Millions of televisions will be tuned to CBS on Saturday night for the return of one of the best in the business. Yes, at the Strikeforce show, America will wait with bated breath for… the dulcet tones of Gus Johnson behind an MMA mike.
That may be burying the lede but there’s a bit of truth to my flippancy. Even though we MMA fans are salivating over a major stage for the world’s best heavyweight Fedor Emilianenko, it remains to be seen whether he’ll get mainstream eyeballs trained on the cage come Saturday. The most important storyline of the weekend may not be the action in the ring but the ratings the morning after. CBS’s commitment to MMA has been impressive so far, but if they can’t get viewers to come out for one of the best fighters in the world, their zeal may wane.
Fedor’s signature armbars may become America’s most popular Russian import since Stoli.
Personally, I’m not concerned with who’s missing out. This is a solid card: good names for the fight fans and a couple good matchups to convert the newbies. Fedor vs. Brett Rogers is a huge step up from Kimbo against the tomato cans and speaks to a long-term quality that Strikeforce is concerned with but never troubled EliteXC. If EliteXC had put the right eggs in the right baskets, they might have had this fight: Rogers is a three-fight veteran of the folded promotion.
As impressive as Strikeforce has been so far, this weekend will serve as a strong referendum on their future. A night of exciting fights, strong ratings, and a finish that shows off Fedor’s immense talent while still protecting a young star in Rogers would be a dream scenario for Scott Coker, but the real world rarely plays out that nicely. I think he’d settle for dodging a disaster of Petruzellian proportions. With a Challengers card that’s splitting his staff between Fresno and Chicago, Coker is already playing from behind when trying to execute a flawless product on Saturday. Bonus points to him if they pull it off.
That’s the big picture. Now let’s take a look at the fights.
While cynics may point to the relative weakness of his recent opponents, that’s a fault of Fedor’s competition, not Fedor. He’s done what he’s had to do and run over inferior competition. The numbers speak for themselves: the only two blemishes on Emilianenko’s record remain a controversial cut stoppage against Tsuyoshi Kosaka in his 5th fight and a
decision loss no contest due to accidental headbutt (My mistake! —MDT) to Big Nog in his 22nd. Both were avenged. He’s certainly taken out better competition than Rogers has; the 6’5″ American has only a crushing stoppage of Andrei Arlovski to hang his hat on.
Rogers is young and talented… on his feet. All ten of his wins are striking stoppages. Nobody seems to know what will happen if Fedor gets this one to the mat, but I highly doubt that Rogers is going to be the surprise black belt of the year. Rogers might have the power to end the fight in one punch, but so does the Russian, and he’s got more experience. If it goes to the ground it’s over for Rogers; but if he stays on his feet it’s gonna take a little luck anyway. Fedor’s national television debut should be a successful one.
I really wish the middleweight championship fight between Jake Shields and Jason “Mayhem” Miller had gotten more hype. Both men have previous exposure: Shields as EliteXC’s first and last welterweight champ and Miller as the star of MTV’s Bully Beatdown. Shields, on a 12-fight winning streak, is a far superior grappler to Miller, who prefers the same style. But Shields doesn’t like going deep – three of his four losses were decisions – while Miller is a hard man to stop (even the great St.-Pierre needed the full three frames to take him out). If Miller can take the fight to the championship rounds he’ll have a decent shot at the title, but I think that Shields is going to lock him up and get the ref involved prior to that.
Gegard Mousasi will not be defending his light heavyweight title against Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou but I wouldn’t be placing any money on the Cameroonian banger. It’s dangerous to play the transitive-property game buuuuuut – I’m going to do it anyway. Sokoudjou got taken out in the second round by “Babalu” Sobral; Sobral in turn was shredded by Mousasi (KO1, 1:00) in his next fight. The Armenian Assassin is patient enough to avoid Sokoudjou’s deadly opening salvo, which is just about all he’s shown in his career so far. Look for Mousasi to tear through RTS and add to his growing reputation at 205 pounds.
Finally, Fabricio Verdum battles Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in a fight that could determine the Fedor/Rogers winner’s next opponent (hopefully for an interim title that sends a message to the absent Alistair Overeem). Silva has a slight striking advantage and a size advantage, but Verdum’s jiujitsu should obliterate Silva on the ground. Look for Fabricio to stick a takedown and finish Silva quickly.
In a month where even uncommitted MMA fans can get their fix from a variety of free sources, we’re in for a treat this weekend. Between the Strikeforce card and UFC’s main event counterprogramming, there’s enough action to make my TiVo very, very happy for hours. The only limitation on your party is the amount of friends you can fit on your couch and the beer you can fit in your fridge.
Preach on, my brothers. Make a few converts Saturday night. And show them off the finest Russian fighter to come Stateside since Drago killed Apollo.
Image from GrappleArts.com.