And then there were four.
The semifinals of the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix are now set for the fall, with Alistair Overeem squaring off against Antonio Silva and Josh Barnett meeting Sergei Kharitonov.
The tournament finals will be in February 2012, exactly one year after the competition kicked off with its first quarterfinal event at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J., Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said after "Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum."
Unlike the first event, the second qualifier on Saturday offered no upsets. In fact, it had little in the way of competitive bouts. Overeem advanced in a stuttering non-starter of a fight against Fabricio Werdum, and Barnett manhandled an overmatched Brett Rogers to clinch his semifinal spot. The buzz of Silva's TKO of Fedor Emelianenko and Kharitonov's KO of Andrei Arlovski have long worn off.
Overeem and Barnett were the betting favorites going into the fight, and they got the job done, though Barnett fared much better than the Strikeforce champ when he finished Rogers in the second round. Still, it was a slow night of MMA, considering the promotion's finish-heavy events of the past year. Seven of the 10 fights went to decision, and the card met an unsatisfying end when Overeem and Werdum couldn't agree on the format of their fight, limping and laying their way toward the scorecards. Boos rained down at the American Airlines Center. (We've been hearing a lot of that these days.)
Consequently, Silva's odds of defeating Overeem are likely to get sweeter in light of Overeem's performance. In fact, a win over the once-unbeatable Emelianenko in the quarterfinals may actually convince some that Silva can take out the Strikeforce champ. It's been a while since Overeem faced an opponent of greater physical stature, and Silva may choose to replicate his strategy for Emelianenko in grounding the fight early and punishing from top position. That's a big weight to carry for Overeem, who will, of course, look to employ his considerable power on his feet and keep Silva at bay with punches, knees and a good sprawl.
Barnett, meanwhile, won't get as much of a spread against Kharitonov, a fighter who's coming off a brutal knockout of Andrei Arlovski. The advantage in technical boxing goes to the Russian; he has heavy hands and throws better striking combinations. Things even out somewhat on the ground, though Barnett is better overall at controlling position on the canvas. Given what we saw on Saturday, it's likely Barnett will use the same sort of control he did with Rogers to neutralize Kharitonov on the ground. It will then be Kharitonov's job to get back to his feet, where Barnett is more vulnerable.
From what I've seen so far in the quarterfinals, I think Silva may take Overeem out by decision if he's able to stay mobile and time his takedown attempts. And Barnett is the better play in the other bracket, as his striking skills are good enough to keep Kharitonov away and his ground skills are good enough to earn a decision.
That could mean a Silva vs. Barnett final, which already has some modest hype behind it. Barnett was none too pleased when "Bigfoot," fresh off his career triumph over Emelianenko, called him "a little bit arrogant" and he fired back in kind. That led to another online salvo and more
Now, a stockwatch:
Masvidal would have to live down a spectacular inverted triangle loss to Toby Imada in Bellator, and losses to the unheralded Luis Palomino and onetime welterweight challenger Paul Daley would keep him from cresting into the UFC. With Strikeforce, he's gotten match-ups that better suit his smooth counters and quick takedowns; Noons is just the kind of aggressive striker for him to pick apart. Champ Melendez could be that guy, too, if he doesn't simply play the ground-and-pound game. I suspect he will, in what might be Melendez's final hurdle before moving into the octagon. And while I don't particularly like Masvidal's chances, he'll put up a good fight.
The win should open the door to a higher level of competition for Cormier. Talking to him after the fight, he played it cool and said that as long as he stays active, he's on the right path. But there's a strong subtext that bigger things are on the horizon.
Overeem did run low on gas as the bout wore on, no matter what he said afterward, and that's a big concern moving into a match against Silva, to say nothing of a possible match-up with Barnett down the line. Unfortunately, I suspect that much of the strategy used by Overeem for Werdum will follow for Silva. The champ expects, as he told me after the fight, to spend much of the match fending off the takedown. These things happen when you're a K-1 champ. Although sprawl-and-brawl is effective as a strategy, the wave of adulation he's received from fans -- owing mostly to a string of impressive achievements this past year and partly to a slick, smart, companion PR campaign -- may break much smaller if that's the play moving forward.