Friday, Feb. 11, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
The cloak of invincibility Fedor Emelianenko sported for the last decade disappeared the last time he fought.
Emelianenko, the most accomplished heavyweight in mixed martial arts history, lost his first bout since 2000 last June when he faced Fabricio Werdum at a Strikeforce event in San Jose, Calif. Emelianenko (32-2) returns for the first time since suffering that defeat Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., as part of a quarterfinal fight in the Strikeforce World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament.
“Nothing has changed with me,” Emelianenko said through a translator on a recent conference call. “I’ve trained just as I trained before. It just so happened I made an error in a previous fight.”
Emelianenko has a chance to prove that loss, which came via triangle choke in the first round, was a fluke in what’s arguably MMA’s most significant tournament ever. Strikeforce has placed eight of its top heavyweights in a single-elimination bracket for the Grand Prix, which should determine a champion by the end of this year.
Andrei Arlovski and Sergei Kharitonov will also meet in a first-round fight this weekend. Rounding out the eight-man bracket is a matchup between Werdum and current Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and a bout pairing Josh Barnett against Brett Rogers.
The latter two quarterfinal fights will take place at a Strikeforce event in April.
“You put these eight guys together and it’s a very special moment in time,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said. “These guys are still in their prime and have their own histories, but this tournament will clearly state who is the greatest heavyweight fighter in the world.”
But make no mistake — Emelianenko is still the headliner of the event. Most are picking him to win the tournament, and he enters the fight against Silva as a -500 (risking $5 to win $1) favorite in Las Vegas sports books.
Reporters have already started asking Emelianenko whom he would like to fight in the semifinals and championship. Silva appears frustrated by the constant attention Emelianenko’s presence commands.
“All that I see is Fedor, Fedor, Fedor and read Fedor is going to knock out Silva,” Silva said at a press conference this week. “I was not in my house eating pizza, watching movies and drinking soda. I trained too hard and I’m going to prove this Saturday night.”
Silva could spoil what looks to be the competition’s top bout in the semifinal round. If Emelianenko prevails, he will face either Werdum or Overeem, whose title belt will not be up for grabs in the tournament.
The bracket surprised some fans because with Emelianenko, Werdum and Overeem all on one side, it clearly wasn’t seeded like a normal sporting event.
“The consideration of putting the fights together the way we did was to put the most exciting fights together,” Coker said, “and guarantee the fans that they could see the fights they wanted to see.”
The matchups fans have clamored for the most all involve Emelianenko. Many wonder if his loss to Werdum signaled the end of his reign at the top of the sport.
Emelianenko senses a challenge.
“People have sized me up and said what my strengths and weaknesses are,” Emelianenko said. “If they think they’ve found my biggest weakness, let them try it.”