Strikeforce launched its World Heavyweight Grand Prix last night to the eager cheers of one of the largest crowds it has ever hosted. The night was filled with exciting barn burners including a main card that opened with four straight first round finishes and ended with what many are viewing as the biggest upset in modern MMA history. As a whole the card was an overwhelming success and did its job of hyping the casual fan base for the Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix magnificently. It brought all the ingredients of a fan pleasing MMA production to the table with big names against big underdogs, fast paced casual fan-friendly brawls, bouts which displayed that higher level of technical precision that awes the pundits, big finishes and even bigger upsets. However, it is not all wine and roses for the San Jose-based promotion. One of their biggest drawing fighters announced his potential retirement after being knocked out of the tournament along with another fan favorite, there were a few close calls from the referees that could have easily caused a controversy, and their commentary was even more painful than usual. There are always ups and downs with every fight, so to help sort them out MMA Gospel presents The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
“Bigfoot” Antonio Silva (15-2): Antonio Silva was all but counted out by the majority of fans, media, and fellow competitors of the sport as a fighter set-up to make “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko (31-3) look good before he stepped into the second round of the Grand Prix to face either “The Demolition Man” Alistair Overeem (30-12) or Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1). Silva had other plans, however. He set out to prove that he belonged in the list of the top 10 heavyweights by controlling much of the first round and completely destroying Fedor in the second. “Bigfoot” moves on in the tournament and has shown the world what they get for underestimating him. Chances are he won’t be a +350 dog against a -550 favorite in his next bout.
Shane del Rosario (9-0): del Rosario and “Big” Lavar Johnson (13-4) was possibly the most even match-up of the night on paper. Lavar is a bigger man with more main stage experience and del Rosario has a more technical and well rounded skill set, but neither man entered the Strikeforce cage with a clear edge over the other. The match was fairly even on the feet with Johnson getting the better of his opponent until Shane took the fight to the ground and quickly mounted Lavar. From there it became academic as the superior grappler beat his more experienced foe until the opportunity for a fight ending Armbar presented itself and advanced as a tournament alternate with the win.
“The Russian Mercenary” Sergei Kharitonov (17-4): Sergei looked like he was in trouble early on against “The Pitbull” Andrei Arlovski (14-9). He was having trouble dealing with the Belarusian’s speed and precision, eating numerous straight punches and leg kicks. But the Russian PRIDE star weathered the storm and responded with several big uppercuts and some heavy hooks of his own and eventually left the former UFC champion seeing stars at the end of the first stanza. Sergei needed to introduce himself to casual fans with an impressive showing and he did so with a display of toughness and power that anyone can appreciate.
“The Grave Digger” Chad Griggs (9-2): What has “The Grave Digger” got to do to earn a little respect? Chad Griggs came into his Grand Prix alternate qualifier match against Gian Villante (7-2) followed by the jeers of the MMA community heckling him about how he had extra help from the referee to beat Bobby Lashley (5-1) in August and how he had little reason to be on the main card at all. He left his Grand Prix alternate qualifier match following a solid first round KO of Villante after a highly entertaining three minute brawl that would have made “The Predator” Don Frye (20-8-1) proud. Griggs may not be at the UFC level yet, but he certainly made his case to remain a staple part of the Strikeforce heavyweight picture.
“The Python” Valentijn Overeem (27-21): Many viewed Valentijn Overeem’s match with “Sugarfoot” Ray Sefo (2-2) to be simply an entertaining bout between two easily billed but largely irrelevant fighters to start the night off right on Showtime for Strikeforce. Valentijn had other plans. He came to the cage in incredible shape with a ready-to-kill look and with nothing but bad intentions for Ray Sefo. Right from the bell it was obvious that Overeem wanted nothing more than to show the MMA world that his days of taking fights less than seriously were over. He control, punished, and then submitted Sefo with a brute force Neck Crank less than two minutes into the first round.
Lavar Johnson: Johnson came into his bout with del Rosario a slight favorite. He was able to control the stand-up portion of the bout, where he was expected to have a solid edge, with his size and power and all looked well for the big man at the half-way point of round one. Then he got taken down and mounted. Johnson was expected to be at a disadvantage on the mat, but his lack of ground skill was far worse than any professional fighter should be. Johnson looked as if he had absolutely no idea what to do with Del Rosario on top of him and that is not a promising thing for his future in the sport.
