The IFL returns Saturday with its first Grand Prix, which was supposed to be the perfect way to push the promotion to the next level.
The season had gone well, and with the Grand Prix the IFL was going to bring in all-stars from each weight class to battle it out live, for the first time, on broadcast television.
Best-laid plans don't always work out. After injuries, contract disputes and more injuries, the IFL was forced to replace some top-tier tournament talent.
Pickens were so slim at 205 pounds that the IFL just decided to scrap the bracket and let Alex Schoenauer (Pictures) of the L.A. Anacondas and the Tokyo Sabres' Vladimir Matyushenko (Pictures) play jump ball for the 205-pound Grand Prix belt.
Schoenauer had an up-and-down year. After losing to Mike Ciesnolevicz (Pictures), he rebounded with two straight wins, including a knockout of Allan Goes (Pictures) in Seattle. Then in the semifinals, he lost a controversial decision to Ciesnolevicz again, preventing his revenge.
After knocking off all four of his IFL opponents in 2007, Matyushenko sees this fight as an opportunity to get a belt that already has his named partially etched into it.
"I care about the belt, and it's not just another fight," Matyushenko said. "This is a tough sport…. It's hard to train for it and not get hurt. You know that fight against Andre Gusmao (Pictures) would be better for me -- he's an exciting fighter -- but things happen."
Gusmao had decimated Ciesnolevicz in the IFL finals, turning heads and appearing to be on a collision course with the owner of the 205 division -- Matyushenko. Compared to Vlady, Gusmao is just a pup, but he's proven to be dangerous on his feet and on the floor. His overwhelming style might have been a decent counter to Matyushenko's typical workmanlike mauling of opponents.
Gusmao was injured, though. A door that shut for him opened for Schoenauer, who recognizes the opportunity in front of him.
"First, being the No. 1 guy, [Matyushenko's] obviously a target, and you have to get past him to be on top," Schoenauer said. "Plus now you have a big incentive with the belt. You know that's a little something too. Beat him, get the belt -- that's two good things. So that's why I've been training my ass off for this fight. I've been training with Bas [Rutten] and a bunch of other good guys, so I'm looking forward to it."
As psyched as Schoenauer is, Matyushenko is unmoved.
"His record's not that great," the Belarusian said. "Good hands possibly … you know, a well-rounded fighter. I don't know what else to say, not good enough to beat me."
Matyushenko knows his strengths, and even with the "possibly" tag he put on Schoenauer's punching, he will likely rely on his usual plan of attack: get dominant position and outwork a smothered opponent.
Schoenauer has basically one shot to win. He would love for Matyushenko to stand and trade with him like "The Janitor" did with Tim Boetsch (Pictures) in the semifinals. At the same time, Matyushenko's wrestling prowess doesn't faze him.
"I work a lot of jiu-jitsu, so I'm comfortable," Schoenauer said. "I don't think he can hold me down."
Both Matyushenko and Schoenauer dealt with disappointment on their respective IFL teams in 2007. Matyushenko's Tokyo Sabres had a great year until they imploded during the semifinals after growing frustrated with coach Ken Yasuda.
"Actually it clouded me a little bit for my last fight," Matyushenko said. "It kind of stepped in my way because we already knew we had lost, but we still had two more fights to go, and it seemed like nobody cared about it."
Matyushenko is certain, however, that there will be no carryover disappointment into his fight with Schoenauer.
Schoenauer's L.A. Anacondas seemed destined for the finals until injuries forced them to fight with a team of last-minute alternates. The UFC veteran's puzzling decision loss didn't help matters.
Now Schoenauer feels that his team's disappointment is in the past, though.
In fact, with three of his Anaconda teammates in the Grand Prix, he hopes to lead the way in restoring his squad's success.