HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – Fedor Emelianenko rarely shows emotion before or after his fights, and certainly not during them.
He was true to form on Saturday at the Sears Centre, when he impassively walked to the cage amid a raucous ovation, knocked out Brett Rogers in mixed martial arts' return to network television in the U.S., and then looked as if he were about to fall asleep at a post-fight news conference.
To the imposing-looking Rogers, who suffered the first defeat of his career when he was knocked down by a crunching right from Emelianenko and finished on the ground at one minute, 48 seconds of the second round, that is the secret to the Russian's success.
"What threw me off was how loose he was," Rogers said after the torrid bout on CBS that had the sellout crowd roaring from start to finish. "He was very loose and that threw me off."
Emelianenko has been a legend in the sport long before Rogers even gave it a second thought. He raised his record to 31-1 with one no contest, but entered the bout still largely unknown to an American audience that only recently is discovering MMA.
The sport's hardcore fan base has known of him for years and follows him passionately and devotedly. But the casual fan, who might have only begun to follow the sport since "The Ultimate Fighter" started in 2005, hasn't had a chance to see Emelianenko in large numbers until Saturday, when his fight was broadcast live in primetime on CBS.
The ratings won't be known until sometime in the middle of the week, but CBS did around 6 million viewers for its fights with Kimbo Slice as the headliner in 2008, and it should do at least as well with Emelianenko.
The bout was also shown to the entire country in his native Russia. But when a reporter prefaced a question about Emelianenko's relative anonymity in the U.S. with a statement about how he is revered and worshipped in his homeland, Emelianenko finally broke into a grin.
"I think I'm better known in the United States," he said, grinning.
If he wasn't before, he will be now after a high-paced bout that couldn't have disappointed anyone who watched. The crowd was sapped of much of its energy by the preceding match, a middleweight title fight that was little more than a grappling contest between Jake Shields and Jason Miller.
The crowd was booing and not in a good mood as Shields and Miller exited the cage.
But as soon as Emelianenko's image appeared on the video boards, it was as if a switch was flipped and the crowd erupted in cheers. Emelianenko, staring straight ahead with a blank expression, walked to the cage and quietly awaited the bell.
"I was more nervous than Fedor was, I think," said Joost Raimond of M-1 Global, which co-promoted the bout with Strikeforce.
Rogers, too, was a bit nervous, and it may have been his undoing. For all of his talk about taking the fight to Emelianenko, he couldn't get over the fact that Emelianenko was so calm. When the bell rang, it was Emelianenko stalking Rogers and Rogers backpedaling, which Rogers said he wouldn't do.
"The difference was he was more aggressive and I was giving him more respect," Rogers said. "He was playing the mind game right. He was real loose. I didn't come out aggressive like I should have."
Rogers had won all 10 of his previous fights, nine by knockout. The 10th he won by submission due to punches. A heavy puncher smells fear and preys upon it, but when Rogers saw Emelianenko moving forward unafraid, it threw him off.
Yet, Rogers established himself as a viable world-class heavyweight, going toe-to-toe with the vaunted Russian for all of the first round and much of the second. Rogers even doled out a good bit of punishment on the ground, so much so that Emelianenko's forehead was filled with abrasions after the fight.
Emelianenko never panicked, not even when Rogers had top position and was firing hard punches.
"I have big respect for Fedor," said Fabricio Werdum, who won a unanimous decision over Antonio Silva earlier in the night and hopes to face Emelianenko next. "He's the best in the world. He has everything: great standup, ground. He has so many knockouts and many, many submissions. He's the best in the world."
There was much talk of a rematch and Emelianenko didn't seem adverse to it. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said he'd sit down with Emelianenko and M-1 officials in the next week or so and plot out a strategy.
But it's pretty clear that Emelianenko's next fight will be a much bigger deal. He's never been a big ticket seller before and his pay-per-view numbers were atrocious, but the crowd Saturday was clearly into it and the fight had to have been well-received by those who didn't walk away from their TVs after the dreadful Shields-Miller match.
Those who stayed were rewarded with an exceptional bout that is a hint of things to come. Strikeforce doesn't have a deep heavyweight roster, but Coker hinted at several big signings at the post-fight news conference.
One more fight like that on network television and Emelianenko will be able to carry a show by himself.
Yet, he acted as if he couldn't understand what all of the buzz was about.
"MMA is not dogs fighting in a cage," Emelianenko said. "This is a great sport. I like to meet my opponent and show that, first of all, I respect him as a sportsman."
Of course, that respect ends when the bell sounds. In the city where Michael Jordan became a legend by performing his best when he was needed the most, Emelianenko did the same. He came through in the clutch.
"Fedor," a grinning Coker said, "was phenomenal. It was a privilege to watch."
And millions of others probably turned off the television thinking the same thing.
- Fedor Emelianenko
- Brett Rogers