Some of the biggest names in MMA’s heavyweight division have been assembled for the Strikeforce World Grand Prix. Some are calling the tournament a throwback to the glory days of the PRIDE Fighting Championships. It all starts on Saturday February 12, when Emelianenko, arguably the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, faces off against the mammoth Antonio “Big Foot” Silva. However, just like Rocky Balboa got his one-in-a-million chance against champion Apollo Creed on screen, a largely unknown fighter may just get the chance to crash this party of heavyweight greats. On the undercard to Fedor vs. Silva, up-and-coming heavyweights Shane Del Rosario and Lavar Johnson will fight for the opportunity to be an alternate in the Grand Prix should one of the headliners gets injured.
Del Rosario, the 28-year-old Orange County, CA native who may get this chance of a lifetime, is far from a typical mixed martial artist. Unlike many fighters of this generation, Del Rosario did not grow up watching UFC 1 and idolizing Royce Gracie. “I was more the kind of person to just go out and do it instead of watching it,” he recalls. Growing up near the beach in Dana Point, Del Rosario surfed and played basketball as a youth. On a whim, he and a bunch of friends in high school started training with UFC pioneer Marco Ruas. After getting his psychology degree at UC Irvine, Del Rosario had to make a choice: go to graduate school or give the fight game a shot.
In 2005, just as the sport was starting to explode thanks to The Ultimate Fighter, Del Rosario made the decision to join Colin Oyama’s fight team with friend and fellow fighter, Rob Emerson. Oyama, veteran trainer who had worked with the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz, concentrated on his young protégé’s stand up skills, eventually guiding Del Rosario to his first belt, a WBC Heavyweight title in Muay Thai. But as his ground game developed, thanks to Jiu-Jitsu coach and BJJ champion Giva Santana, Strikeforce came calling and signed the heavyweight prospect. Now, the undefeated fighter is on the cusp of stardom. The possibility of competing with some of the all-time great heavyweights is no longer just a dream.
However, the road to this golden opportunity was not an easy one. In a 2009 fight against Brandon Cash, Del Rosario was blasted by a huge right hand within the first 20 seconds of the bout and on the brink of a crushing knockout defeat. “That was definitely my toughest fight. I thought he double-legged me. I didn’t know I got dropped with a punch.” But he was able to weather the storm and eventually submit Cash with an Omoplata. “I learned that I can take a punch and that I can relax and do my thing (on the ground). Just because you’re a good striker, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hit,” says Del Rosario.
But before he can get to that next level, he must face another fighter on the brink of stardom: Johnson, who just happens to be Cash’s teammate. “We’re kind of in the same position. I’m 10-0 and I think he’s 13-3. He’s a big guy and he’s got a big right hand,” Del Rosario states, referencing the fact that, at 240 lbs., he is considered by many to be a “small” heavyweight. “I’m quicker and have better footwork than most heavyweights,” Del Rosario states when talking about what advantages he brings to the table against larger opponents. “I want to fight like a lighter weight guy. One of my teammates and coaches, Romie Adanza, I always try to mimic him. He fights at like 118-127 (lbs.). If I can do that at the heavyweight level, I’m going to pose a lot of problems for a lot of heavyweights.”
Does a fighter like Del Rosario, with just a fraction of the experience of some of the big-time names in this tournament, have a chance to win it all? If he gets by Johnson this Saturday, we may just find out.
Fans can catch “Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva” live tomorrow night on Showtime starting at 9:00 PM EST!
PHOTO CREDIT – STRIKEFORCE