With Fedor out, Strikeforce tournament finds itself on the ropes
The Heavyweight Grand Prix is lying flat on the mat, stunned and fully mounted, punches raining down, the referee keeping a close eye on things, ready to jump in if need be. Now it's time to see if Strikeforce's ambitious tournament has some fight left.
Saturday night's two opening-round bouts in the eight-man, single-elimination event could not have gone much worse for the promotional organization's marketing team. No more Fedor Emelianenko to tout as legend, luminary, superstar, deity. No more "former UFC heavyweight champion" for ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. to smoothly bellow while introducing Andrei Arlovski.
The only worse outcome, I suppose, would have been if Fedor had been in total control but then succumbed to an out-of-nowhere haymaker, a sudden, surprise one-punch ouster of the Russian stud widely considered the all-time best heavyweight in MMA. That would have left the tourney with no fan-favorite megastar, just a big-fisted Brazilian who'd no doubt be ridiculed as lucky, not worthy of the "greatest heavyweight on the planet" label that Scott Coker & Co. are angling to affix to the winner of this Grand Prix.
But that's not the way it went down. "Bigfoot" stood up to Emelianenko through a close first round, then thoroughly dominated him in the second. He took down Fedor seconds in and smothered him for nearly five minutes, confidently seizing dominant positions, threatening with submission attempts, landing an inexhaustible flurry of big blows to the head. When the horn sounded and Fedor finally was able to get up, he wobbled back to his corner like he'd just left a Stary Oskol pub at last call. His face was reddened and chafed by the leather of Silva's gloves, his right eye swollen shut and the area around it a sickeningly purplish hue. For the first time in his fighting career, Fedor was a beaten man. True, he'd been caught in a Fabricio Werdum submission last summer and had suffered a controversial TKO stoppage because of a cut against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka way back in 2000, but those were merely losses on his record. This was a beating.
If you're marketing the Grand Prix purely from a competitive standpoint, the result of Saturday's main event was not necessarily a disaster. Suddenly MMA has another elite fighter named Silva, also with the first initial "A." Before the weekend, Antonio was a 15-2 house of cards, a guy who'd built his record by beating so-so competition. Now he has a victory over a star, even if that star has been flickering for a while. And "Bigfoot" is a massive man, fighting at around 280 pounds, with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and skills in karate and Muay Thai. Go ahead and sell him now as a first-rate heavy.
The marketing machine also might get some mileage out of Sergei Kharitonov's brutal beating of Arlovski. The former Pride and K-1 fighter now can be billed as the man who beat "the former UFC heavyweight champion." For Strikeforce to be able to promote that distinctive accomplishment, to be blunt, was always destined to be Andrei's greatest contribution to this tournament. Arlovski is a shell of what he was back in 2005, when he submitted Tim Sylvia in 47 seconds to win the UFC belt. The loss to Kharitonov was his fourth in a row, three by nasty KO. He's finished. Sergei, on the other hand, is just getting started. Another significant selling point: He's the last man to defeat Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. And did you hear all the noise created at the Meadowlands by the hundreds, maybe thousands, of Russians who filled several sections on Saturday night to wave their flags and support Fedor? Kharitonov was the one who gave his countrymen something to cheer about.
Will any of this help the Grand Prix overcome the loss of its star attraction? It's hard to tell, considering that with the sport growing so swiftly, the desired audience for MMA marketing people truly is a moving target. For some devoted fans, the absence of Emelianenko, who before last summer's bump in the road had won 29 straight fights during a decade-long buildup of his legend, diminishes the Grand Prix immeasurably. But then there are the ever-expanding numbers of mainstream sports fans who tune in to Showtime and Spike simply to check out this MMA stuff that's exploding on the scene with a lot of buzz and even more thrills. To these folks, the names in the intros mean nothing. Fedor Emelianenko? Sergei Kharitonov? Same thing. Just close the cage door and let 'em fight.
