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SOME UNRULY GOD bestowed Brett "The Grim" Rogers with the physical gifts needed to knock out some of the baddest men on the planet. At 6'5", 265 lbs., he has a chest the size of a cement mixer, forearm muscles as taut as rebar, and a pair of XXL hands he swings like cinderblocks.
Last summer, it took all of 22 seconds for Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champion, to discover the damage that such physical gifts can do. The two stepped inside the cage, one as a star of the sport, the other as a guy from St. Paul who changed tires at Sam's Club for a living.
Before a crowd of 8,867, referee Big John McCarthy set the men in motion, and the air went out of the room. The two spent 16 seconds circling each other, with Arlovski firing a low kick to Rogers's shin.
The next six seconds saw Rogers bull-rush Arlovski. Like twin pistons, his fists battered Arlovski's skull, driving him back against the cage, unconsciousness and to the floor.
As McCarthy coaxed Arlovski back to reality, Rogers ran around the ring in exultation. When an interviewer thrust a microphone in his face, Rogers did his best to narrate the devastation.
"Right there, you know, I just felt that he was hesitating," Rogers explained as he watched a replay. "I know he's a spunky dude. He was kind of like, hesitating. I just went after him. I was hungry, baby! Look at that! That's beast-like right there!"
In the audience that night was a Russian gladiator nicknamed "The Last Emperor." Widely considered the greatest fighter in the sport of mixed martial arts, he carries himself like an executioner, counts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as one of his fans, and is known around the fight world simply by his first name: Fedor.
This Saturday, Fedor will make his debut on CBS. Opposite him in the cage will be Rogers, who comes in as a considerable underdog.
"The storyline looks like Ivan Drago versus Rocky," says Mike Afromowitz, a spokesman for Strikeforce, co-promoter of the bout. "But it's more than that. It's two guys who walked two different paths. Now, they are going to meet in what I think will be one barnburner of a fight."
ON THE FRIDAY before Labor Day weekend, Rogers grapples with his training partner, Adam Rothfelder, inside Ambition MMA, a top-flight training center in Eagan. Their shirts soaked through with sweat, they leave a slug-like trail as they roll across the mat. The two work through a series of counters as though clicking through a Rubik's Cube. The chess match finally ends when each man grabs the other's ankle and applies pressure, the MMA equivalent of a Mexican standoff. Rogers looks at Rothfelder and says, "Tie."
"I guarantee you, if Fedor gets your ankle he's not going to settle for a tie," Rothfelder responds.
Fedor. He is an unspoken presence in the room, his photos grinning back from the wall behind the heavy bags. There's Fedor wearing Minnie Mouse ears alongside Japanese teens, Fedor grinning under a dolphin headband, Fedor sparring with the Naked Cowboy in Times Square, Fedor clutching two ice cream cones.
The images are something for Rogers to stare at while he trains, a constant reminder of the looming battle. Every so often, as Rogers walks out of the mat room, he catches sight of Fedor and takes an extra swing at the bag.
"Ain't nothing but another man," Rogers says aloud. "Just another man. That's all he is to me."
At Rogers's side nearly every moment is his manager, Mike Reilly. He's a voluble man who handles Rogers's press. Strikeforce just announced the fight, and Reilly is fielding calls from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo sports, a radio show in Indianapolis, and a newspaper in France.
Luckily for him, Rogers is easy to sell in any language. Despite being one of the top heavyweight fighters in the world, and wearing a mohawk that curves atop his head like a scythe, Rogers is one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet, almost shy at times, quick to smile, and always down for taking a photo. He's even careful with his handshake, as though he knows one squeeze could break bones.
Little by little, people are starting to recognize him in public. One time at a fight in San Jose, an excited woman asked him if he was the real Brett Rogers. He nodded. Then she pleaded with him to beat the hell out of her jerk boyfriend. "I know you can kick his ass," she said. "You're Brett Rogers."
As Rogers finishes up an interview, Reilly explains the reason they took the fight.
"Look, when you get the chance to fight the best fighter in the world, you take it," he says. "You can't pass up the opportunity. You have to fight him. What happens if he breaks his leg and can't fight again? You can't pass up the chance. But it's surreal. You've seen the guy a hundred times on YouTube. Soon enough, you'll be in the cage with him. And out of respect to Fedor, you better try to kill him."
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