Strikeforce Grand Prix preview
On Saturday night, Strikeforce presents the first leg of its highly anticipated heavyweight tournament. Not since the days of the Pride Fighting Championships has there been such a talent-rich grand prix in mixed martial arts.
Two former world champions are on the rebound trail as Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski are looking to bounce back from losses when they collide with Antonio Silva and Sergei Kharitonov, respectively.
The Strikeforce Grand Prix heavyweight tournament kicks off Saturday night at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. (live on Showtime, 10 p.m. ET)
Here's a closer look at what Strikeforce has in store:
Fedor Emelianenko (32-2) vs. Antonio Silva (15-2)
The greatest heavyweight in MMA history seeks redemption following the first legitimate loss of his career as he meets another dangerous Brazilian in the first round of the eight-man grand prix.
Despite Emelianenko's inability to agree to terms with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he continues to find quality opponents under the Strikeforce banner. At 34 years old, the Ukrainian-born beast insists he is far from done in the sport he has dominated for 10 years. This unique tournament format gives the Stary Oskol resident an opportunity to re-establish himself as the best heavyweight on the planet, in addition to being one of the premier pound-for-pound fighters in the game.
A judo black belt and Grand Master in sambo, "The Last Emperor" possesses a vast array of skills, ranging from lethal striking combinations, seamless throws and transitions, and slick submissions.
With 32 wins, eight by knockout and 16 by submission, Emelianenko has proven equally capable of tangling on the mat or mixing it up on his feet. The former Pride king has also demonstrated tremendous conditioning in his seven career decision victories.
After debuting in 2000, Emelianenko claimed wins over highly touted Brazilians Ricardo Arona and Renato "Babalu" Sobral before joining the defunct Pride Fighting Championships, where he would go on to establish an incomporable legacy.
Impressive triumphs over Semmy Schilt and Heath Herring earned the fierce Russian a shot at the Pride heavyweight title. He would go on to claim the top prize, beating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira before vanquishing Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, all former UFC heavyweight champions.
The Red Devil Sports Club product, trained by Vladimir Voronov and Aleksander Michkov, signed with Strikeforce after the demise of the Affliction MMA promotion. A second-round stoppage of heavy-handed banger Brett Rogers preceded his eventual submission loss to BJJ ace Fabricio Werdum last June, which is the last time Emelianenko was in action.
Silva, Emelianenko's 31-year-old Brazilian adversary, is coming off impressive wins over Mike Kyle and Andrei Arlovski.
The American Top Team standout suffered his last loss against Werdum, Emelianenko's conqueror, in November 2009. Hoping to establish his own legacy, "Bigfoot" has not shied away from challenging Emelianenko. After all, the Brazilian recognizes how high his stock will climb if he can emerge victorious.
A well-rounded mixed martial artist, Silva holds black belt ranks in BJJ, judo and karate. The former Cage Rage and EliteXC heavyweight champion has exhibited power in his 10 knockout wins, preferring to hammer away on his foes instead of pursuing submissions. Few opponents have managed to fend off the menacing behemoth once he starts wailing away with strikes.
Silva is flying under the radar as many observers are anticipating Emelianenko fighting the winner of Alistair Overeem-Fabricio Werdum in the second round of the tournament. However, Emelianenko cannot afford to look past Silva. If his work ethic and past feats are any indication, the Pride legend will be focused and ready for the opponent in front of him.
"Bigfoot" will look to connect with his heavy hands and secure an advantageous position on the ground. If he can posture up on top of the smaller Russian, unloading with punches and administering punishment will be his key to victory.
Silva may be a black belt, but his BJJ game is far from the level of Werdum's. As such, a submission win is a highly unlikely scenario. In fact, Silva should be cautious if he ends up on the floor with Emelianenko, whose fight-ending armbars and chokes come from all angles.
For Emelianenko, the gameplan usually starts with his hands of fury and ends wherever he sees an opening. The crafty veteran can adjust to any predicament, but he would prefer to drop his opponents with an overhand right. Expect Emelianenko to find a gap in Silva's defense before landing a devastating punch for the emphatic knockout.
Verdict: Emelianenko via KO, Round 2
Andrei Arlovski (15-8) vs. Sergei Kharitonov (17-4)
Coming off three successive losses, it's do or die for the Belarusian "Pit Bull" on Saturday night when he clashes with the Russian Pride veteran Kharitonov.
Arlovski, 32, is a former UFC heavyweight champion with notable career wins over Roy Nelson, Ben Rothwell, Fabricio Werdum and Tim Sylvia.
A sambo specialist with excellent boxing pedigree, Arlovski's chin has been scrutinized following stoppage losses against Ricco Rodriguez, Pedro Rizzo, Tim Sylvia, Fedor Emelianenko and Brett Rogers.
Despite coming out on the losing end, Arlovski proved his jaw is far from glass when he survived everything Antonio Silva threw his way last May.
The heavyweight division, which is now deeper than ever in both Strikeforce and the UFC, is evolving at a rapid pace. In order to avoid falling behind, Arlovski must have a strong outing against a man relatively new to North American MMA fans.
Kharitonov has gone 3-1 since Pride disbanded, losing via first-round submission against Jeff Monson at Dream 8, while racking up a knockout win over current Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem and a devastating first-round knockout of durable Japanese veteran Tatsuya Mizuno this past December.
Kharitonov was one of the most feared competitors during Pride's glory days, stopping Rizzo and beating Werdum by decision. Having already trounced two of the key fighters in this tournament, Kharitonov is exuding tremendous confidence, which could be a grave error given the significant rise in the level of competition, as well as the improving skill sets of his opponents.
