Photo via Sherdog.com
The Pride Fighting Championship 2004 heavyweight grand prix was the greatest collection of heavyweights ever amassed. Sixteen titans placed their bets against each other to determine who was the best heavyweight fighter in the world.
Fighters who had already established their place in the mixed martial arts (MMA) world like Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Heath Herring were present as were K-1 superstars like Mirko Filipovic and Stefan Leko.
Even professional wrestlers turned part-time fighters Naoya Ogawa and Giant Silva were thrown into the mix.
But one fighter, relatively unknown at the time, would arguably make the biggest impact. Sergei Kharitonov had fought for Pride twice before but the heavyweight tournament was his true coming out party. He made it to the semifinals where he lost to "Big Nog," but even in losing, he proved that he deserved to be mentioned when discussing the upper echelon of heavyweight fighters.
He steps inside the cage next Saturday night (September 10) for yet another tournament semifinal in the main event of Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov." Before he does, let's take a closer look at his run seven years ago.
Kharitonov's first opponent in the tournament was "Shogun" Rua's brother, Murilo Rua. "Ninja" had been fighting at 203-pounds with mixed success and decided to try his hand with the big boys.
Unfortunately, for a fighter who would ultimately settle at a more appropriate weight of 185-pounds, moving up to heavyweight wasn't ideal.
"Ninja" appeared doughy and sluggish as he battled Kharitonov, who quickly gained the upper hand in their stand-up exchanges. Four minutes into the bout, the Russian began battering his Brazilian opponent against the ropes before landing the killing blow and knocking Rua out.
While stopping a bloated middleweight might not seem too impressive, there was little doubt that Kharitonov's next opponent was a natural heavyweight.
The Russian would take on future K-1 World Grand Prix champion Semmy Schilt in the quarterfinals of the tournament two months later and while it took him twice as long to finish off "Hightower," he still managed to do so in impressive fashion.
Not wanting to contend with the Dutchman's superior reach, Kharitonov almost immediately went for the takedown after he ate a couple of stiff jabs from his opponent. Schilt showed off his grappling chops and reversed the Russian much to Kharitonov's chagrin, I'm sure.
A stand-up got both fighters to their feet about midway through the first round and "The Paratrooper" proceeded to stun his Goliath-like opponent with a strike followed by a takedown. "Hightower" wasn't able to reverse position on his opponent this time around and Kharitonov finished the Dutchman off with some brutal ground-and-pound.
Two opponents, two decisive stoppages.
The pair of wins earned the Russian a spot at Final Conflict 2004 and a date with interim Pride champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. "Minotauro" was looking to fight his way back towards Fedor Emelianenko to avenge an earlier loss.
Let's take a closer look.
The two fighters circle the ring to begin, each trying to get into a comfortable rhythm. Not much action in the first two minutes of Pride's opening 10 minute round save for a couple of punches to the body from the Russian.
A stiff jab from Nogueira snaps his opponent's head back as we creep past the three minute mark. It's been an exclusively striking affair, a boxing match to be particular, until the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) expert shoots in and follows through with a takedown.
Within seconds, he transitions to full mount and the crowd erupts. Kharitonov bucks up and "Minotauro" takes his back before being shrugged on. Now on the mat, "Big Nog" latches onto his opponent's arm and tries to secure a triangle choke!
Kharitonov lifts him up and slams him to the mat, breaking the submission. The Russian plays around in Nogueira's full and butterfly guard while trying to land some ground-and-pound. He spins out of a leglock and restarts the onslaught while "Big Nog" attempts to avoid damage while also looking for a submission.
With four minutes remaining and little action taking place, the fighters are stood back up. Hard kicks from the Brazilian slap against Kharitonov's legs as they circle around. Nogueira nails another takedown and lands in his opponent's sidemount. He begins driving knees into the ribcage of the Russian while grinding his forearm across Kharitonov's already-swollen face.
"Minotauro" gets his knee on his opponent's belly but allows Kharitonov to explode out and ends up back in full guard with less than a minute left. In a "blink and you'll miss it" moment, Nogueira swiftly slides into full mount and begins raining down punches as "The Paratrooper" attempts to close the distance before the round ends.
Being that this was a tournament bout with another fight due to the winner later in the night, Kharitonov only has five more minutes to turn the tide against his Brazilian opponent.
The Russian eats a jab but delivers a vicious body shot in retaliation. A flying knee attempt from Nogueira goes awry and the former champ slips, falling to his back. From there, Kharitonov jockeys for position, trying to inflict some damage on his opponent. But Nogueira is quickly back to his feet as we head to the last two minutes of the fight.
A Thai clinch from Nogueira busts open his opponent's nose while Kharitonov batters the Brazilian's ribcage with punches. They scramble in the closing seconds and after the bell sounds off, the two fighters give each other -- as does the cheering audience -- their due respect. The decision goes to Nogueira but despite losing, Kharitonov impressed many of his doubters by proving he could hang with one of the greatest heavyweights ever.
After the grand prix, the Russian would stick around in Pride until its untimely demise. Six more times he stepped inside the Pride ring, winning four but dropping two. Those losses were to "The Last Emperor's" younger brother Aleksander Emelianenko and current teammate Alistair Overeem.
A year and a half later, Kharitonov got his revenge over "The Reem" before going 2-1 in DREAM and signing to Strikeforce.
What this tournament represents for "The Paratrooper" is a return to the spotlight. Since his last bout in Pride, the Russian had only fought four times before he knocked out Andrei Arlovski back in February. At only 31 years of age, Kharitonov surely has gas left in the tank to make a final run towards championship gold.
But he has to get through Josh Barnett first.