Saturday, February 12. The night was chilly as usual but even another freezing night could not damper my mood as I drove towards East Rutherford, New Jersey and the start of the unprecedented (in the US at least) Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament being put together by Strikeforce. With so much emphasis put on the UFC, fans really had to be surprised to see the wealth of heavyweight talent amassed for this tournament. That I was witnessing the launch of such an historic MMA event left me quite gleeful. Of course events that unfolded would show that for Strikeforce no good deed goes unpunished. But we’ll get to that.
As I drove toward Lot 26 which is designated for the press and employees I stopped to ask every parking attendant where the lot was located and was instructed to just keep driving. When I finally circled the entire IZOD Center and came to my designated lot I made an ill advised, on-the-fly decision to not stop by the parking person manning this lot and a few seconds later felt like Billy Hayes in Midnight Express as my car was surrounded by several guys who looked as if they were competing in the evening’s Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament or at least a local tough man contest. After the some venting of steam by guys whose mood was not enhanced by the freezing temps, I was finally able to spit out my name and ultimately allowed to proceed and park. So began my first sojourn as a credentialed press dignitary. I almost ended up buried with Jimmy Hoffa and other luminaries in the nearby meadowland swamps courtesy of Mo and the guys.
Upon heading to the press credential booth I was greeted by a crowd of press in all shapes and sizes waiting to find out where the line formed. After initial confusion we were packed into two lines and my only interesting takeaway from this activity was how uninteresting it was. Yes, the press is very well behaved. Who would have thought? After receiving my lanyard, press pass and a nice press kit I made my way to one of the main non-fight related activities I was looking forward to: The press buffet. And I was not disappointed as there was some very tasty ziti and baked chicken breast.
Next steps were to locate my actual seat which reminded me of my parking lot experience in that I had to circle the arena, this time the inside of it, in order to find my seat. I should note that the arena folks were of much kinder disposition and more helpful than the parking lot crew. Sitting in my seat approximately ten rows back, the view was nice and I could not complain unlike one guy in the press room who went on a rant about his seat being obstructed. I was wondering exactly what seat he was referring to as there did not appear to be any bad seats. Still it was nice to hear the rant I am sure is heard at all events, “bad press relations”, he remarked loudly to an audience chowing on ziti and chicken who gave not the least of a shit. Full confession. I heard this rant as a result of my sauntering back to the press room for a second helping of chicken.
Heading back into the arena at 7:30 I was really taken aback by how fast the crowd had grown. Amazingly the arena seemed to already be approaching half-filled. By the time Jason McLean (6-3) made his way to the cage a slight roar from the crowd could be heard. It was about now I realized I would need to do a bit of leaning to have a clear view of the action. So the ranter in the press room may not have been so off after all. A lean string bean of a gentleman sat down in front of me. As McLean and his opponent Kevin Roddy (11-12-1) began to do battle I had successfully found a moderately comfortable viewing angle to the right of the string bean. Of course when the virtual kickboxing match between McLean and Roddy went to the ground for an extended period of time in the third, my biggest ally in the arena became the large overhead screens. So note to the IZOD arena, you may want to think of better staggering for your seating if you are going to have have a flat floor on which the ringside chairs are seated. Incidentally McLean ended up winning a Split Decision in what was a fairly entertaining fight. Nice way to start off the evening.
By the time Josh Laberge (8-4) made his way to the ring the arena was now more than 75 percent filled and this became officially a successful New Jersey event for the Strikeforce promotion. As a resident of the state I must say this made me feel really good. Now if only dummy New York would get into the action. Incredible how shortsighted allegedly enlightened people can be. There must be martial law declared regarding the news of MMA’s huge growth throughout the various ivory tower’s dwellers.
We had our first bloody battle with Laberge and Anthony Leone (8-2) as Leone appeared to get cut wide open by a series of elbows. Credit to Leone who still tried desperately for a submission despite blood pouring out of him like a faucet. Ironically his own blood spreading around hindered any real chance he had to sink in a submission. As the fight was ended after round one I could not help but think of our MMA Gospel Radio guest from last week “Stitch” Duran and what magic he could have performed on the cut. He really is right when he says the cutman truly does keep a fighter in a fight. I also wonder if having someone like “Stitch” in your corner may influence a doctor to perhaps allow a fight to go on longer than he or she would normally allow. Especially if “Stitch” assured the doctor that he could stop the cut.
Props go to Sam Oropeza (4-1) in the next bout who came out to soothing tune of “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. I sure did not expect Simon and Garfunkel to be heard at an MMA event. Of course they do have a wonderful song called “The Boxer” but again not the most relevant song for a mixed martial arts event. Oropeza also was the first undercard fighter to have a huge following. The crowd erupted into impromptu chants for him as he proceeded to beat up Don Carlo-Clauss (7-5) who despite having a full mustache and beard resembled the Muppets character Animal far more than he resembled the jolly fat man. My attempt at improved seating took a nice step forward during Oropeza’s submission victory when it occurred to me that sitting on my coat would elevate my view to a slight degree. Thanks to the frigid weather I had my rather large coat and sure enough perching my rump on it did allow me to see further over the beanpole in front of me. So creating an artificial fat ass is recommended when seated ringside at IZOD. Incidentally Oropeza was also the first fighter on the undercard who showed some genuine potential. He is a tall and lean southpaw in “The Spider” Anderson Silva (28-4) style and even wears trunks similar to Anderson though he is of course miles away in skill. Especially for having such a small handful of fights to his credit, he did show some nice striking and ground-and-pound. We will certainly try getting him as a guest on MMA Gospel Radio as we love to feature young talent. In addition, as mentioned, he has quite an impressive local following.
Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Igor Gracie (3-2) next entered the cage. I was excited at seeing a Gracie until noticing his then 2-2 record (though he was announced as 3-2). That he was fighting a 4-4-1 John Salgado seemed to indicate the promotion also may not have huge confidence in him. These red flags were validated in Round 1 as Gracie sunk in a Rear Naked Choke on his sub .500 opponent and yet could not close the show. He did manage to choke out Salgado in the second round with John refusing to tap and basically going to sleep because of it. Still Igor really seems to lack even moderate strength which will hinder his further progress. In fact I am now officially claiming I could beat Igor Gracie in an arm wrestling match.
The fifth preliminary bout of the night had the first semi-name fighter as Marc Stevens (12-8) of The Ultimate Fighter fame made his promotion debut. Now Stevens was hyped quite a bit on The Ultimate Fighter after his initial victory to get in the house but was subsequently beat up in his next fight as well as his undeserved wild card bout. So I was very interested to see how he performed against his opponent John Cholish (6-1). In an interesting twist before Stevens entered the cage, the one-and-only UFC Welterweight Champion “Rush” Georges St. Pierre (21-2) entered the arena with half his face hidden by a hat. Fans still recognized him though and he appeared to have a slight grin on his face. As Stevens was coached by and is friends with GSP’s TUF adversary “Kos” Josh Koscheck (15-5), what an ironic time for the UFC star to enter. Well, Marc Stevens as a possible prospect all but vanished as he was tapped out by a tough John Cholish in the second round with a Kneebar. As for Cholish he did show, unlike the aforementioned Igor, some real strength and also pretty good submission skills as the Kneebar was not exactly given to him.
So that ended the preliminaries and while there were no fireworks per se, there were some nice scraps. Plus with Oropeza and Cholish we got to see a few guys who are certainly worth following in the future.
In a nod to journalistic integrity I confess I used the half-hour before the start of the main card to head back to the press room for another chicken fillet. Now they were pretty small so I qualify as only a semi-pig. On the way to further stuff my stomach I did confirm it was indeed GSP who entered the arena and even get a few good pics of him.
When the action resumed the crowd and I were treated to a really cool spectacle not seen too often in the United States as all eight fighters in the Strikeforce Grand Prix were introduced to much fanfare. Not surprisingly Fedor generated by far the loudest ovation, followed by “The Pitbull” Andrei Arlovski (14-9).
In the first bout “The Other Overeem”, more formally known as “The Python” Valentijn Overeem (27-21-2) easily submitted aging boxer “Sugarfoot” Ray Sefo (2-2). Not much to say about this fight other than it will likely be the last time we see Sefo on a main card. But what a great fighter he was in his prime.
“The Grave Digger” Chad Griggs (9-1), conqueror of “The Dominator” Bobby Lashley (5-1), next entered cage to face Ring of Combat veteran Gian Villante (7-2) and what proceeded was a one round war with both fighters blasting each other until Griggs connected with a big right that floored Villante and then forced a stoppage by pounding away on the ground. Interestingly at the end Griggs was bleeding heavily from the ear from what may have been a Villante kick just prior to the KO.
With two very quick ends to begin the main card the third fight between Shane Del Rosario (9-0) and “Big” Lavar Johnson (13-4) stacked up to prove the old axiom that things happen in threes, as I really expected another one round ending. At this moment I should mention the incredible heat generated by the shooting flames as the fighters entered. I literally felt as if I was getting seriously sunburned each time the flames rose. Also watching Johnson and Del Rosario walk to the ring I was quite taken by how much larger Johnson appeared to be. Well size was not a factor as another brawl ensued with both fighters landing solid until Del Rosario took Johnson down and mounted him. He then really got high on the mount and pounded away until Johnson bucked and gave Shane the chance to sink in an Armbar to alternate qualifying affair. I will say it here. Shane Del Rosario is one of the top young heavyweight prospects in any organization. He showed improved striking and also some really nice transition submission skills by scoring the Armbar when Johnson gave him the opening. As for Johnson he also showed some nice striking and in no way disgraced himself.
The next war to take place was the first fight of the Heavyweight Grand Prix Quarter-Final matches between “The Russian Mercenary” Sergei Kharitonov (17-4) and Andrei Arlovski. A photo I took of a dejected Greg Jackson awaiting entrance into the cage while his fighter Arlovski was being scrapped off the canvas really summed up the fight. Once again Andrei did land some nice shots but left himself open to a brutal uppercut which was the beginning of the end as Sergei put him to sleep with two brutal shots as he lay on his back. From Jackson’s morose and frustrated look it was obvious Andrei did not follow the gameplan.
After the co-main event massacre, we were “treated” to a somewhat bizarre interview with what appeared to be a tentatively-returning-to-the-cage “Conviction” Gina Carano (7-1) though it was difficult to tell exactly what she was attempting to communicate. She may need a translator for her next interview or at least a large coffee.
We finally reached our main event which for which I will go back to my line from the opening of this article: No good deed goes unpunished, as Strikeforce’s good deed of putting on an amazing tournament came crashing down to a certain degree as “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko (31-3) was stopped after the second round of a brutal fight with “Bigfoot” Antonio Silva (15-2) due to a terribly swollen right eye. While this is still a very solid tournament for hardcore MMA fans, the loss of Fedor and to a lesser degree Arlovski really puts a damper on capturing a mainstream audience.
All in all yet another explosive night of fights by Strikeforce and huge kudos to “Bigfoot” Silva who withstood a frantic first round to dominate Fedor and establish himself as a true player in the division. As for Fedor, when he hinted this fight may be his last, there were many shouts of “no!!” from the crowd. Really a sad moment but we are lucky to have had such an amazing champion in our sport. So I end with a huge thank you to the amazing Fedor Emelianenko.