The two fighters match up quite well. Arlovski is the more technically proficient striker, while Kharitonov possesses greater knockout power. The former UFC champion is the quicker of the two fighters and he effectively utilizes his movement to score points. Meanwhile, the powerhouse Kharitonov stalks his foes, but that tactic ultimately leaves him open to more counterattacks.
A former amateur boxer in his native Russia, Kharitonov recently tested himself in K-1, the world's preeminent kickboxing organization. Despite going 1-2 in three bouts, he showed that he is not afraid to trade blows with elite strikers.
After seeking the guidance of a sports psychologist and making some key changes in his training camp, which has included a three-week stay at Greg Jackson's Academy in New Mexico, Arlovski is taking his career resurgence very seriously. He has worked with Rashad Evans and Jon Jones to improve his wrestling base, though Kharitonov will be content to trade heavy hands with the Belarusian.
The Golden Glory prodigy may be the mentally stronger fighter and it only takes one flurry from the Russian to put his opponents down for the count. Contrary to popular belief, Arlovski can certainly take a punch, but Kharitonov's vicious right hand has left a trail of knockout victims. Look for him to come out swinging against Arlovski before leaving a lasting impression in only his second bout on American soil.
Verdict: Kharitonov via KO, Round 1
Shane Del Rosario (10-0) vs. Lavar Johnson (15-3)
A muay thai standout with an unheralded ground game, Del Rosario meets a fellow knockout artist in tournament reserve action.
Unbeaten in 10 professional bouts, Del Rosario has stopped all of his opponents, knocking out eight and submitting two. The California native will finally get to flaunt his abilities on a major Showtime card after five appearances on ShoXC and Strikeforce Challengers events.
After knocking out Lolohea Mahe last July, the first American WBC Muay Thai titleholder challenged Arlovski, which is a sign of his increasing confidence and desire to fight the best.
Del Rosario has completed an arduous training camp with Team Oyama, in addition to working with Brock Lesnar's DeathClutch Academy in an effort to improve his wrestling.
Meanwhile, the American Kickboxing Academy product Johnson is riding a string of seven knockout wins. Like Del Rosario, Johnson has never gone the distance in 18 career bouts.
Johnson's story is one of perseverance as the self-proclaimed "Black Superman" survived a shooting during a family reunion in 2009. Since returning to the cage, Johnson does not appear to have lost a step, but he will be dealing with a far more technical striker.
Given Del Rosario's professional kickboxing experience, he should be able to pick Johnson apart before finishing him off with his precise hands.
Verdict: Del Rosario via KO, Round 2
Chad Griggs (9-1) vs. Gian Villante (7-1)
Two dangerous bangers will meet in the second tournament reserve bout.
Griggs was brought into Strikeforce as a stepping stone for Bobby Lashley, but "The Grave Digger" shocked the MMA world when he stopped the former professional wrestler with punches last August.
The 25-year-old Villante, a two-division Ring of Combat champion, is making his promotional debut. He last saw action in December, stopping Joseph Reyes in just over one minute.
A BJJ blue belt, Villante was an accomplished high school wrestler who transitioned well into MMA, earning five knockout victories. In his only career defeat, Shane Ott tapped out Griggs, exposing a clear weakness in his game.
Similar to Shane Del Rosario and Lavar Johnson, Griggs and Villante have yet to go the distance in their MMA career. As such, fans will likely be treated to yet another exciting finish.
Both men hit hard, but Villante is a well-rounded combatant. After some fistic fireworks in the early stages of the bout, Griggs will begin to tire and Villante should capitalize by utilizing his superior grappling prowess.
Verdict: Villante via Submission, Round 3
Valentijn Overeem (28-25) vs. Ray Sefo (2-0)
This intriguing reserve bout pairs a longtime MMA journeyman against a K-1 legend.
A veteran of the sport since 1996, the Golden Glory product Overeem earned early career submission wins over Randy Couture and Renato "Babalu" Sobral before a hefty losing streak weakened his status as a legitimate contender.
Fresh off back-to-back knockout wins last year, the Dutchman insists he is taking his last run seriously in hopes of becoming a fixture in Strikeforce.
Sefo decided to pursue an MMA career after a legendary run as a professional kickboxer, which saw him win several world titles in multiple weight classes. After making his debut in 1995, Sefo defeated a who's who of kickboxing notables, including Jerome Le Banner, Stefan Leko, Musashi, Michael McDonald, Hong Man Choi, Mark Hunt and Peter Aerts. He has also vanquished several MMA veterans who made the transition to K-1, including Melvin Manhoef, Bob Sapp, Gary Goodridge, Marvin Eastman and Gilbert Yvel.
It's now Sefo's turn to prove to the MMA world that he can old his own in the cage. A member of Xtreme Couture, the New Zealander has worked diligently on all facets of the complex sport, alongside established trainers such as Randy Couture and Robert Drysdale.
In his lone two MMA appearances, Sefo was the victor, which may be a sign that he has found a new passion at the age of 39. However, he is fighting the toughest opponent of his career -- a crafty veteran with over 50 professional fights under his belt.
The 34-year-old older brother of Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem has a clear path to victory if he can take Sefo down. "The Python" has expressed a desire to test his striking against Sefo, but he will likely revert to a more intelligent strategy. With 16 submission wins, he will have a clear advantage once the fight hits the floor.
With that being said, Sefo has worked on his wrestling quite a bit and he plans to use his sprawl to keep the fight standing if Overeem shoots in. If Overeem's early takedown attempts are unsuccessful, Sefo will pick him apart before putting him away with strikes late in the frey.
Verdict: Sefo via TKO, Round 3