Last night’s Strikeforce events marked the opening round to their high-touted Heavyweight Grand Prix. Scott Coker laid out a night of Strikeforce’s starpower and an all-heavyweight main course for MMA fans everywhere. Coker and company did not disappoint in what could be considered one of the greatest Strikeforce events ever.
The opening bouts were reserve matches for the Grand Prix. In the event that one of the main contenders is unable to continue, one of the reserve winners would go on in their stead. When you’re dealing with the way some of these heavyweights fight, an injury is a very real possibility. So, for these six fighters, being able to replace one of the top guys in their division is a chance to break into that next tier of fighter status.
The opening bout for the reserve matches featured the older Overeem brother, Valentijn, squaring off against K-1 Champion Ray Sefo. In the opening seconds, Sefo tried to keep the fight where he was most comfortable — on the feet. Throwing some jabs and kicks to feel out the distance, Sefo looked good, but a little slow. Unfortunatley for him, Overeem smartly analyzed the risks of standing with a K-1 level striker (even one who’s pushing 40) and smartly took the fight to the ground. Once there, Sefo was like a fish out of water. Overeem gained side control and ratcheted the neck of Sefo forcing a tapout at just over the 1:30 mark of the first round.
Next on the agenda was Chad Griggs, who is most famous for his beating of Bobby Lashley, and Gian Villante. Villante is a natural light-heavyweight who was moving up to try his hand at a slightly larger division. Although he’s known for his grappling prowess, Villante has just as many KO/TKO’s on his record. As soon as the opening bell rang, Villante and Griggs both came out on fire, winging overhand rights back and forth. In the wild brawl, Griggs appeared to clip Villante early. However, Gian managed to continue on in his now-undead form. By far, this was the most exciting and least technical fight of the night. As opening minute came and went, Gian decided to slow down the pace for a bit by trapping Griggs against the cage. Villante did manage to crack “the Gravedigger” with a high-kick, drawing blood, but it wasn’t enough. Griggs laid on the pressure, dropping Villante with a vicious right hand and finishing on the ground.
Apparently, Griggs has been training under MMA legend Don Frye. As you know, Frye’s remembered for a take-no-prisoners attitude towards fighting. His bout with Ken Shamrock was great, but it’s against Yoshihiro Takayama that he achieved true legend status.
The final reserve bout for the evening featured Shane del Rosario against Lavar “Big” Johnson. In 2009, Johnson was attending a family reunion when a senseless and random drive-by shooting occurred. Johnson was hospitalized and there was even some doubt as to if he could survive, let alone re-enter the cage. Come back he did, however, and he’s rattled off an impressive streak of wins since the injury. Del Rosario, however would be the better man this evening. After surviving some heavy shots and even being taken down by Johnson, del Rosario hung in there and stuck to his gameplan. A much better grappler than Johnson, he was able to secure a mount and rain punches until Johnson was forced to throw up an his arms in defense. At that point, del Rosario grabbed it and secured an armbar with 30 seconds left in the first round.
The co-main event featured two candidates for our now-defunct “Scary Eastern European of the Week” segment. Former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Andrei Arlovski, squared off with former PRIDE standout, Sergei Kharitonov. Arlovski had dropped 3 straight fights losing 2 by knockout. In his most recent loss, he took Bigfoot Silva the distance before dropping a decision. Kharitonov, on the other hand, seemed to be on the upswing, coming off of a dominating win over Tatsuya Mizuno at Dynamite!! on New Year’s Eve.
For the first few minutes, Arlovski looked like he might be returning to his old self. He was quick and showed a sharp jab. However, for every good aspect of his game, Arlovski was still unable to keep his back off the cage. Kharitonov exploited that bad positioning and tried to take full advantage of Arlovski’s sometimes-suspect chin. Kharitonov put the Belorussian down with a right hand and followed up with two or three devastating strikes, leaving the dethroned champion completely limp.
While I said it last week regarding Anderson Silva, in MMA, there’s no such thing as a “sure thing.” Tonights main event demonstrated that principle. The heavily favored Fedor Emelianenko faced perptual underdog (and little-respected) Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. This bout featured Emelianenko coming off his first loss in a decade while Silva was riding a win streak of 8-straight. Fedor came out on fire, throwing combos of four and five, but Bigfoot hung in there. After weathering the initial storm, Bigfoot found his stride, throwing effective counter-punches and landing some heavy leather on Emelianenko.
Late in the first round, Silva pinned Fedor against the cage and tried to take down Fedor. But, in the scramble, Emelianenko ended up on top. As he stood up, Silva remained on the ground, daring the Russian to dive into guard for the first time since his submission loss. And dive-in Fedor did. Jumping in and out of dominant position, Fedor looked reminiscent of his PRIDE days with Nogueria, beating fighters at their own game. The judges awarded the first round to Fedor, 10-9.
Round 2 would not be so fortuitous for the Russian. The opening seconds of round 2 had Silva take Fedor down and gain a dominant position. From the top, Silva crushed Fedor with heavy hammerfists and punches. As Fedor tried to roll out, the nightmare kept replaying for him. He would roll over onto his stomach, before Silva would once again flatten him out and punish him. Silva even had Emelianenko in serious trouble with an arm-triangle. As the pressure poured on, Emelianenko kept his cool and eventually managed an escape.
With the closing minute of the round, Fedor was able to escape his bad position. Silva then transitioned into a kneebar, which wasn’t in ideal position. Fedor once again fought back and counted with a heel-hook of his own. For a brief second, I thought, “THIS IS IT! HE’S DONE IT AGAIN!” As Fedor cranked on the large foot of Silva, he was taunted by the big man as time expired.
As Fedor made it back to his corner, it was painfully evident how much damage had been inflicted in that round. His eye was completely swollen shut and that was more than enough for Dan Mirgliotta to call the fight, even before a doctor had a chance to examine the wound. After a doctor’s confirmation, the fight was ended and Fedor, for the first time in his career, suffered back-to-back losses.
A celebration broke out in Silva’s corner as they celebrated their win. Hats off to Silva for fighting a perfect fight.
Perhaps the biggest bomb of the night wasn’t Fedor’s loss, but rather his reaction afterward. Looking somewhat lost and disappointed, Fedor relayed the message through his translator that it this might be the last time we see him in the cage or ring:
“Something went wrong from the very beginning, and I couldn’t readjust myself. Maybe it’s time to leave,” he said. “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.
If this is the last time that we see Fedor in MMA, it’s a sad ending to one of the most storied careers in the sports history. After the event, both Scott Coker and Vladim Finkelstein played down Fedor’s comments as reactionary and emotional. Both suggested that we will, indeed, see Fedor again.