Next weekend the UFC will showcase its star-studded heavyweight division, devoting a full main card to the big guys, including a championship bout and a former champ's shot at redemption. Every top heavyweight who's not injured, unlicensed or otherwise engaged will be there in Las Vegas.
OK, Daniel Cormier is not a UFC fighter, but he showed Saturday night in San Jose, Calif., that he ought to be. In the most impressive performance of his still-formative MMA career, the 33-year-old, two-time Olympic wrestler remained unbeaten (10-0) by taking apart the best fighter he's ever faced, onetime UFC titleholder Josh Barnett, to win the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix.
The victory earned Cormier a shiny championship belt that he'll defend against ... whom? Whom does Strikeforce have to challenge Cormier?
The answer is no one.
We already knew that Cormier, irrespective of his doughy physique, is an elite athlete. His fourth-place finish in the 2004 Olympics and his 2001 status as the best collegiate 184-pound wrestler not named Cael Sanderson earned him that acknowledgment. But Saturday night's dominant unanimous-decision victory, coming on the heels of his KO of Fedor-smasher Antonio Silva last September when he entered the Grand Prix as an alternate, sewed up Cormier's standing as a top-shelf MMA fighter. And top-shelf MMA fighters belong not in Strikeforce but in its alpha cousin in the Zuffa corporate family, the UFC.
Cormier is not politicking for that, though. "I just want to focus on the fact that I just beat Josh Barnett," he said in the cage after the fight. "This is something that a year ago I never thought I could do."
Many didn't think he could do it even as this evening approached. Cormier has been in the sport for less than three years, and before his upset of Silva, he'd never faced anyone in the top tier of heavyweights. Barnett, by contrast, has fought a who's who of the sport. Among his 31 conquests have been Dan Severn, Randy Couture and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and he'd won eight straight bouts dating back to 2008.
But Barnett's time ran out.
Right from the start of Saturday night's main event, Cormier was the crisper, more fluid fighter, throwing combinations ... and even throwing Barnett. The 248-pounder was lifted high in the air and sent crashing to the mat on one third-round takedown, which ended with Cornier in side control. Other takedowns were not so dramatic, but just about every time Daniel ended up on top, he did some damage with potent elbows. No less important, he never allowed Barnett, who has 17 career submission victories, to put him in danger. It was an all-around beating.
Clearly, training at San Jose's own American Kickboxing Academy with the likes of ex-UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and Strikeforce middleweight belt holder Luke Rockhold has transformed Cormier from merely a wrestler to a complete mixed martial artist. "Those guys kick my ass every day, man," he said. "That means I can go with anybody else in the world."
Which is to say, the UFC.
The co-main event featured another Strikeforce fighter who's been linked to a likely UFC future. Just two weeks ago, after Nate Diaz earned a UFC lightweight title shot with an emphatic win over Jim Miller, he celebrated by singing not his own praises but those of a Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teammate. "I'm trying to be the number one in this world," said Nate. "There's only one person above all of us, and that's Gilbert 'El Niño' Melendez, the true world champion lightweight."
On Saturday night, Melendez got his chance to show the world that Diaz knows talent when he sees it.
Melendez' successful defense of his Strikeforce belt was no more a thing of beauty than his face was after Josh Thomson got done with it. Gil's performance probably did not have UFC champ Ben Henderson shaking in his boots. But Melendez, fighting a man he'd fought twice before and who matches up well with him, withstood some dangerous moments and persevered. And that is the stuff of a UFC fighter. Ask Frankie Edgar.
"I thought I won most of the rounds," Melendez (21-2) said over the crowd's boos after the split decision was announced. "I know he took my back on the fourth round. That last round he took me down, but I was winning on bottom, punching him. He was just holding me down." More boos.
Melendez actually was a better fighter Saturday night than he was a talker. Perhaps feeling defensive in the face of the booing fans, he evaluated his night thusly: "It's just not as motivating. I have everything to lose. He has everything to gain. I worked hard in the workout room, but it's a little more exciting to work out, it's easier to get up and run, it's easier to push and spar when I'm going to fight someone who'll raise my stock. I'm in a lose-lose situation against Josh. Even though I won, look, I still lost."
There's truth in that, but it nonetheless had the smell of excuse-making, which did not sit well with the fans. But Melendez ended up being saved by the man who'd just spent 25 minutes punching him in the face. "Please don't boo Gilbert," Thomson (19-5, one no-contest) began when it was his turn at the microphone. "He's one of the best fighters, if not the best, in the world. Please. He's a great fighter, man, and not to mention he lives here in the Bay area."
That changed the energy, and cheers rained down on the cage. And the good noise reached a crescendo when Thomson, who now has beaten Melendez once and lost to him twice, posed a question to the crowd: "Who wants to see a fourth fight?"