photo via Esther Lin, Strikeforce.com
Fedor Emelianenko is the best heavyweight the sport of MMA has ever produced. The Russian became a legend, not just by winning every fight for almost a decade, but because of the way he won. Emelianenko is a rare fighter with all the tools: hard, fast, and accurate punching, great throws and trips, and legitimate submission skills from the top and the bottom. In an era when most fighters were playing Jenga, Fedor was building skyscrapers.
But Fedor Emelianenko is 34 years old. And that's not a young 34. It's a 34 that has had it's skull rattled by Kazayuki Fujita and Kevin Randleman, a 34 that has been through the ringer three times with Antonio Nogueira, a 34 that has suffered the aches and pains of training and grappling at a very high level for almost 20 years. As much as I respect Fedor Emelianenko, I have real questions about whether he can withstand the physical rigors of competing three times in eight months to take home this Grand Prix championship.
Before Fedor fans explode with furious indignation, here's something to consider: Fedor hasn't fought more than twice in a calender year since 2005. And that's not just because he likes chilling in Monaco while consuming both vodka and ice cream by the gallon. Injuries have been the culprit, almost as much as his ever present contract negotiations.
Keep this in mind as well: the man's hands are made of tissue paper and those four ounce gloves don't offer much in the way of protection. It all started with Gary Goodridge back in 2003. Fedor's problem, if you can believe it, is hitting people too hard. Some blame his technique, which often sees his fist collide with an opponent's head near his thumb instead of straight on like god and Jack Dempsey intended. He broke his right hand on Goodridge's noggin and it hasn't been the same since. He re-injured it against Tim Sylvia in 2008 and hurt his other hand against Brett Rogers in 2009. One thing we've learned from boxing over the years- a perpetually injured hand rarely makes a miraculous recovery. We have to assume Fedor is up for a tough challenge from Antonio Silva. I don't know that his hand is.
And then, there's the specter of M-1. Will the Russian's management team allow him to compete three times in a year without succumbing to the temptation of re-negotiation? I can't speak for what kind of contract they've signed with Strikeforce and Showtime. But it doesn't seemingly matter much what is on paper. MMA is a rough sport and the training is even more grueling than the bouts themselves. If M-1 wants to negotiate, and things don't go their way, an injury can always pop up that can remove Fedor from the tournament. It's an ugly thought, but one it would be irresponsible to ignore.
It's these three reasons - age, injury, and management, that prevent me from picking Fedor to win this tournament. There is some incredible talent among the eight participants. Silva is a star on the rise, Barnett a star untested in recent years, Arlovski and Kharitonov former stars looking for a return to glory. Werdum has wins over everyone on his side of the bracket and Rogers has a puncher's chance. But the smart money is on Alistair Overeem to win it all.