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Former tire shop worker faces MMA’s best

JON KRAWCZYNSKI
AP Sports Writer

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) – When Brett Rogers steps into the cage on Saturday night against Fedor Emelianenko, he will be face to face with the most feared fighter in the world.

Emelianenko is the mixed martial arts version of Mike Tyson in his prime – mysterious, ferocious and seemingly unbeatable.

A victory by Rogers in front of a national television audience on CBS would be akin to Buster Douglas’s stunning knockout of Tyson back in 1990, and the man who hails from one of the toughest housing projects in the country knows he’s viewed as that type of underdog.

But it beats changing tires for a living.

As late as April, Rogers worked at a Sam’s Club in the St. Paul suburb of Woodbury, changing tires to put food on the table for his wife and three young children. He also happened to be one of the fastest-rising challengers in MMA, going 10-0 with nine knockouts to earn a shot against the man simply known as Fedor – which rhymes with Vader – in his highly anticipated debut for Strikeforce this weekend.

“There’s very, very few fighters who have the choice between Harvard and the cage,” said Rogers’ trainer, Mike Reilly. “You don’t run into a lot of blue bloods who are willing to throw down. Most fighters come from very humble backgrounds, but rarely do you see a fighter like Brett who remains humble.”

Rogers spent much of his young life on Chicago’s South Side, including some time in the notorious Cabrini Green projects. He fled to Minnesota with his grandmother around the age of 12, settling in St. Paul.

“We came from nothing,” Rogers said. “We had nothing.”

He played basketball in high school and junior college, then started in amateur boxing before finding his way into the no-nonsense world of MMA about six years ago. He thought his big break came in 2007 when he signed with EliteXC, a rival startup to the more influential UFC.

Rogers knocked out Jon Murphy on the undercard of a CBS-televised fight in 2008 and was thinking that his days changing tires were over. Instead, EliteXC folded and this up-and-coming prize fighter with concrete fists found himself asking for extra shifts at Sam’s Club again.

“I didn’t quit work, but I had dropped myself down to part-time, weekends,” Rogers said. “It got to the point to where I couldn’t get to full-time again. I had to basically hustle and do whatever it took to get some money in my pocket. It was stressed.”

That’s when Strikeforce called, offering a spot in its stable to the hard-punching guy with the big mohawk. Rogers knocked out Abongo Humphrey, then broke through in June by knocking out former UFC heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski in just 22 seconds.

“Knocking out Andrei Arlovski was a life-changing event,” Reilly said. “From that point on, it meant this is your career. This is what you’ll be doing for the next 10 years of your life.”

The victory shot Rogers to the top of the contender list, making him an ideal opponent for Emelianenko’s debut. The 33-year-old Russian star spurned the bigger, more profitable UFC in August for Strikeforce, another upstart promotion that made a big splash by signing the biggest free agent available.

Emelianenko trains in seclusion, speaks very little English and has won 26 straight fights since a controversial loss in Japan in 2000, all of which adds to an aura of invincibility similar to what Tyson had before he stepped into the ring against Douglas.

Analytical and introspective, Rogers has studied Emelianenko’s fights and knows his best chance will come if he can stay off the mat. Grappling isn’t his strong suit, and he hopes to use his five extra inches of height and 30 extra pounds to his advantage on Saturday.

“The opportunity is to be the No. 1 guy in the world,” Reilly said. “Nobody can question it. Somebody else might be wearing a title or whatever, but there’s no question he’ll be No. 1 in the world.”

Rogers’ life has already gained more structure. He was able to quit Sam’s Club for good to focus on fighting full-time, and even bought a house in the suburbs for his family. But he knows the window for earning is small, and a Buster-sized upset of Fedor would surely help.

“My mission is to get the titles, gain respect and, obviously, the money, man,” Rogers said. “I’m young and I’m a father of three. So the way I see it, I’m not going to be fighting forever.

“I’ve got to squeeze as much money as possible until A, I get hurt and can’t fight no more, or B, I’m too old and can’t fight no more.”