Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
Before Fabricio Werdum even steps into the cage Saturday for Strikeforce, everyone is planning his opponent's next bout.
So goes life for mixed martial artists who sign to fight Fedor Emelianenko. "The Last Emperor" has earned a reputation similar to Roger Federer in the 2000s, the Yankees in the late 1990s, and Mike Tyson in the 1980s.
If Emelianenko is fighting, the natural assumption is that he will win, and when you haven't lost in 10 years, well, who can argue against it? He is one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world, and is riding a 27-fight win streak.
"Most fighters, exclusive of me, have already lost the fight with Fedor before stepping into the cage because Fedor has proven himself to be the greatest in the world," Werdum said through an interpreter.
The Brazilian gets to test that theory June 26 in the main event at Strikeforce in San Jose, Calif., airing at 10 p.m. on Showtime. The card is co-promoted by M-1 Global, of which the Russian Emelianenko is part-owner. Also on the card, Cris "Cyborg" Santos defends her middleweight title against Jan Finney, and Cung Le and Scott Smith renew their rivalry.
"You have the No. 1 heavyweight in the world, and if Fabricio has a victory, it has to be respected no matter what," Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said.
With Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem's return to the United States, all things point toward an Overeem-Emelianenko title bout at the end of the year. Coker spoke about making that fight happen a few weeks ago.
But let's not overlook the Brazilian just yet. He's more than just a serviceable fighter, some guy who can strap on a pair of gloves and walk down a ramp. Werdum is solid on the ground and on his feet, and is used to fighting in a cage. He poses a true threat to Emelianenko (31-1), who was bloodied from one punch his last fight against Brett Rogers before winning in the second round.
Werdum (13-4-1) is a Jiu-Jitsu specialist with seven submission victories and four knockouts. Werdum holds victories over Fedor's brother Aleksander Emelianenko, Overeem, Brandon Vera and two over Gabriel Gonzaga.
"It makes no difference that Fabricio has a victory over my brother," Emelianenko said through an interpreter. "I plan on fighting for myself and my country."
This fight originally was scheduled for April, then was pushed back to May after contract negotiations between Strikeforce and M-1 Global dragged on.
The two extra months of training may seem to be a plus, but it adds to the mental strain, increases the chances of an injury and dulls the sharpness of a fighter's in-cage skills.
"I'm fortunate that my training and camp has been solid and strong the whole time," Werdum said. "It's not been easy, but I've been able to maintain that mental focus because the opportunity to fight someone like Fedor, the greatest in the world, doesn't come along often. I've been waiting for this fight my whole career."