Gian Villante: Villante and Griggs fought one of the most entertaining fights of the evening and both men certainly won a few more fans in the process. In fact, Villante looked like the better of the two men in the back-and-forth contest and showed a chin that many pundits doubted he had. His conditioning, or lack there if, was his undoing at the end of the fast paced brawl. Villante landed a solid pair of head kicks before an untimely timeout by the referee interrupted his flow to reset a fallen mouthpiece. During the stop, Villante was visibly winded and five seconds later, Griggs rendered him unconscious. Villante has the tools to be an entertaining fighter, he just needs to build his stamina, or better control his pace in the cage.
The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix: While both Grand Prix bouts of the night were highly entertaining fights, one can not deny the blow the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix took to its marketability with the losses of both Andrei Arlovski and Fedor Emelianenko. While most of the MMA community expected Arlovski to lose in exactly the fashion he did, his pull with the casual fan is undeniable. The upset loss of Fedor just compounds the issue. While there are tens even hundreds of thousands of MMA fans who will watch regardless, it can not be denied that the much larger casual fans base will lose a lot of interest in the tournament now. The last name in the hat for the casual fans is Alistair Overeem. If Overeem loses to Werdum, Strikeforce risks losing the vast majority of its casual fan base in the later rounds. From a business perspective, Fedor vs. Overeem may have been better in the first round, ensuring that at least one of them will be in the second.
Yves Lavigne: Lavigne managed to get through the night at Strikeforce without seriously affecting any of the bout results, but he still made several blunders. Lavigne had an obsession with the exact spot the fighters started from, possibly stemming from the ridiculous attention to minutia in the International Sport Karate Association (ISKA) regulations, that delayed the opening bell longer than it should have. He also had a remarkably quick stoppage in the Griggs/Villante fight that would have raised a big stink had Villante had enough gas left to protest. Worst of all, he decided to stop the action in the Griggs/Villante bout to replace a mouthpiece at the worst possible time. Villante had just taken the momentum and was moving in to capitalize when Lavigne called time. While he is no Steve Mazzagatti, Lavigne needs to work to make sure he doesn’t have another off night like Saturday.
Ray Sefo: Sefo is both too old, and too one-dimensional to compete in MMA. Worse still, it’s more a hobby or a side project for him. He fights several kickboxing bouts a year and is now struggling in that sport as well, then comes to MMA to face a far more experienced fighter after fighting just twice in six years. The result was another embarrassing defeat for “Sugarfoot” when the barely over .500 Valentijn Overeem submitted him with a Neck Crank most white belts could escape. If Sefo wants to compete in MMA, he needs to dedicate himself totally and focus on his ground game.
Fedor Emelianenko: Fedor came into his bout with Antonio Silva a 5 to 1 favorite with almost the entire hardcore MMA fan base and most of the casual fan base behind him. The Russian’s supporters said his loss to Werdum was a fluke and that he was still the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet, a reputation he earned in PRIDE in 2003 to 2005. Last night he lost again, and he lost very badly. Antonio Silva completely dominated Fedor in the second frame and completely closed his right eye before laughing off an attempted Ankle Lock from “The Last Emperor” at the close of the round. A minute later, the doctor called a halt to the contest. The blow to Fedor’s reputation is undeniable and the biggest part of the blow to Fedor was from his management. M-1 Global did the Russian heavyweight a great disservice by protecting his record with subpar competition for five years. Truly it kept his reputation strong, but had he fought better competition his destruction at the hands of “Bigfoot” Silva would not have had the same detrimental effect. Fedor also announced his potential retirement after the loss, the timing of which may tarnish his reputation forever with many fans.
Andrei Arlovski: Andrei Arlovski is beloved by fans worldwide. He is also an incredibly talented and accomplished fighter with a speed and athleticism rarely seen at heavyweight. The only problem is that Arlovski has lost his ability to take a punch. Time and again Andrei controls his opponent and looks impressive and time and again it ends the same. Much like the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno who eternally push a stone up a hill, only to have it always roll back over them at the top. With a chin that even a flyweight submission artist can shatter, it’s time for Arlovski to go out on his shield and salvage what’s left of his legacy.