Following months of speculation, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker's desire to promote a single-elimination heavyweight tournament in 2011 has come to fruition. Showtime, which expects to televise each of the event's three legs, revealed opening-round matches and the tournament bracket Tuesday.
"It's a long, grueling process as we know with these tournaments, and whoever comes out on top will be the reigning Strikeforce heavyweight champion," said Ken Hershman, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports.
Beginning Feb. 12 at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J., four of the eight fighters signed up for the main draw will compete in first-round matchups.
The remaining quarterfinal fights will likely take place in April, Showtime and Strikeforce officials said. The event's date and location are yet to be determined. Current Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem (33-11) will meet Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1), and Brett Rogers (11-2) tangles with Josh Barnett (29-5).
Four alternates are part of the field. Coker confirmed that the Feb. 12 card will include a televised fight between Shane Del Rosario and Lavar Johnson. He expects the second alternate bout to become official next week.
Key to completing the tournament field was Emelianenko, the consensus top heavyweight in MMA for seven years before he tapped to a triangle choke in 69 seconds against Werdum last June.
Completing arduous contract talks between Emelianenko's promoter, M-1 Global, Strikeforce and Showtime that kept the Russian out of action for the second half of 2010, the 34-year-old fighter signed a four-event extension with Showtime and Strikeforce just before the new year, his manager Vadim Finkelstein confirmed to ESPN.com.
"The deal took so long and there was so much beating of the deal that I think at one point I was numb to the whole thing ...," Finkelstien said.
"I think early on there was a little doubt in my mind [that we could complete an extension with M-1 and Emelianenko]," Coker said. "But over the last two months I started feeling really good about it. We had to wait, but a fighter like Fedor is worth it."
Several sources close to the talks told ESPN.com that Showtime took the lead in negotiations, though Hershman said that characterization wasn't accurate.
"This is just three parties coming together trying to work a deal that made sense for everyone," said the Showtime Sports boss. "This wasn't us leading anything. I do think we've had a lot of experience with talent at that level working with [Mike] Tyson and [Evander] Holyfield, and some of the other guys we've worked with over the years. We hoped to bring that to the table and use that experience to make sure everybody comes away feeling pretty good about the process. I think in this case they did and we certainly did."
At this stage of his career, the previous decade's best heavyweight "doesn't know how much longer he's fighting," said Emelianeko's manager. "It's unfortunate that things did take so long, but there were certainly reasons for it and as frustrating as it was for him, he understood. There were points along the way we thought he we had a deal done, then we didn't. For him it's good. It fulfills his main desire, which is to fight and fight as often as he can. That's a very good result."
Emelianenko's signing, which was delayed at the end because he's training in a remote mountain location in his homeland without access to computers or fax machines, allowed the brackets to take shape and the tournament to move forward.
"If there's not any injuries, we think we could wrap it up by the end of September," Coker said.
Emelianenko or Silva will be matched against Overeem or Werdum, with the winner of that fight advancing to the finals. Should Emelianenko defeat Silva, his semifinal bout would garner great interest regardless of the opponent.
On the other side of the bracket, the Barnett-Rogers winner is slated to meet Arlovski or Kharitonov in the second round for the right to advance to the finals and fight for the Strikeforce title.
It appears the bracket featuring Overeem, Werdum, Emelianenko, and Silva -- the four ranked fighters in the field -- is much tougher than what Barnett, Kharitonov, Arlovski, or Rogers have been asked to negotiate.
Barnett is regarded as a threat, but for various reasons he has not regularly competed against high level competition since 2006. Kharitonov and Arlovski are on the down sides of their respective careers. And Rogers has fallen off the map since stoppage losses to Emelianenko and Overeem.
Coker and Hershman, however, expressed satisfaction with the bracket structure.
"Timing is an issue with these fighters," Coker said. "I feel fortunate to have all these guys in the tournament. Fabricio was injured and wouldn't be ready to fight in February. Alistair and Fabricio wanted to fight one another. In Japan, Alistair told me he wanted Werdum."
Said Hershman: "We talked a lot about the brackets. Part of it is the timing of everything, the injuries, and peoples' other obligations. ... We think it's going to present a really compelling scenario. We didn't really think of it any other way."
Neither the semifinal nor final rounds have firm dates or locations.
With Barnett currently unlicensed to fight in the U.S. since the summer of 2009 because of his third positive test for anabolic steroids, questions linger over his ability to compete. However, Coker said Strikeforce has engaged in conversations with multiple regulatory bodies that are apparently willing to license the fighter, presuming he provides a clean drug test. Coker said at this point he doesn't intend to promote Barnett in California, where the heavyweight is scheduled to appear in front of the state's athletic commission in February.
Beginning with Overeem's quarterfinal bout against Werdum, each Strikeforce title fight throughout the tournament will be a five-round contest. All other bouts are relegated to three rounds. Should Overeem win out, he'll have a strong case to be considered the No. 1 heavyweight in MMA. The same could be said for Emelianenko or Werdum.
"What better way to identify who is the greatest heavyweight out there in our division?" Coker said. "We felt this was the best way to put that together. I promised the fans that we would let all these guys fight each other."
Josh Gross covers mixed martial arts for ESPN.com.