kickboxing world champion only helps if the fight is standing, and within a minute this bout was not. And after taking Sefo to the mat, Overeem needed just a few seconds to secure a neck crank and elicit a tap out 1:37 into the fight.
It's Not All in a Name II: If his driver's license read "Igor Jones," he would have received polite applause when he was introduced. But he's Igor Gracie, so the arena went electric -- or as electric as the place could go for a prelim -- at the announcement of his storied last name. Of course, that meant all eyes were on him from that point on, so it was time to live up to the hype that comes with being born into the first family of MMA. And Igor quickly did what Gracies do, taking down John Salgado, getting his back and going for a submission. Salgado, to his credit, fought off the rear naked choke attempt and even gained top position and a tight headlock as the first round finished. But Salgado again ended up in Gracie's office -- on the mat -- in the first minute of the second. Igor patiently and cautiously gained dominant position (eliciting a "you gonna fight or make love?' comment from a Jersey leather-lung in the crowd) before finally choking Salgado unconscious at 3:04. The Gracie name remains untarnished.
TUF Guy of the Night: You often see familiar faces from The Ultimate Fighter on UFC undercards, which comes with the territory of being on the company's reality TV show. But on a Strikeforce card? Well, among the prelim fighters was Marc Stevens, famous for being Josh Koscheck's much-hyped top pick on Season 12, only to be submitted by guillotine just 17 seconds into his first bout on the show, then subbed again by guillotine when given a second chance. (It was a microcosm of Kos's malfunction as a coach opposite Georges St-Pierre, surpassed only by his total disintegration when they later fought at UFC 124.) As for Stevens, new organization or not, it was more of the same in the end Saturday night. He fought on an even keel with John Cholish for a round and a half, until he was submitted by knee bar at 3:57 of the second. At least it wasn't a guillotine.
Best First Impression: Sam Oropeza must have really got pumped for his early-evening prelim while entering the cage not to a thumping hardcore beat but to "The Sounds of Silence." (If you need to ask who did that song, you're too young to be interested in any of my random cultural references. Skip ahead.) Anyway, the lightweight from Briarcliff, Pa., then proceeded to put a hardcore thumping on Don Carlo-Clauss, who with his long hair and thick beard looked like someone from Simon & Garfunkel's heyday. The end came at 4:10 of the first, by which time Carlo-Clauss had taken such a beat down -- punch after punch to the side of the head as he relentlessly, stubbornly tried to secure a takedown -- that I found myself whispering "hello darkness, my old friend . . ."
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