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Strikeforce Heavyweights Descend Upon New York to Lay Claim to No. 1

Fabricio WerdumNEW YORK -- For some fans, it's easy to look past Strikeforce. They don't run as many events as the UFC, they don't have a bombastic frontman, and they haven't been around as long. But it was hard to ignore what they were doing on Tuesday afternoon, when eight burly men demanded and received the attention of a city that usually can't be bothered.

The field of the Strikeforce heavyweight tournament came to town, with a free fan experience at Manhattan's famed Roseland Ballroom that drew around 2,000 fans. The message was simple: With the brutal tournament format generating a battle of attrition, the promotion and its fighters believe that the man who emerges as the last man standing out of the original eight will be able to make the claim as the world's best heavyweight.

While the championship is not in play, in some ways, the stakes are higher than any single piece of hardware.

"I love tournaments," said Alistair Overeem, the man who holds the belt for now. "Tournaments decide who's No. 1. This tournament will decide who the No. 1 heavyweight in MMA is, no doubt."

Overeem and the rest of the entrants invaded the Big Apple yesterday to kick off fight week just a few days prior to the opening round on Saturday night at the Izod Center in nearby East Rutherford, New Jersey. On that night, Fedor Emelianenko will face Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva and Andrei Arlovski will face Sergei Kharitonov in first round bouts. The other first rounders will take place in April.

By all accounts, things should get off to a rocking start. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, ticket pre-sales are the strongest since Strikeforce has teamed up with Showtime and M-1. A crowd between 12,000-15,000 is a possibility as Strikeforce continues its expansion and makes its northeast debut.

At Roseland, a throng of fans lined up outside in near-freezing temperatures for a chance at an autograph or photo with the fighters. As usual, the main attraction for Strikeforce was its M-1 contracted star Fedor Emelianenko, who drew the loudest cheers of the day.

Emelianenko was the last man introduced and the only one to shake hands with the rest of the fighters in the field as he walked out to his place on the podium. He was also the first one to leave, as unruly fans pushing to the front of his autograph line forced his handlers to pull him from the proceedings a bit earlier than the event's scheduled 6pm finish time.

As usual, Emelianenko was measured in his words, saying he would win the tournament "if it is God's will," and that his first-round opponent Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva is "very big, but I'm used to meeting big fighters before." Emelianenko will be attempting to rebound from his stunning loss to Fabricio Werdum last June, a defeat that snapped an amazing 29-fight, nine-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak.

"I actually feel the same as before," Emelianenko said through his interpreter "I'm not worried, nervous or any of that."

His opponent, Silva, said he couldn't even think about the scope of the tournament, as he was simply too focused on facing Emelianenko on Saturday.

"Fedor is No. 1," he said through his interpreter. "I didn't come here to play. I trained hard, and he's not going to go over me. Right now I am only thinking about Fedor. I am facing this fight like it is the final."

Most fighters seemed to have Fedor on the mind, except for one: Fabricio Werdum.

Werdum, who warned fans his English wasn't very good prior to speaking, had no problem getting across his feelings on Overeem, who he defeated by submission in 2006.

"Alistair Overeem is my son, my b----," he said to a roar, before quickly pulling back, saying, "It's a joke,"

"He's picking up English pretty quick," said Strikeforce analyst Frank Shamrock.

Overeem and Werdum will square up on April 9 (along with Brett Rogers vs. Josh Barnett), though the the location of that event has yet to be decided.

While many fans give UFC -- and by extension, its divisional champion Cain Velasquez -- preference because of their seeming omnipresence, Strikeforce and its fighters clearly have a statement to make with the field and format of a tournament that promised to give the promotion a winner with the legitimacy to challenge anyone in the world.

"I'm happy to be in this tournament," Arlovski said. "I'm very happy to be a part of it. All of the fighters are tough and strong, and it's going to be a good experience for the fighters and the fans."

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