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."
With the grappling and striking portion of his workout complete, Rogers moves on to plyometrics, leaving his fight gloves on a table, drenched in sweat and smelling ripe. A trainer guides Rogers through a hellacious sequence of platform push-ups, medicine-ball tosses, box jumps, dead lifts, and one-arm chest presses, capped by a round of shadow boxing.
"GO! GO! GO!" the trainer says. "Three. Four. Switch. Switch. Punch his face. Punch his face. Very good. Very good. Beautiful. Beautiful. Okay. Switch. One more round."
The pace is brutal, but Rogers continues to push. He ignores the pain, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead. Thirty seconds left. He speeds up his punches. His arms quiver. Ten seconds left. He combos with uppercuts, jabs, left hooks. "C'mon, Brett! C'mon! Two...one."
It's over. Brett takes deep breaths, drinks a gulp of water. But before his night ends, there's one more interview. He lifts the Blackberry to his ear.
"Do you think you stand a chance against Fedor?"
DOWN A RESIDENTIAL street lined with maple trees sits a five-car garage. Reilly punches in a security code and a door slides up on its tracks.
"Behold, the humble origins of Team Bison," he says.
Inside is a stack of wrestling mats, a raised wooden platform, and an odd assortment of gloves and shin guards. The walls had to be rebuilt with plywood, as his fighters busted through the original drywall.
Close to five years ago, Reilly watched a hulking black dude walk up his driveway, asking if he could learn mixed martial arts.
"Brett was one of these guys that says they're here to become 'Ultimate Fighters,'" recalls Reilly. "Usually, those guys don't last."
At the time, Rogers was busy working two jobs. He'd wake up early in the morning to deliver the Pioneer Press. Then he'd commute over to Sam's Club and work a full shift changing tires. By the time he reached Reilly's garage, he was ready to take out his frustrations.
Rogers grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, possibly the toughest 12 blocks in America. Now razed, the failed urban experiment became synonymous with violence— a cluster of low-income apartments where snipers fired at cops, teens slept in bathtubs, and thugs raped and poisoned a nine-year-old girl, leaving her in a stairwell.
If not for his grandmother, Rogers might be dead. She moved him to St. Paul when he was in fourth grade.
"My grandmother...she's everything, man. I mean, everything," says Rogers. "And, you know, she was hesitant about me doing this. As that's what she took me up here to avoid. But she's coming around. I just had to tell her I could be professional with this."
Unlike Fedor, Rogers didn't participate in combat sports at an early age. He played basketball at St. Paul's Harding High School, and later at Riverland Community College in Austin, Minnesota. But after seeing MMA on TV, he decided to try his hand at it.
Rogers proved to be a quick study. With seven months of practice under his belt, he had his first fight against a Native American brawler with the appropriate name of Stan Strong. The battle took place at an outdoor cage in Wisconsin. Eleven seconds into the second round, Rogers connected with a one-two combination to Strong's chin, turning his body to butter.
"I think we got a total of like $60 for that fight," recalls Rogers's wife, Tiuana. "It was enough to pay for a dinner and that's it."
Rogers kept at it. Despite the low pay and long hours, some part of him knew he could be good at this sport, possibly one of the best.
His next three fights brought nothing but validation: KO. TKO. KO. All in the first round.
With the collection of knockouts, he dubbed himself "The Grim." Like the mythical reaper, whatever he touched dropped dead.
"My name is the Grim," Rogers says. "I be the soul snatcher."
His victories caught the eye of EliteXC, a nascent UFC rival partnered with cable channel Showtime. EliteXC gave Rogers a test fight with Ralph Kelly. Rogers massacred him in the first round. The company promptly signed Rogers to a three-fight contract. Rogers dispatched his next two opponents, James Thompson and Jon Murphy, in the first rounds.
Meanwhile, EliteXC was heavily pushing Kimbo Slice, a street brawler who rose to fame through YouTube videos of bare-knuckle brawls in backyards. He was the company's superstar in the making.
But Slice proved far less fearsome in the cage than he had on YouTube. Where Rogers had knocked out Thompson, Slice struggled, and at one point appeared to tap out to a guillotine choke.
During a post-fight press conference, Rogers called out Slice.
"A man is a man," Rogers said. "You did tap out. You did tap out, I was right there."
Slice jumped up from his seat. "That sounds like a challenge, big dog."
Security stepped in to separate the two fighters. This was bad blood, and it was real. EliteXC promised that the two would settle it in the cage.
