If you go back just 13 months, mixed martial arts’ ultimate dream match, the bout that would attract the most curiosity and revenue, would have pitted then-UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar against Fedor Emelianenko, who had gone a decade without a loss.
It’s a testament to how fast the sport moves that today such a fight is hardly discussed. Instead, on Saturday night at the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill., Emelianenko is essentially fighting for his career and possibly the future of his promotional company, M-1 Global, which is funded by the seven-figure purses he commands as one of the world’s most-talked-about fighters.
But Emelianenko will walk into a near no-win situation. The Russian (31-3, 1 no contest) faces Dan Henderson (27-8). Henderson, the current Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, turns 41 in a month.
The two headline a Showtime event that is among the deepest in the history of the Strikeforce promotion, which includes a five-round women’s welterweight (135 pounds) title match with women’s fighting pioneer Marloes Coenen (19-4) defending against potential poster girl Miesha Tate (11-2).
The televised portion of the card also features popular slugger Robbie Lawler (18-7) vs. Iraq War veteran Tim Kennedy (13-3); controversial striker Paul Daley (27-10-2) against All-American wrestler Tyron Woodley (8-0); and the master of the Hail Mary-knockout, Scott Smith (17-8) vs. Tarec Saffiedine (13-3).
Henderson, who bounces between middleweight and light heavyweight, has been stuffing himself with food just to get to 206 pounds. It is his first official heavyweight division bout, but his first time fighting heavyweights. Henderson’s career dates back to MMA’s early days, and he competed in Japanese tournaments without weight classes against men of all sizes, once winning a 32-man open weight division tournament that featured some of that era’s top talent.
Emelianenko, who normally fights at 230, but is expected to cut to 220 this time, long had a legion of supporters who have believed him to be unbeatable. But after losses to Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva over the past 13 months, with a cost of $1.5 million per fight, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker conceded that if Emelianenko loses again, with an expiring contract, one would have to question Emelianenko’s market value and in-cage future.
Even with a win, some will dismiss it as Emelianenko beating a bulked up middleweight, and bring up Henderson’s age, although Henderson knocked out Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante to win the title in his last fight.
Henderson is among the most durable top fighters in history. His record is somewhat misleading, because with only a handful of exceptions, he’s fought only major names in the sport, most of the time giving up significant size. While fighting early in his career at less than 200 pounds, he went 4-1 against heavyweights. He’s never been knocked out or even stopped by strikes, and his only stoppage losses were submissions against the top of the food chain fighters, Anderson Silva, and the Nogueira brothers when the latter two were in their prime.
"I don’t know if he fears me at all," said Henderson. "He probably shouldn’t if he’s in there wanting to win. I think we both know that we’re dangerous and need to be careful out there. But I’m not afraid of him, and I’m pretty sure he’s probably not afraid of me."
Coenen carries the torch
Coenen, who makes the second defense of a title she won on Oct. 9 in San Jose, Calif., from Sarah Kaufman, isn’t referred to as the Royce Gracie of women’s MMA, but she probably should be.
Like Gracie, she made her name in an early one-night tournament. Coenen won a tournament Japan in 2000 that included women of all shapes and sizes, with competitors weighing up to 330 pounds. In one of her early tournament fights, Coenen, only 19 at the time, faced Becky Levi, an American who trained under Dan Severn and had her by about 80 pounds.
"I was so scared, I had already heard about her, this American woman who they said would probably win the tournament," she remembered. "I was backstage and I had to walk to the ring first and I saw her. She was really big, but I knew I couldn’t think about that or I’d lose the fight. As she entered, with every step she took, she looked bigger and bigger. It was just pure survival at that age. My trainer and I set up a plan to surprise her with a flying armbar."
The plan worked, and the scary experience turned out to last only 85 seconds before Coenen won, making her the first star of a fledgling sport.
A lot has been said about Saturday’s title fight because it is the first women’s fight on a major show since UFC owner Zuffa purchased Strikeforce. The UFC hierarchy had publicly been opposed to women’s fighting. The purchase of Strikeforce brought with it women’s contracts and championships.
Coenen knows the onus is on women fighters to impress. "Zuffa isn’t a nonprofit organization and they want to make money," said Coenen, 30, who was studying communications when her fighting career took off in Japan. "They could have put this fight on any place on the card, put us in a non-televised match, or on a Challengers show, but they made us the co-main event on a big show."
Women’s fighting has been up to this point a successful television attraction. Gina Carano’s CBS bouts brought new viewers to live fights at a rate as good as the biggest-drawing men like Tito Ortiz, Emelianenko and Kimbo Slice. Twice in the past year, a women’s fight on Showtime that was in the semifinal draw a larger audience than the men’s main event, including in March when Coenen vs. Liz Carmouche actually peaked higher than Henderson’s title win over Cavalcante.
"That was so cool," said Coenen. “Scott [Coker] told me about it in Las Vegas. I hope we can do it again. If we do it again, we’ll prove we’re really worthy of being out there. We’re aiming for that, Miesha and I both."
Being the highest-rated match is unlikely with a show headlined by a battle of popular legends, but a crowd-pleasing fight that draws ratings couldn’t come at a more opportune time.
Coenen has racked up 14 submission wins in her career, including submissions in fights she was losing to Kaufman and Carmouche in her last two outings. But Tate, a wrestler, has said she wants to put Coenen on her back, feeling she’s got the submission defense to give her a win, and saying Coenen only has a puncher’s chance on her feet to take the fight.
"On the ground, I don’t think she’ll be controlling me," said Coenen. "Her wrestling is really good. She wrestled with guys in high school and the camp she trains at [Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male camp in Sacramento], they’re really good at wrestling. I’d like to keep it standing but there’s a 98 percent chance it’ll go to the ground. She’s running her mouth and putting a lot of pressure on herself, and I think it’ll be good for me in the fight."
Coenen thinks her experience edge is going to make a difference.
"I know for sure it will," said Coenen. "She’s never fought five rounds of five minutes. That will be an advantage for me. But she has a huge fan base, and that will give her a lot of power."
Coenen, who herself looks more like a fashion model than a fighter, said she would never market herself with the kind of photos that have given Tate a following on the Internet. But she has no qualms about Tate doing it, thinking it’s good for the sport.
"I remember hearing about Anna Kournikova, she made a million dollars in prize money one year and $15 million in marketing deals," she said. "As women, we will always be judged by our looks, but if you do it in a good way, you can make a lot of money at it. We need a diverse mix of talent so we can attract more and more women to the sport. I hope Miesha can be the `hot girl’ for the guys. I can be the normal girl, and maybe the normal girl can bring in women fans and we can increase the audience.
"I think she’s very effective what she’s doing and I don’t want to say you can’t be sexy as a fighter. It’s good to be sexy. I wouldn’t do it the way she does it. The way Gina [Carano] does it is classy. Miesha’s playing a certain character. It’s really good to have diversity. It’s like when they make a boy band, you have the pretty one, the quiet one, you need different types to attract a big audience. Maybe some could say something negative but I hope she continues to do this. She’ll attract a different audience than Gina will, or 'Cyborg' will, or I will, and it’s really good for us as women fighters."