Strikeforce may as well be billing the first round of its heavyweight grand prix tournament on Saturday as “The Return of the King.”
Fedor Emelianenko comes back to the cage this weekend for the first time since his stunning loss to Fabricio Werdum last June, when he takes on Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in New Jersey. One look at any of Strikeforce’s promotional materials makes that fact impossible to miss. If the prefight hype for this event is any indication, Fedor is far and away the top draw in the company’s ambitious tournament. Bigger than Werdum. Bigger than former UFC champs Andrei Arlovski and Josh Barnett. Bigger even than Strikeforce’s own heavyweight champion, Alistair Overeem.
But while the event poster makes the marketing pecking order clear – nice, big color photo of Emelianenko, everybody else firmly behind him and in black and white – it remains to be seen what happens once the actual fighting starts. Depending on how the tournament draw plays out, it could tell us everything we need to know about the 34-year-old “Last Emperor’s” future in the sport.
When Fedor fell to Werdum during his only in-ring appearance of 2010, he fell hard. The once indestructible Pride champion and consensus No.1-ranked heavyweight all but threw himself into his opponent’s waiting triangle choke before tapping out just one minute, nine seconds into the first round. In doing so, he effectively tossed the heavyweight ranks on its ear and raised significant questions about how to think of him moving forward.
Let’s face it, even before the Werdum loss, it’d arguably been five years since Fedor had faced a legit Top-10 heavyweight. In the interim, he beat up freakshows like the 400-pound Zuluzhino, past-their-prime stars like Mark Coleman and Tim Sylvia and even fought a middleweight; arm-barring Matt Lindland in St. Petersburg in 2007. He also stood by as his management team publicly feuded with the UFC and engaged in seemingly contentious contract negotiations with Affliction and Strikeforce.
The red flags should have been there, but since Fedor is Fedor – a guy who’d dominated the MMA scene as long as most people can remember – his loss to Werdum seemed to come out of nowhere. Now, because it’s the year 2011, when news travels at lightning speed and whatever the last thing we all saw is always the most important thing, nearly everything about Emelianenko is up for debate.
He admitted in interviews this week that he’d been contemplating retirement even before the loss to Werdum. He also doesn’t appear to have changed his training process at all, so what we’ll see from him throughout the Strikeforce grand prix are probably the same things that defined his spectacular career up until last June: Stupor-inducing haymaker punches and wicked, sometimes-unorthodox submissions on the mat.
The thing that remains to be seen is how effective those techniques are against today’s best heavyweights, not to mention coming from a Fedor many believe may have lost a step. He comes in as a significant favorite over Silva, but the outcome of the tournament at large will tell us if Emelianenko is MMA’s once-and-future king or just a relic of its past.
Chad Dundas writes about MMA for CraveOnline, Versus.com and CagePotato.com. He lives in Missoula, MT.