HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – Any questions about whether Fedor Emelianenko’s hardcore fan base would jump ship after the Russian’s 10-year unbeaten streak ended with consecutive losses in the past 13 months were answered Friday afternoon.
The stoic Emelianenko usually has MMA’s best poker face, but he broke into a grin so big his mouth could barely contain it as fans who showed up for the weigh-ins at the Sears Center gave him a thunderous ovation. It was a remarkable reaction considering that his opponent, Dan Henderson, is one of the most popular fighters in the Strikeforce promotion.
“He’s still a legend,” noted Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker of Emelianenko. “He’s one of those guys who everyone knows by one name. You only have to say,'Fedor,’ and everyone knows who you mean, like saying The Babe or Jordan. I think this is going to be one of those fights where both guys go to the center and there isn’t going to be feeling out process, and both are going to come out swinging.”
Weigh-ins usually aren’t filled with surprises, unless somebody misses weight, which didn’t happen Friday. But Emelianenko (31-3, 1 no contest) vs. Henderson (27-8) was notable because the expectation of a big size difference simply didn’t happen.
Emelianenko weighed in at 223 pounds for the heavyweight main event; Henderson 207.
Henderson, the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, has the body frame of a medium-sized middleweight. But the former two-time U.S. Greco-Roman Olympic team member is unique among fighters, even more one who competed at a high level of wrestling since childhood, in that he would rather not cut weight.
Emelianenko’s 223 was the lightest he’s been since he came to prominence in Japan a decade ago, about 10 pounds lighter than his usual fighting weight. He appeared in significantly better shape than in his loss in February to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix tournament.
Henderson’s 207 was the heaviest he’s ever come in for a fight. Almost 41, he looked bigger, particularly in the chest and shoulders, than ever before. In pre-fight interviews Henderson had talked of hitting the weights harder than in the past.
Because Henderson was the more muscular of the two, with Emelianenko having a thick midsection even at a lighter weight than usual, Henderson looked wider, was maybe an inch shorter, and the two did not look like fighters who belonged in different weight classes.
The fight is potentially explosive, two legends of the sport, both hard hitters with top-level grappling bases who have never been knocked out in long careers. Even with the fight not having much relevance in the championship picture – with the larger Emelianenko heavily favored and almost in a situation where he gains little with a win and loses a lot with a loss – only about 1,000 tickets remain in the building that will be set up for about 10,000 capacity.
With the exception of the two headliners, the crowd favorite at the weigh-ins was Miesha Tate (11-2), who would likely become the new face of women’s mixed martial arts if she can take the bantamweight championship from Holland’s Marloes Coenen (19-4).
Both women weighed in at 135 pounds for a fight where the name of the weight division has been changed in recent days from welterweight to bantamweight. Zuffa, Strikeforce’s new owner, wants to use the same weight class names for women and men. This also means that if Cris “Cyborg” Santos, the former women’s middleweight champion (145 pounds), was to return to the company after the expiration of her contract, her title would be renamed the featherweight championship.
The two fighters exchanged words after their weigh-in. Coenen has made comments, both complimentary and not, about how Tate has promoted the fight in the media, and said something to her quietly when the two were face-to-face. Coenen has claimed Tate is portraying herself as overconfident in saying the champion only had a puncher’s chance to win standing, and would likely be controlled on the ground. Coenen has also made comments, both positive and negative, about how Tate has marketed herself with racy photos, noting she’s not opposed to it, but that it was something that she would never do.
The first three fights on the televised card will have grappler vs. striker themes. Robbie Lawler (18-7), a hard-punching middleweight, will try to keep the fight standing, while opponent Tim Kennedy (13-3), with a superior ground game, will try and put the fight on the ground in a match where the winner would be a likely contender for the winner of a Sept. 10 title fight between champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and challenger Luke Rockhold.
A welterweight battle has the same theme, as knockout artist Paul “Semtex” Daley (27-10-2) faces for University of Missouri wrestling standout Tyron Woodley (8-0). While observers have raved about Woodley’s potential since he first appeared on smaller Strikeforce shows because he took quickly to the striking game, he would not be expected to fare well with Daley standing.
No decision has been made regarding the Strikeforce welterweight title, vacated by Nick Diaz when he signed a UFC contract to challenge Georges St. Pierre for the title. But the winner of Daley vs. Woodley would be expected involved in whatever Zuffa comes up with to determine a new champion.
The television opener features Scott Smith (17-8), who has been involved in three of the greatest come-from-behind knockout wins in MMA history, facing another grappling specialist in Tarec Saffiedine (10-3), a product of Henderson’s Team Quest in Temecula, Calif.
Gabriel-Salinas Jones (160) vs. Bryan Humes (266)
Lamumba Sayers (184) vs. Derek Brunson (186)
Alexis Davis (136) vs. Julie Kedzie (135)
Tyler Stinson (171) vs. Edouardo Pamplona (170)
Bobby Green (155) vs. J.Z. Cavalcante (155)
Scott Smith (171) vs. Tarec Saffiedine (170)
Tyron Woodley (170) vs. Paul Daley (171)
Tim Kennedy (185) vs. Robbie Lawler (185)
Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title: Marloes Coenen (135) vs. Miesha Tate (135)
Fedor Emelianenko (223) vs. Dan Henderson (207)