The toughest job in mixed martial arts may belong to Mike Reilly. He's the trainer whose job is to devise a game plan for Brett Rogers to beat the seemingly invincible Fedor Emelianenko.
Rogers, fresh off a June 6 knockout of Andrei Arlovski, will take on the guy who looks more unbeatable than the 1927 Yankees. And it's a CBS-televised bout on Saturday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill., no less.
Emelianenko is 30-1 with one no contest. He's won his last 10 since the no contest, including eight by stoppage. Throwing aside the no contest, he's won 26 in a row since his only defeat, on Dec. 22, 2000, when he was stopped on a bad cut just 17 seconds into a fight with Tsuyoshi Kosaka.
He is as unbeatable as any fighter in the history of the sport.
Yet, Reilly has the unenviable task of trying to solve a riddle that some of the greats of the game have not been able to do.
The first thing he must accomplish is to convince Rogers, who is 10-0 with nine knockouts and one submission, that he can win. Emelianenko has an aura about him like Mike Tyson once had as the champ.
Anyone who was there will never forget the petrified look on the face of Frank Bruno, making the sign of the cross, as Tyson stomped back and forth in the ring in the seconds before they fought. Bruce Seldon was so terrified, he went down almost before he was hit by Tyson in their title bout.
Emelianenko has the same impact on MMA fighters, who need to be convinced they can win, says Mark DellaGrotte of the Sidyongtong Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Somerville, Mass.
"A lot of it is his mental approach and stability in that area," DellaGrotte said. "When you fight Fedor, you have to deal with the presence he has in the ring and, let's be honest, people worry about that before they even get in there. You have to convince your guy that (Fedor) is human and it's just a matter of time before he loses and that you'll be the one to do it.
"Despite the confidence and the aura a lot of guys have, the truth is they need a lot of pats on the back and hand-holding and they all have their ups and downs. When they fight a guy like Fedor, that increases. He's perceived to be unstoppable, but you have to convince your guy that while, yeah, he's outstanding, he is human and he does have weaknesses and he is stoppable like everyone else."
Javier Mendez of the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., spoke almost reverentially of what he called Emelianenko's "amazing explosion and power," and said he believes the Russian is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world (Emelianenko is currently ranked No. 3 in the Yahoo! Sports poll).
Mendez said if he sees a weakness in Emelianenko it's that he's not particularly technical as a striker. But he said Emelianenko punches so hard and has such a good chin that the person who beats him is going to have to be a guy who doesn't panic in the standup, who punches hard and can take a punch and who sticks to a game plan.
But Mendez said he doesn't discount Rogers' chances because of Rogers' power. He said a guy like Rogers or Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweights Cain Velasquez (whom Mendez trains), champion Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin or Junior dos Santos fit the profile of guys who may have a shot at knocking off Emelianenko.
"In my opinion, from observing him, his weakness is his standup," Mendez said. "He's very, very effective in how he does it, but on a technical level, you can definitely outstrike Fedor. You have to remain calm and I see that as an area where Fedor himself is super, super strong.
"But as a striker, he's not technically correct, not the way boxers or pro kick boxers would be. He's an extremely hard puncher, though, and he's so explosive. Without a doubt, he's the most explosive heavyweight out there."
Fedor's punching power is not limited simply to his standup, however, said Greg Nelson of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy. Nelson, one of Lesnar's trainers, said he's amazed by the power Emelianenko throws while on the ground.
Because Emelianenko has such strength on his feet and such excellent submissions, there's no safe place with him in a fight.
Nelson said Emelianenko's biggest weakness might be something he can't control: His size. Emelianenko is 6-feet tall and weighs around 230. Rogers is 6-fot-5 and will come in around the heavyweight division's 265-pound limit. Guys like Lesnar and Carwin are also in that range.
Duke Roufus, who coaches several professional fighters at his gym in Milwaukee, Wisc., said Rogers might be best simply rushing Emelianenko at the start of the fight.
Roufus believes that while Emelianenko's ground skills are the best part of his game, he thinks the way the former PRIDE champion puts it all together is his best asset. That, Roufus said, makes him all the more difficult to game plan against.
"Of the singular skills, I think he's best on the ground, but to me, the biggest thing in Fedor's favor is that he's a mixed martial arts fighter," Roufus said. "It flows together so well for him. His transitions are amazing. He's a master at transitioning from one to the other and he's got sambo and judo and he's a powerful striker.
"When you fight him, obviously, you have to take what your guy does best and in Brett's case, that's his standup. Brett's a strong guy and hits extremely hard. If he catches Fedor, he could do something, but Fedor is such a good counter puncher and he throws from such weird angles you don't normally see that it creates a lot of issues."
Greg Jackson, who coaches a slew of the world's best fighters at his gym in Albuquerque, N.M., said he hasn't studied Emelianenko closely enough to pick one flaw he'd attack. Jackson noted that Arlovski was doing well early in his Jan. 24 fight with Emelianenko by throwing straight punches and boxing smart.
Arlovski attempted a flying knee, however, and Emelianenko countered and knocked him out.
"The guy is a monster, from what I've seen, but Andrei showed you can have success against him if you're very technical with your boxing," said Jackson, whose charges include Georges St. Pierre and Rashad Evans.
Mendez concurred with Jackson. He said Arlovski "lost his head" when he went for the flying knee and created an opening that Emelianenko quickly exploited.
Defeating Emelianenko, Mendez said, won't be easy for any man, but said it could be done. And though Rogers doesn't have a lot of experience at the highest level, Mendez wouldn't discount his chance to pull the upset on Saturday.
"Brett's a huge guy who is undefeated and who hits so hard and you can't discount a guy like that, or a guy like a Shane Carwin," Mendez said. "Guys like them, they're on a streak and they're knocking guys out and their confidence is just up there sky high and you have to at least give them a chance. So I think Brett does have a chance in this fight. I have great respect for Fedor and he's phenomenal, but I think Brett's going in as confident as he can be and he has a pretty good weapon with that power he's got.
"Andrei Arlovski is superior to Brett as a striker technically every night and every day. But Brett has never lost and is very hungry and confident and I think the standup is the one area you might be able to take advantage of Fedor. Fedor might come out and eliminate him right away, but I wouldn't be totally shocked if Brett were able to do it because of how hard he hits."
DellaGrotte said much the same thing and he said that should be drilled inside of Rogers' head.
"I've heard people talk about all the things Brett doesn't have, but the one thing he does have is tremendous power," DellaGrotte said. "Fedor has a great chin, but Brett's a big guy and a heavy hitter. Brett doesn't have the technical boxing ability a guy like Arlovski has, but all it takes is a single punch. A perfectly placed punch can knock anyone out. Anyone.
"And all the pressure is on Fedor here. Brett can't be shaken in the mental game. He shouldn't worry about fighting the legend of Fedor but should just focus on fighting Fedor the man. Arlovski showed it can be done. Every human, including someone as great as Fedor, is beatable. Fedor's not getting younger and the pressure on him is just building and building. At some point, he's going to lose. Someone will do it and Brett's got to be thinking he's the guy because he has the power and he has the opportunity."