There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when you could argue the world's best heavyweight mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters were not employed by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In fact, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, prior to being submitted by ZUFFA accountants, had an ambitious plan featuring the cream of the 265-pound crop.
The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament, which got underway on Feb. 11, 2011 at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The eight-man bracket featured a veritable who's-who of colossal combatants picked from the rubble of the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championship, in addition to the ex-UFC mercenaries and hired guns who were wasting their names on the International circuit.
But most importantly, it had Fedor Emelianenko.
Despite a shocking submission loss to Fabricio Werdum earlier in the year, the former PRIDE champion was pegged as the tournament favorite from the onset. An eventual showdown with Alistair Overeem, who had recently captured the K-1 World Grand Prix title (to hang alongside his DREAM and Strikeforce belts), was all but a foregone conclusion.
I guess Antonio Silva, a +400 underdog for his return to Showtime, didn't get the memo.
"The Last Emperor" was smashed by the Brazilian behemoth in the opening round with a performance that turned the grand prix on its head. When doctor's deemed Emelianenko unfit to continue at the close of the second stanza, "Bigfoot" became the new favorite at -165 for his semifinal match-up against Daniel Cormier.
Here's how it all went down.
A low kick by Silva earns him an overhand right, but Emelianenko doesn't break through his opponent's defense. Undeterred, he backs up the Brazilian with another combo. Then another. The larger man, who reportedly enters the cage at 285 pounds following rehydration, weathers the storm and circles out.
More striking by the Soviet sledgehammer and Silva initiates the clinch before driving his prey to the cage.
"Fedor fantastic at making adjustments on the fly," remarks cageside commentator Gus Johnson. An interesting observation, considering what lies ahead.
Emelianenko lumbers in with his hands low and gets sliced open by a stinging jab. A brawl erupts and once again they gravitate toward the fence. Silva goes limp and forces Fedor to work against dead weight. A guillotine choke is applied by the Sambo champion, but the head/arm size disparity makes it impossible to secure.
Silva scoops and tries to slam the wily Russian, who scrambles and watches "Pezao" tumble to the floor. After a few scoots on the butt, Emelianenko dives into guard for some ground and pound. A stingy guard prompts a Kimura from the former Affliction headliner -- but to no avail -- and a mad dash gets them back to their feet.
Blood leaks from the nose of "The Last Emperor."
Once again they clinch and go to the cage and exchange a wild flurry before time expires. After five minutes, the fight is considered "competitive" and Fedor fans begin to sweat.
Emelianenko opens round two with a powerful right hand, but Silva anticipates and immediately takes him to the ground. It would be the beginning of the end. "Bigfoot" softens him up with punches from half guard before securing north-south position and eventually full mount.
Long considered one of the division's top grapplers, Emelianenko squirms helplessly under the weight of the Brazilian. Silva rains down punches and they easily blast through the Russian's defense. A rape choke forces Fedor to give up his back.
When the ensuing submission attempt fails, Silva resumes his piston-like punches.
What started as a bad position quickly dissolves into a massacre. Despite his best effort, Emelianenko can't free himself and after narrowly escaping an arm-triangle choke, eats another dozen bombs.
Commentator Mauro Ranallo is aghast: "Antonio Silva is absolutely manhandling and dominating Fedor Emelianenko!"
Desperation from Emelianenko gets him the reprieve of half-guard, but Silva will not oblige and drops back for a leg lock, which Fedor counters with one of his own. "Bigfoot" wags his finger in defiance and the horn blares. The fight is stopped and never restarts.
The cageside physician scurries in to get a closer look at Emelianenko's face, which is barely recognizable as human. Seconds later, referee Dan Miragliotta waves him off and Silva erupts in celebration. It would be the biggest win of his career.
This Saturday night (Oct. 6, 2012), at UFC on FX 5 from the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the former EliteXC Heavyweight Champion has the opportunity to reverse a two-fight losing skid with a win over Travis Browne -- one that could get him back into 265-pound title contention.
Can he once again defy the odds and send "Hapa" to the back of the line? Or will he come up short and never be remembered for anything other than that fateful night in the "Garden State?"
Time will tell.