From Russia -- with no love lost
NEW YORK -- Six years into his run as the consensus top-ranked heavyweight in mixed martial arts, Fedor Emelianenko -- draped in the white, blue and red colors of Mother Russia -- offered a message for his fans, many of whom were adorned in similar garb that winter night.
Meanwhile, Andrei Arlovski, propped up in his corner after being coldcocked by a classic overhand right, watched as Emelianenko reveled in one of the best knockouts of 2009. Born and raised in Belarus, Arlovski understood every word coming from Emelianenko's mouth.
He didn't like what he heard.
"Emelianenko beat me and he said, 'This victory over Arlovski was for all my Russian fans.' In my opinion, this was wrong," said the 31-year-old former UFC heavyweight champion.
Those sentiments were off base because of their undertones, said Leo Khorolinsky, a Ukrainian and Arlovski's longtime manager.
Leading up to the fight in Anaheim, Calif., Emelianenko's trainers made mention of Arlovski's roots. They pointed out that Arlovski was, in fact, not Russian. They said the same afterward. Emelianenko's trainer since childhood, Vladimir Voronov, after partaking in some celebratory whiskeys, sneered as much at the Belarusian's genealogy as his game plan: "Arlovski is of a Slavic heart and a Slavic soul. Arlovski decided to f--- everything and go forward, and that's why he paid."
Saturday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., Arlovski fights Sergei Kharitonov, a self-described "pure Russian." Of Arlovski, Kharitonov suggests the quick striker "has the mentality of an American" in that he spent much of his professional career in the States. Emelianenko offered a similar assessment Tuesday prior to an open-to-the-public meet-and-greet at the Roseland Ballroom, where the eight fighters competing in Strikeforce's Heavyweight World Grand Prix answered questions and posed for photos.
"He's not Russian, he's Belarusian," Emelianenko said of Arlovski via a translator. "This is just a different country. It's a Slavic country."
Asked for a reaction, Arlovski blurted out "f--- Russia" before he and Khorolinsky quickly said it was a joke.
"I don't think Fedor nor Sergei are qualified to judge Andrei," Khorolinsky said. "They've never been in his shoes. They've never lived the kind of life he leads. Andre is very grateful to the United States and for his opportunity to fight in his second home. But he knows where he comes from."
The loaded rhetoric may be more tactical -- or promotional -- than malicious on the part of Emelianenko, who has admitted to being friendly with Arlovski, although the men aren't close.
And for that matter, sharing Russian blood hasn't led to the best of friendships between Kharitonov and Emelianenko -- training partners who fell out of contact when Emelianenko changed management in 2003. Kharitonov (17-4) was subsequently tabbed by Russian Top Team (which he has since departed) as the top threat in the gym's quest to end the reign of its former protégé. Entry into the Strikeforce tournament marks the first real opportunity for a fight between the two men to happen.
"In Russia, it would be a very good situation if we meet in the finals," said the 30-year-old Kharitonov, speaking through a translator. "It would be very good for Russian people to watch mixed martial arts."
Their paths wouldn't cross until the tournament championship, which demands two victories apiece to earn the right.
"If life comes to the point that we have to fight each other, why not?" said Emelianenko, 34, of his fellow Russian, once a guest in the home of the former Pride champion's mother.
"There was a time when we were really very close to each other," Emelianenko said of Kharitonov, who today represents the Golden Glory team. "But I changed my manager, I started working with Vadim [Finkelstein] and Kharitonov stayed in our old team. Maybe he decided that was the time to stop our relationship. He just changed his telephone number."
Saturday marks Emelianenko's return to the cage after a submission loss to Fabricio Werdum last summer. A win against Brazilian Antonio Silva would offer a modicum of redemption and put him in the semifinals against either Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem or Werdum, the man responsible for Emelianenko's first loss since 2000.
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Many have picked Emelianenko to emerge from what is undoubtedly the more difficult side of the tournament bracket. Kharitonov, Arlovski, Josh Barnett and Brett Rogers will battle to determine the championship contender on the other side of the bracket.
Kharitonov-Arlovski is a battle of quality strikers. The Russian is more of a plodder, content to sit in the pocket and fire power punches until someone drops. The Belarusian, loser of his past three fights, offers movement and speed.
Both men expect a difficult test.
"First time I saw him," Arlovski said, "I thought, he's a huge guy. No doubt. He's very dangerous and it's going to be an interesting, tough match."
Arlovski hasn't forgotten Emelianenko's words in the ring following their Southern Californian encounter. The last thing he or Khorolinsky wants is to hear Kharitonov express something similar.
"We live in a global world. This is a global sport. Let's be athletes and respect each other," Khorolinsky said.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.