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Fedor, Strikeforce heavyweights go for history Saturday

February 10, 2011 |  2:06 pm

If it goes off as planned, Strikeforce’s World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament, which kicks off Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., has all the makings to be the most significant U.S. MMA event to take place yet outside of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The tournament will unfold over four shows this year with an experienced eight-man field that includes four former world champions (two from the UFC), a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, and a triple titleholder in K-1, Dream and Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem. The group’s combined pro record is 164-35-1 with two no contests -– only one competitor has losses in the double digits.

Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said ticket sales for Saturday’s event, which hosts two tournament quarterfinal matches airing live on Showtime, are on track for 13,000 spectators or more in attendance at the Izod Center. UFC pay-per-view events regularly match or surpass this number, though few promotions outside the industry leader have hit this attendance mark, let alone been able to sustain it over multiple events.   

Coker is banking on the single-elimination affair -- which was announced only six weeks ago -- to widen its industry imprint this year and show fans that there is high-level competition to be had outside the UFC’s Octagon. 

“To build our own house, we have to place the blocks on blocks to make a solid foundation, which I think we’ve done over the last two years,” said Coker at a press conference in New York on Wednesday. “But with this tournament, I think we just moved up to the eighth floor and it’s a nice view from here, believe me.”

For Coker, this wasn’t a shot-in-the-dark decision either. The San Jose businessman worked eight years for Fighting and Entertainment Group, the Japanese organization that runs K-1, which promotes a kickboxing tournament series throughout the world each year.

Tournaments also have deep roots in mixed martial arts. The UFC found its earliest audiences using the eight- and four-man format during its first 20 shows (excluding UFC 9), and even experimented with a 16-man tournament at UFC 2 in 1994 before moving to single bouts at UFC 18 in 1999.

From 2000 to 2006, Pride Fighting Championships brought the tournament-style event to an art form level in Japan, endearing hardcore fans globally with extravagant shows stocked with some of the most dynamic fighters of that day.

Tournaments tend to create and sustain many storylines at once, while fans often feel a greater connection to fighters they get to see compete more frequently.  

There will be plenty of storylines to follow beginning Saturday, as many of the fighters have faced off before, trained together and even had falling outs with one another during their rich careers.

Sergei Kharitonov (17-4), a former Russian airborne trooper who trains with Overeem, is a competent boxer who gained notoriety on the Japanese circuit, though injuries have hampered his career over the last couple of years. And despite his swift dispatching of Japan’s Tatsuya Mizuno on New Year’s Eve overseas, Kharitonov’s general inactivity makes him the hardest fighter to assess of the entire eight-man pool.

Ready or not, Kharitonov will find a good test in Andrei Arlovski (15-8), a former Sambo champion and Belarusian immigrant who rose to titleholder status in the UFC before he left in mid 2008 for a more lucrative contract with the now-defunct Affliction promotion.  The 32-year-old Chicago resident’s love for boxing is evident in his polished footwork and punching combinations, though two of his last three straight defeats (all from fellow participants) have ended with him face down on the canvas.

“I have to win and I will,” said Arlovski, who fights Saturday to resurrect his career and recapture the mental confidence he rode to stardom in 2005. 

Probably most intriguing to fans Saturday will be the return of Fedor Emelianenko (32-2, 1 NC), widely considered the world’s No. 1 heavyweight until Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1) caught him in a combination armbar-triangle choke submission last June in San Jose.

Quiet and reserved until he explodes on his opponents with dizzying speed and accuracy whether they are standing or on the ground, the heavyweight legend has had little to say about his loss eight months ago which snapped an undefeated streak that lasted a decade. He did, however, provide a robust answer regarding his eventual retirement at Wednesday’s press conference, which should make Emelianenko’s tournament run that much more precious to his legions of fans.

“To tell you the truth, yes, I do feel my age and it’s more and more I think about retiring, but I’d like to fight as long as it’s possible, and definitely I’ll finish this contract,” said the former Pride champion, who signed a four-fight extension with Strikeforce and its promotional partner, M-1 Global, in January.

With time seemingly running out, a few of the competitors have said that getting the opportunity to face and possibly beat Emelianenko could be as valuable as winning the entire tournament.  Antonio Silva (15-2), a 6-foot-4, 265-pound Brazilian aptly nicknamed “Big Foot,” gets the first crack.

“This fight is very important for me, very important for my life. Fedor is the best in the world,” said Silva (15-2), a former EliteXC titleholder who has won eight of his last nine bouts.

Werdum, who meets Overeem next in the other quarterfinal bracket sometime in April, hopes to rematch the vaunted Russian in the semifinal round.

“If I get the opportunity for Fedor again, I like the idea because everybody will like to watch the rematch,” said Werdum. “Just in my heart, I think Big Foot will win, [but] for just business, Fedor is good for me.”

Josh Barnett (29-5), who occupies the final quarterfinal match against Brett Rogers (11-2) in April, said the tournament will have historic implications for the sport, just for the sheer depth of talent it boasts.

“There are a lot of factors that are going to play into this if injuries come about or anything like that,” said Barnett, “but if this tournament comes through as expected and planned, this is going to be a total earth-shaker in the world of MMA, which is predominantly seen through only one lens by most of the public.”

Overeem (34-11, 1 NC), whose Strikeforce title won’t be on the line during the series, has emerged as the early favorite and is predicted to advance past Werdum in their rematch this April and meet Emelianenko in the semifinal round en route to the finals.

The 30-year-old Dutch striker had a banner year in 2010 with back-to-back title wins in Japan’s K-1 and Dream promotions, but said topping the eight-man field will be the sweetest victory of all.

“This is my next goal. Undoubtedly, the winner of this tournament is going to be the No. 1 [heavyweight] on the planet,” said Overeem. “It’s going to be the biggest thing happening in MMA.”

Overeem, Coker and others have repeatedly stated that Strikeforce possesses the world’s superior heavyweight division, and Barnett directly addressed the inevitable comparisons that will be made with the UFC’s own ranks in the coming months.

“If everyone’s going to say, ‘Well, it’s not the UFC so it’s not as good,' then you’re really sort of [denigrating] all that we’re doing here,” said the former UFC champion, who parted ways with the successful promotion in 2003. “I just want everybody to look at it from a completely objective standpoint for what it is, for what we bring to the table, for what we’re going to accomplish.”

-- Loretta Hunt, reporting from New York