Insider’s View: Backstage at Strikeforce

Fedor Emelianenko’s rapturous reception at Chicago’s Sears Centre Arena was a magical moment. After weeks of hype on CBS, and years of hype online, the worlds best fighter was finally taking America by storm. It was a big fight atmosphere and the kind of fight you’ll never forget. And it’s also a moment that almost didn’t happen, at least not for the televised audience.

As time ticked away, with decision after decision, there was a near state of panic among the broadcast crew. The show had a strict time allowance: no one had approved an additional allotment of airtime and the clock continued to roll along. Approval was sought to extend the broadcast; approval received. Thousands of old women tuning in to see the news instead saw Fedor making his entrance – he hit the cage right at 11:00 EST.

Even then, producers from CBS were hoping for a quick fight. When Rogers survived an early storm, some were despondent. “So much for our two minute fight,” one said. In the end, despite what will likely be some stern warnings not to exceed their time again, no one could be anything but pleased at the end of the night. For the fourth time on American soil, first with an armbar finish over Mark Coleman and subsequent finishes of Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, and now Brett Rogers, Fedor has never failed to thrill.

As I waited backstage for the fighters to make their way to the cage, there was a buzz in the air, even among the seasoned pros who have seen dozens or hundreds of fights. This was Fedor! As he walked out among his entourage, the few lucky enough to be standing by gaped. How did someone so unnoticeable manage to attract so much notice? He was small, barely even recognizable as a fighter. Some guys just have that look. I ran into Eric Apple, the headliner for Strikeforce’s next Challengers show in Kansas City and had no doubt he was a fighter, even though I didnt recognize him right away. Could Renato “Babalu” Sobral, with bulging muscles, frosted hair, and neck tattoos be anything but a cage fighter? Not so with Emelianenko. He could have easily blended in with the union workforce backstage at the show.

Slightly doughy, short, plain looking, the only thing that gave him away was his stare. The blank eyes, the intensity, the focus, all were a little frightening. He paced backstage waiting for Mayhem Miller and Jake Shields to depart the cage. As he walked back and forth he would occasionally let out a battle cry, slapping himself in the face and scaring the hell out of every one backstage. He walked forward towards the cage with chilly demeanor and I was glad to be behind him rather than in his sights.

For the first time in my career covering fights, I was not ringside at the event. Labeled a videographer, I had no set seat. Instead, my press pass opened doors for me to wander like a ronin, a reporter with no home. It was an eye opening experience. I rode up to the luxury suites with Vadim Finkelstein of M-1 Global, Fedor’s manager and a major player in the game. He was surrounded by his Russian entourage, but took the time to express confidence that Fedor would indeed be winning the fight.

Of course, he was not alone. No one I talked to saw an upset coming, but everyone was excited to see the fight. With the freedom to wander, I took an informal straw poll of the media and fighters lurking around the underbelly of the building. The closest to predicting a Rogers win was new Strikeforce signee King Mo Lawal. Eerily prescient, Mo said Fedor was great, but no one was unbeatable. He’s human. He can bleed. At the end of the fight no one doubted that was true. Rogers did the unthinkable, not just cutting the champion, but putting him in real jeopardy with a vicious ground and pound attack, silencing critics by smartly defending a slick armbar and other ground attacks. It was his pure speed and athleticism that saved the day for the champion, catching the challenger off guard with a lightning fast looping right and putting him down for the count.

The main event ended a night of middling fights. I watched Mayhem-Shields with a bunch of the union guys backstage, waiting for their cue to tear the equipment down, on the clock the whole time and having a great time mocking the fight. As I attempted to explain the virtues of hand control in protecting the neck when your opponent has your back, they were more interested in pointing out all the obvious homo-erotic positions as the fighter rolled around the mat. Miller, always on in public, was downbeat after the fight. He gamely posed for pictures but made his way quickly from the scene. “I dont want to hang around looking like I need a hug,” he said.

Shields had secured his spot as Strikeforce’s top middleweight, but seemed more interested in going back down to 170 pounds. Former champion Cung Le was announced as the headliner for December’s show in San Jose, taking on slugger Scott Smith. Shields scoffed at the idea, suggesting Le was scared to fight him. I caught up with Cung and asked him about a fight with Shields. “I enjoyed the fight tonight,” the new movie star said. “But listen to the crowd. They would rather see me stand and trade with Smith than a Jiu Jitsu match.”

The event was not without hiccups. Dutch sensation Marloes Coenen was announced as the first challenger for the dominant Cyborg Santos. Unfortunately, Coenen’s fight, an amazing armbar win over Roxanne Modaferri that sent her smaller foe to the hospital (only to return when they saw the lines at the emergency room), was on the untelevised portion of the program. It leaves Coenen, a personable and attractive future star as a stranger among many fight fans, making the job of promoting that fight in January a little bit harder.

Still, despite some wrinkles, there can be no doubt Strikeforce is finding their way. The return of Le gives them breathing room while they await Fedor’s next fight and the return of Gina Carano. A star was born in Chicago though; there can be no doubt of that. Finally, Fedor’s fame will approach his fighting prowess. No one could deserve it more.