Like a great novel unfolding, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix that kicks off this weekend in New Jersey has several different chapters that fans will have to see through to the end to get to the final story.
The Grand Prix amasses quite possibly the greatest assemblage of heavyweight talent in one pool in the sport’s history. Along with that list also comes several major plot lines that will carry from the first round fights all the way through to the final bout to crown the champion.
Two of the biggest story lines will unfold during the first two fights of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. The one-time seemingly unbeatable Fedor Emelianenko returns to action for the first time in over six months trying to return to the form that saw him go undefeated for over nine years.
“I am very happy to be fighting again and looking forward to a good fight. Losing a fight didn’t change anything for me. I have worked very hard,” Emelianenko assured everyone curious about his return to action.
Also on the comeback trail is former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, who has a chance to make an impact in the tournament and revive his career after losing his last three bouts in a row.
“These three last guys who kicked my (butt) have motivated me. I’m determined. This tournament is a great opportunity,” Arlovski said during Wednesday’s press conference.
To kick start his career, Arlovski will take on Russian fighter Sergei Kharitonov, who just a few short years ago was thought of as one of the fastest rising heavyweights in the sport. Fast forward to 2011, Kharitonov has almost become a ghost in the MMA landscape, but he has plans to make everyone remember who he is starting Saturday night.
He knows, however, that he has a tough task in Arlovski and he’s not taking him lightly.
“I don’t think I’m getting Arlovski at a good time because of his losses,” Kharitonov stated. “(His opponents) were some of the best fighters in the world. It’s probably worse for me because he is hungry to win.”
Another story of redemption in the tournament comes by way of former Chicago area fighter Brett Rogers, who went undefeated through the first 10 fights of his career before dropping two out of his last three bouts. Rogers knows that with three victories in a row in this tournament, he can erase the losses from his mind, and likely become one of the top heavyweights in the sport.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting back on track and am very happy to be in this tournament. It will show where I am as a fighter,” Rogers said.
“This tournament will prove that Strikeforce heavyweights can get in and bang with anybody in the world and that the Strikeforce organization has the best heavyweights in the world. There’s always a question as to who is best, but there will be no question once this is over. There are no easy fights, there are no gimme wins. Whoever wins this tournament will have had to fight to win it, and I like that.”
Rogers’ first-round opponent will also be looking for a certain level of redemption when he returns to action. Josh Barnett hasn’t tasted defeat in the ring or cage in over three years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not entering the tournament with a certain amount of luggage attached to him.
Just before his scheduled fight against Fedor Emelianenko for the Affliction promotion, Barnett tested positive for a banned substance and was denied a license for the fight. Barnett still hasn’t fought in the United States since that fight fell apart, but as he enters the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, he’s ready to put all that behind him and get back to the business of fighting.
“I’m very excited and glad to be part of it and hope to use it as a steppingstone to re-establish my career and to re-establish myself as the No. 1 fighter,” Barnett said on Wednesday.
“I haven’t lost in years and don’t plan to now.’’
If those are the stories of redemption, look no further than the first round match-up between Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum for two fighters looking to establish their dominance in the division.
Overeem storms into the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix after stomping Brett Rogers in his only title defense last year, but while also becoming the newest K-1 Grand Prix champion to close out 2010. Add to that a first round drubbing of former UFC heavyweight prospect Todd Duffee on New Year’s Eve, and Overeem is poised to make a run at becoming the sport’s prominent big man.
He’s coming into his fight with Fabricio Werdum on a revenge trip as well. Werdum beat Overeem in 2006 while fighting for the Pride organization in Japan.
“This is going to be the biggest tournament in the world. Fedor is a favorite and a legend, but we’ll see who the last man standing is,” Overeem stated.
His opponent, Werdum, is also the man that dethroned Fedor last year, but has been out of action since that time dealing with an elbow injury. While people definitely haven’t forgotten his last win, there are still doubters that wonder if he could do it again, or if the win was just a fluke.
Werdum is happy to prove them all wrong, and it starts with beating Alistair Overeem a second time.
“The best heavyweights in the world are in Strikeforce and it’s great they are doing a tournament to settle who the No. 1 heavyweight in the world is,” commented Werdum.
“I’m looking forward to fighting Overeem again. He won three belts last year. I may not be the favorite, but I feel I should be one of the favorites to win it.’’
When it’s all over and the book is written on the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, it will unfold over the better part of 2011, it will involve some of the greatest fighters this sport has known, and it will be a story worth telling over and over again.
The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix kicks off Saturday night in New Jersey.