Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix is light fare

Fedor Emelianenko's right eye was so swollen, the Fedor Emelianenko's right eye was so swollen, the doctors stopped the fight after the second round as Antonio Silva won the quarterfinal round of the Strikeforce Grand Prix at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. (Feb. 12, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Mario Gonzalez

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Mark La Monica Mark La Monica

Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial

One by one, the men walked onto the stage. Much fanfare and fireworks met the eight heavyweight entrants in the Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament that February night inside the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. More than 2,000 pounds of maleness, and another ton of excitement for what was supposed to be the promotion's biggest attraction ever.

Five months later, we're left with the crumbs of a promising endeavor gone wildly awry. It's been a precipitous fall from "I can't wait to watch" to "Well, what else is on TV tonight?"

Where do we begin in charting a heavyweight flop not seen since Arvydas Sabonis "defended" Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA playoffs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

First, basic math. Eight contestants dropped to four after the quarterfinals, a natural byproduct of competition. Four became three when tournament favorite and Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem pulled out. He first said he didn't want to fight Sept. 10, the date decided upon by broadcast partner Showtime. He felt as if he was being bullied into it and he played the classic "disrespect" card. Later, Overeem said he had a toe injury.

"With Alistair out, yeah, it's disappointing," Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said. "If we had time and a different date that we could have moved it back . . . but we couldn't. We didn't have that option. But Alistair will fight another day."

Second, a closer look at the four left: Antonio Silva, a large Brazilian man who upset the natural order when he beat Fedor Emelianenko in the quarterfinals; Daniel Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler who replaced Overeem and is 8-0 against people you likely never heard of; Sergei Kharitonov, a Russian kickboxer with a nice resume built in Japan; and Josh Barnett, the most well-known fighter left. Of course, the former UFC heavyweight champion is also the only mixed martial artist to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs three times. Three!

"When they're looking at the tournament, I say look at Josh Barnett and Bigfoot Silva and Daniel Cormier," Coker said. "He's a talented kid. Maybe it's a situation we could have an upset winner."

Picking apart the tournament's structure now seems unfair to Strikeforce, which was bought by UFC parent company Zuffa last March, well after the tournament was set in motion. So, call us unfair.

Why were the four quarterfinal bouts fought on two separate cards four months apart? There was so much buzz that night in Jersey, and it all dwindled as soon as the referee waved his hands to signify Emelianenko would not answer the bell for the third round. Before that, the crowd was juiced. The Belarus fans roared for their man, Andrei Arlovski, a shell of what he once was, before getting knocked out by Kharitonov. The Russians screamed when Kharitonov won and whenever Emelianenko was visible. Having the other two bouts that same night, rather than last month when no one really cared to pay attention, was poor planning.

The bracket was also a lesson in what not to do. It was stacked on one side with all of Strikeforce's biggest entities: Emelianenko, Overeem and Fabricio Werdum -- the latter a guy who beat Emelianenko eight months prior.

"We put these fighters in harm's way early on so fans could get what they want," Coker said. "We got so much heat about Fedor fighting in the same bracket as Overeem. All the guys that were crying about giving Fedor such an easy fight [against Silva], they're all gone now."

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