East Rutherford, N.J. - Critics of the pedestrian-looking Fedor Emelianenko have been trying to poke holes in his aura for years.
They finally got the ammunition they needed in June of last year when Fabricio Werdum stunned the Russian mixed martial arts star with a triangle choke in just 69 seconds.
Before Werdum, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, proved he was a mere moral, Emelianenko (31-3, 1 NC), powered by an unprecedented, record-setting run of 28 straight bouts without a loss, was the consensus No. 1 heavyweight in the world, even though the industry leader, the UFC, wouldn't meet his asking price.
Instead Fedor spent most of his time overseas, destroying inferior competition before inking a deal with the now-defunct Affliction promotion. In fact, prior to stopping former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in Anaheim back in July of 2008, Emelianenko hadn't faced a ranked heavyweight since downing Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic almost three years earlier. In between he faced fighters like middleweight Matt Lindland, aging veteran Mark Coleman and freak show attractions like Mark Hunt and Hong Man Choi.
The lack of competition gave Emelianenko's doubters, most notably UFC president Dana White, carte blanche to hurl "overrated" claims against the Russian. That looked silly, however, when Emelianenko followed his 36 second submission win over Sylvia with the dispatching of another former UFC champ, Andrei Arlovski, in a first round knockout.
Once Affliction bit the dust it seemed like a foregone conclusion that White would finally get his man and fight fans would finally see the matchups they desired, namely Fedor against the biggest box office draw in the sport, Brock Lesnar.
No matter what he says publicly these days, the boisterous UFC point man wanted Fedor badly and thought he had him before Emelianenko's promotional arm, M-1 Global, balked and kept Fedor out of UFC in favor of more control as his co-promoter with the fledgling Strikeforce promotion.
The one positive of the deal was exposure on CBS when Emelianenko KO'd Brett Rogers, a rather lightly-regarded heavyweight out of St. Paul, Minn. Rogers, a former tire technician at Sam's Club, exposed or at least magnified some chinks in Fedor's armor when he opened up a deep cut above his eye in the first round before the veteran responded early in Round 2 with one violent right-hand that ended it. Watching that bout, however, I remember thinking the referee might have to stop it, the cut was that bad.
However, dreams of the first Strikeforce pay-per-view bout with Fedor headlining against the company's heavyweight king, Alistair Overeem, then went up in smoke with Werdum's choke.
Werdum was the obvious choice to face Overeem for the title but both Strikeforce and M-1 Global realized Fedor was still their top meal ticket and came up with the Strikeforce World Grand Prix, an eight-man single elimination heavyweight tournament to take place throughout 2011.
The tourney kicked off at the IZOD Center on Saturday with Emelianenko facing Antonio Silva and Arlovski battling another Russian, Sergei Kharitonov, the last man to defeat Overeem.
While certainly an accomplished fighter, Silva seemed to be tailor-made for Fedor, or at least his mystique. The former super heavyweight, who suffers from acromegaly, a syndrome which causes the enlargement of facial and body features when the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone, relies on his prodigious strength and lacks movement skills, a sitting duck for Emelianenko's supposed fast and accurate hands, along with his strong submission skills.
Or so everyone thought.
The big Brazilian, however, never got that memo and decimated the former world No. 1 with a devastating ground-and-pound attack in the second round that shut Fedor's right eye and forced the ringside doctor along with referee Dan Miragliotta to stop the fight. Silva (16-2), who was listed at 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds came into the cage at about 285 pounds, a 55-pound weight advantage over Fedor.
In fact, Silva looked like a big cat, torturing a helpless mouse. On his back, Fedor was getting hammered by Silva's oversized fists. When he turned on his stomach, Silva was there, looking for a rear-naked choke.
The partisan crowd exploded as the round ended with a desperate Fedor trying to lock in a heel hook but Silva just smiled and waved his finger at the Russian as to say nice try.
The fighters went to their stools and Miragliotta surveyed the damage before quickly halting the fight. As unpopular as he is, Miragliotta had no other choice.
The plan to rehabilitate Emelianenko with an easy win against an overmatched opponent and get him ready for the winner of the scheduled Overeem-Werdum fight later this year died in north Jersey.
"Something went wrong from the very beginning and I didn't readjust myself," Fedor said through a translator after the fight. "Maybe it's the time to leave. I've had a great beautiful, long sport life. Maybe this is God's will."
Of course whether Strikeforce accomplished its mission and elevated Emelianenko was largely going to be immaterial. Even if the old Fedor reappeared for one night against Silva, at 34 years old the best case scenario for Emelianenko was a very limited shelf life with few fights left, at least as one of the world's best.
Focusing on young, charismatic fighters with upsides should have been Strikeforce's focus all along.
Now it has to be.