Midway through winter, the world of mixed martial arts finally has something to look forward to. On February 12th, Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko returns to face Brazilian contender Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in the quarterfinals of Strikeforce's heavyweight Grand Prix.
Who knows why it took so long seal the deal; maybe Fedor's manager Vadim Finkelstein wouldn't budge on that rumored private-label amusement park provision. More importantly, who cares? The ends justify the means for Fedor's fans; I'm just happy MMA fans now have something to yank us out of our TUF-induced stupor.
In any case, this matchup is a good one. Silva poses as great a threat as Fedor has yet faced for a few reasons:
- He's bigger. Force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration, folks. Antonio Silva is actually a pretty athletic 260lbs, and at 6'4" he sports a significant reach advantage and should look very comfortable on his feet against Fedor (Silva's ever-improving stand-up game gave Freddie Roach-trained Andrei Arlovski fits last year.) Brett Rogers showed us all how a bigger man could use the cage to keep Fedor from making mischief; Silva is a smarter fighter, and I expect him to be one of the first of Fedor's opponents to purposefully exploit the size advantage.
- He's dynamic. I first saw Silva in action in a sloppy brawl against Ricco Rodriguez. Both men looked out of practice and slightly out of shape, with Silva getting the split decision victory. Since then, "Bigfoot" shown both improved skill and improved conditioning, and enters this fight with no discernible disadvantage, on the ground or standing.
- He's patient. Certainly the "Fedor jitters" played a part in the Russian's many shocking wins over larger, stronger opponents. Both Tim Sylvia and Brett Rogers hesitated before the stalking Russian, only to find themselves looking up at the ref and wondering what happened. Antonio Silva, rocked early in his fight with Mike Kyle, showed heart when he recovered to get the TKO victory. With that lesson in humility behind him, it's highly unlikely that Fedor will catch Silva napping.
- He knows Fedor can be beaten. All Silva needs to know is that what one man can do, another can do. Surely Silva was as shocked as the rest of us when Fedor was submitted last year, but after watching the Russian wander carelessly into the guard of a skilled grappler (and larger man), he couldn't have been too surprised. Fedor's "ad hoc" fighting style doesn't rely as much on opponent-specific strategy so much as real-time analysis and reaction. There's no question that Fedor is willing to take a lick or two while he feels his opponent out for weaknesses; if Silva's smart, he'll be ready to exploit Fedor's inhuman lack of fear the way Fabricio Werdum did.
On the other hand..this is Fedor, after all. Though it doesn't need to be said, I'll say it anyway:
- He can do it all. Fedor is as well-rounded as any fighter competing today. His boxing, criticized by some as "sloppy," is deceptively functional; the looping punches Fedor likes to throw from the hips seem to land with force of a sledgehammer. He's probably not the fastest athlete fighting today, but his uncanny timing and balance seem to give him a jump on every opponent. Fedor may not be an Abu Dhabi world champion, but he applies submissions as though his life depends on it.
- He has unmatched experience. Fedor has 32+ professional wins at heavyweight. He's fought strikers, grapplers, pure wrestlers, kick boxers and everything in between. That record really is compounded by the fact that, since he doesn't believe in cutting weight, he for all practical purposes is fighting guys from a higher weight class. (Picture Frankie Edgar fighting at middleweight to appreciate the significance of this.) He's been rocked hard, dumped on his head, and busted up into a bloody mess, and still emerged victorious.
- He's committed to ending the fight. Fedor isn't fighting for points. He treats fighting as problem-solving and his opponents like strategy puzzles; give him a few minutes, and he'll find a solution. He's ended fights by every means imaginable, from arm-bar to kimura to short-choke to TKO, to one-punch knockout and majority decision. Many other fighters seem content to control fights and win rounds, securing victory without a scratch to show for it, but Fedor endeavors to end fights with complete abandon.
- He's fearless. It has been said of Fedor that he "cuts easy," but that's just statistics out of context. The practical reality is that Fedor presses the action in nearly every fight without any real fear of getting hit. Perhaps he's willing to get tagged once or twice simply as a means to determining the extent of someone's range. The much-larger Brett Rogers, knocked out by Fedor after briefly appearing to have the advantage in their fight, said later that he was thrown off by how "loose" Fedor seemed. Indeed, Fedor's willingness to wade into harm's way against larger opponents is unsettling to behold, and probably even more so from inside the cage.
Fedor vs. Silva can go either way, it really can. Size considerations notwithstanding, both fighters are skilled, tough and smart, so I won't predict a winner. I hope only for a good fight, and knowing what I know about these two fighters I don't expect anything less.