But before they could meet, Slice had one more obligation. He was scheduled to fight UFC legend Ken Shamrock, an aging gatekeeper. But in the hours leading up to the fight, Shamrock cut himself while practicing with his teammates. Scrambling to save the show, EliteXC substituted Seth Petruzelli, a pink-haired also-ran from The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show.
At the start of the fight, Slice charged Petruzelli, who backpedaled and threw a defensive jab that found Kimbo's chin and brought an unceremonious end to the Kimbo hype.
With its most bankable star compromised, EliteXC folded up the tent and went bankrupt.
For Rogers, who had signed a contract for another three fights thinking he'd get a high-profile bout with Slice, it meant he was out of work. And EliteXC wouldn't let Rogers out of his contract. He was an asset to be sold to the highest bidder.
With no fights on the horizon and three children to feed, Rogers returned to his job at Sam's Club.
"I'm a survivor, man," Rogers says.
Salvation came in the form of Strikeforce, an upstart MMA promoter from San Jose. In February, Strikeforce purchased some of the remains of EliteXC and announced a three-year deal with Showtime.
Strikeforce contacted Reilly the following month, asking if Brett could be ready to fight in three to four weeks.
"I told them we would," recalls Reilly. "If we can fight on the main card."
Strikeforce paid Rogers part of his purse up front so he could quit the tire business and prepare for the bout. He knocked out Abongo Humphrey in the second round with a combination of knees, fists, and unhinged aggression.
Two months later, Rogers came in as an extreme underdog against former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski. The result was one of the biggest upsets of the year.
The new Rogers was the same fighter, but with a heightened urgency. It was time to strike at success with his oversized fists.
IN LATE SEPTEMBER, a photographer from EA Sports flies into Minneapolis to digitally map Rogers's body for inclusion in EA's MMA video game.
The photographer has Rogers bug out his eyes, scowl, and grin. Next, Rogers holds out his arm for a punch, rotates 45 degrees, waits for the shutter to snap, then rotates another 45 degrees, until he's rotated a full 360. The photographer apologizes for the awkward nature of the shoot.
"No problem," says Rogers. "Of everything I've been doing, this is the one thing I'm geeked about."
More photos are taken—of his feet, back, knees, and calves. Next come close-ups of his tattoos and hands. Then the photographer stands on a box to get shots of his mohawk before asking Rogers to pull up his shorts and show off his quads.
Reluctantly, Rogers complies. "I don't know if this is the best look for me."
The photographer continues to shoot. Fellow fighters in the gym whistle and catcall. "Brett, you sure this is an EA photo shoot?"
"Don't you worry," he responds. "'Cause when I'm finished here I'll be over there to beat your ass."
Rogers looks to the photographer with an apologetic shrug.
When the shoot's all finished, Rogers thanks the photographer numerous times, reiterating his excitement about being a character in the game.
He knows it's a far cry from Sam's Club.
"Been a long time coming, man," he says. "Too damn long, you know?"
ONE EVENING IN October, Mark Dale watches 30 fighters spar on the mats. With a granite build and graying hair, he looks like a retired drill sergeant.
"Fighting brings in every single type of person out there," he says, surveying the gym. "Training in front of us is everyone from a genetic scientist at the University of Minnesota to a convicted felon with Norwegian Power tattoos."
Among the group is Emanuel Newton, who flew to Minnesota to pretend to be Fedor. Newton imitates the movements of the Russian, sending fast, looping punches, working underhooks for sambo throws, and always searching for a kimura.
"Fedor's not that technical of a fighter," says Newton. "He just does what he does extremely well. But this sport is evolving fast. That's the reason he can be beat."
For a fighter known mostly for his punching power, Rogers spends an inordinate amount of time working on grappling. In one instance, he rotates from his guard, leans his shin into the side of his partner's head, pushes off with his fist, and stands up. Reilly looks on and barks his approval.
"That's his world down there," says Rogers. "If I feel him going for an arm or leg, I'm going to get the hell up out of there."
If Rogers beats Fedor, it will turn the MMA rankings upside down. In a sport where anything can happen, Fedor's nearly perfect record of 30-1 is unheard of. For years, he reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion, and is still considered by many to be the world's toughest fighter.
But as Rogers walks off the mats with his teammates, drenched in sweat and glistening in the fluorescent lights, he has a smile on face. The fight can't come soon enough for him.
"I'm ready to go," Rogers says. "I'm ready today. Man, I want that guy's chin. But I'll be patient. I got a week to crystallize my techniques. But I could go today, right now. This minute."