The thing with mainstream sports fans, though, is that they're skeptical about the unfamiliar and easily turned off. So Strikeforce must put its best foot forward here. If Coker reinserts Fedor into the Grand Prix as an alternate, as he suggested he might if another competitor is injured, it would make a farce out of a tournament that's already been criticized for its unbalanced seeding brackets and for opting to not put Overeem's belt on the line. However, there is one scenario in which I'd rationalize Emelianenko's return: if his side of the bracket had to be represented by an alternate in a final against Josh Barnett. In that case, better to suffer a few Fedor-related slings and arrows than to nuke the credibility of your entire organization by having your Grand Prix won by a blustery ex-pro wrestler who's failed three steroid tests and shows no remorse. Being the Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens of your sport is no selling point to the masses.
Those were the thoughts of Dana White shortly after Emelianenko's loss, eloquently expressed on the UFC president's Twitter feed. M-1 is the fighter's management company and "Vadummy" his manager, Vadim Finkelstein, with whom White had contentious and fruitless negotiations a few years back, when he wanted to bring Fedor to the UFC. Presumably that was before Emelianenko became, as Dana has since spewed, "a fake, a phony and a farce."
When Fedor fans began firing back with impolite tweets of their own, White reloaded. His 1.3 million online followers then were subjected (or treated, depending on one's standards and perspective) to an hours-long stream of childish insults and invective unbecoming the president of a billion-dollar organization. It was nothing we haven't come to expect from Dana.
A couple of days later, White was doing something else we've come to expect of him. He was in New York visiting Joe Lozito, a man hospitalized with multiple stab wounds over the weekend after being attacked on the subway by a man who'd allegedly already killed four people. Lozito was being hailed as a hero after subduing the attacker before he could kill again.
Why was Dana there? Lozito apparently told people after the attack that he floored the knife-wielding man with a leg sweep he'd learned from watching UFC fights. The 40-year-old has never trained in MMA but has been watching on TV since the '90s.
Next month he'll be watching from the best seat in the house. "You're a hero," White told Lozito during his surprise visit. Then Dana invited him and his wife to sit with him at his cageside table for UFC 128 in Newark, N.J., on March 19.
Go ahead, be a cynic and accuse White of extending this gesture just to impress the local pols as the UFC lobbies to have MMA sanctioned in New York. I don't buy that. I think Dana did it because, despite running a company as huge as the UFC, he's still a regular guy who'll go out of his way to honor the fans who've made his labor of love the success story it is. He's shown that time after time, with ticket giveaways and other displays of generosity. He gives back.
Whether he's acting unprofessionally on Twitter or going out of his way to treat some fan with the kind of adulation most company presidents reserve for majority investors, it's just Dana being Dana.
• The day after defeating Emelianenko, "Bigfoot" Silva told the Brazilian magazine
• OK, I promised myself I was going to steer clear of this guy's nonsense, but here's the latest from suspended middleweight Chael Sonnen, who's been awfully quiet about his failed drug test and money laundering felony conviction, but couldn't help but weigh in on Anderson Silva after "The Spider" won in spectacular fashion a week ago. "I struck him more times than Quasimodo struck the church bell at Notre Dame," Sonnen e-mailed PaulLazenby.com. "I hit him so many times that I stopped fighting because my fists bouncing off his melon were ringing so loudly that it sounded like a bell, and I thought that the round, and the fight, were over. Actually, that's not true -- I actually stopped out of mercy and boredom." Then he went on to explain why he's not 0-1 vs. Silva but really 5-1. "God knows, if he hit me with a tenth of the undefended--" No, no, enough already. We're done here, Chael. Next?
• Speaking of Anderson Silva, did anyone else find it odd how Steven Seagal was doing interviews after UFC 126 and solemnly taking credit for inventing the front kick that KO'd Vitor Belfort? I realize that Seagal has martial arts credentials and that there's a YouTube video of him training with Silva, but the self-possessed action film actor has been known to embellish the truth over the years. Well, the Brazilian online magazine