Modeled after the beloved tournaments in PRIDE Fighting Championships, Strikeforce and Showtime are bringing their World Heavyweight Grand Prix to American soil in 2011, and the first round is only days away.

In a nutshell, Strikeforce’s top eight heavyweights will face off in an elimination-style tournament scheduled to run throughout the year, with the first two quarterfinal matches taking place on February 12th and the second two quarterfinals occurring in April. The four winners from that round advance to the semi-finals and fight on a later Strikeforce show. And finally the finals, presumably in the fall.

The Strikeforce World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament Brackets

Of course, former PRIDE FC heavyweight king Fedor Emelianenko is the odds-on-favorite to win, but more importantly, the tournament has an imaginative mix of established international stars alongside Strikeforce’s top heavyweights, which gives fans something engaging to debate. How well do the foreign fighters adjust to fighting in a cage / America / Strikeforce rules? Does Arlovski still symbolically represent the UFC here? Can Josh Barnett put his licensing and steroid testing issues behind him and compete at the level he did in the PRIDE GPs?

And, of course, the million dollar question: can Fedor bounce back from being submitted in almost a minute last year? (Note: heavy odds on yes.)

Moreover, Strikeforce has two or three alternate matches in the chamber, involving fighters that, while perhaps not at the same level as the main eight, have reasonable credentials of their own, and, should they step up and perform if and when called, could be built into viable company stars.

Behind the Scenes at the Strikeforce HGP Photoshoot:

The answers will reveal themselves soon enough, but in the meantime, here’s a breakdown on this weekend’s card, featuring the first rounds of the Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix:

155 lbs. – John Cholish x Marc Stevens: Both men step into the cage with college wrestling credentials – Stevens under Josh Koscheck at SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo and Cholish at Cornell University. Stevens was also Koscheck’s first pick on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter, though he didn’t perform as expected. Aside from his TUF stint, Stevens didn’t fight in 2010. Stockbroker by day, Cholish is an up-and-coming Renzo Gracie fighter who’s faced some respectable East Coast names (Rich Moskowitz, Hitalo Machado) to earn a 5-1 record, with two submission and TKO wins, respectively. My rule of thumb is that between two ground specialists look for the fight to take place primarily on the feet. That said, how well Stevens has polished his submission defense remains to be seen.

Prediction: Cholish via submission (round three)

170 lbs. – John Salgado x Igor Gracie: Gracie has an even 2-2 record, splitting wins and losses in 2008 and 2009 before taking a break in 2010. Salgado has fought consistently since 2008, at 4-4-1, and will look to snap a two-fight losing streak. This will also be something of a revenge match for Gracie, as Salgado beat Gracie teammate Renato Migliaccio via split decision last April. Assuming this fight takes place at welterweight, as was reported elsewhere, look for Gracie to have the size advantage.

Prediction: Gracie via submission (round one)

265 lbs. – Chad Griggs x Gian Villante: Between their 18 cumulative fights, these men share 13 KO / TKO finishes, so expect fireworks. Griggs recently made his name known as the guy who stopped Bobby Lashley’s undefeated streak. However, Griggs’ only fight between Lashley and 2007 was a first-round KO. Villante is a homegrown hero in New Jersey’s Ring of Combat promotion, going 6-0 from his February 2009 debut to April 2010, mostly first-round TKO and KOs. Griggs’ Lashley win could possibly have lit a fire for him, but Villante will have the advantage of more recent activity.

Prediction: Villante via TKO (round one)

265 lbs. – Valantijn Overeem vs. Ray Sefo: This is an interesting clash of veteran kickboxers at different stages in their careers. Sefo is 2-0, his last win in 2009 against journeyman Kevin Jordan. But Sefo has also been training at Xtreme Couture for at least a year, which isn’t too shabby a place to build one’s overall MMA game. Conversely, the younger Overeem has been more active in the past three years, going 4-2 against mediocre competition in Europe and Japan. With 16 submission wins, don’t be surprised to see Overeem work for the takedown. But don’t be surprised to see Sefo have some surprising answers for those challenges.

Prediction: Overeem via TKO (round one)

265 lbs. – Shane Del Rosario x Lavar Johnson: Experts have been predicting big things for Del Rosario, as a steady-rising prospect with speed and strength. Johnson is also no joke, riding a seven-fight TKO/KO streak since 2008. Both share recent TKO wins over Samoan son Carl Seumanutafa and the heavy-handed Hawaiian Lolohea Mahe. Johnson’s history includes an amazing comeback story from near-death, after taking several gunshots in 2009. He’s 2-0 since then. Del Rosario will have the youth advantage, and likely the edge in cardio and grappling. Though both men like to duke it out, Del Rosario might try to extract Johnson out of his element with takedowns.

Prediction: Del Rosario via TKO or submission (round two).

265 lbs. – Andrei Arlovski x Sergei Kharitonov: Out of 13 matches from 2002 to 2009, Arlovski finished his opponents 11 times, won a unanimous decision over Fabricio Werdum (UFC 70, 2007), and lost only twice, both times to Tim Sylvia. However, he’s also lost his only three matches since 2009, starting with the infamous Fedor-authored KO. Arlovski’s chin has always been suspect, and many say he has never been the same since the Fedor fight. Kharitonov, a former star in PRIDE FC, hasn’t competed against a lot of top talent since that time. Indeed, he KO’ed current Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem, but that was 2007 and against a very different (smaller and 1-3 in his previous four matches) Dutchman. The question is whether Arlovski found his mojo again. If not, Kharitonov may be warmed up and sharp enough to put him away.

Prediction: Kharitonov via unanimous decision.

265 lbs. – Fedor Emelianenko x Antonio Silva: For most, this is a foregone conclusion of Fedor finishing Bigfoot in the first round. To be fair, Silva went the distance with Fabricio Werdum, as opposed to Fedor’s first-round loss to Werdum, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Silva will have the size advantage, but so did Brett Rogers, Andrei Arlovski, Tim Sylvia, and Hong Man Choi.

Footage of Fedor (and interviews with everybody else):

Prediction: Emelianenko via TKO / KO (round one).

The Finish

Because so many casual MMA fans 1) started watching after the heyday of PRIDE FC Grand Prix (watch what you can of 2000, 2003, and 2004) and 2) don’t follow Strikeforce as closely as UFC, this tournament is a great opportunity for Coker & Company to establish itself as something more than “the other MMA company.” The collection of talent involved all have legit MMA credentials (over half are former PRIDE GP participants and two are former UFC world champions) and are as memorable as characters and  they are as fighters. Moreover, the fact that six are foreign fighters absolutely gives the grand prix a “global” feel, a sense that these are among the top MMA heavyweights from around the world.

Indeed, after two years of being stuck in the shadow of the UFC, even while working hard to establish its own identity, Strikeforce now has something distinctive to offer the casual MMA fan.

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