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 apparent animosity. I say apparent because, if we're going to believe that men as big and tough as these two are bent out of shape over such trivial things, then maybe we should have our heads examined. In any event, it's a fine alternative to Overeem vs. Barnett, which is the best bank for the buck in terms of name recognition and sale-ability.
Now, a stockwatch:
Josh Barnett (30-5): Love him or hate him, you can't deny the former UFC champ's talent. It took him all of about a minute to show Saturday's crowd that Brett Rogers had no chance when he took the fight to the mat and soon took the mount. The only real surprise was how quickly he did so considering the work he's done on his standup, not to mention the taste he has for hanging out in his opponents' strongest territory. This time around, Barnett played it smart, considering the tournament schedule facing him later this year. His tact wasn't lost on the audience. It screamed for him to finish his overmatched foe and booed when he didn't. When he finally got around to putting Rogers away early in the second round, though, all the Bud Light-fueled bloodlust turned to joy. Some didn't like his verbal victory lap, but hey, what do you expect from Barnett? He's as close to a "kayfabe" as any MMA fighter, and the guy hadn't fought in over a year. I'm all for anything that breaks from the monotony of fight rituals, as long as they don't become tired acts in and of themselves.
Jorge Masvidal (22-6): From backyard brawler to local standout to possible lightweight contender, Masvidal appears to be hitting his stride after a unanimous decision over onetime challenger K.J. Noons. If you asked Masvidal, of course, he's always been a contender, he just hasn't gotten his shot. He's also caught some pretty tough breaks in eight years on the pro scene.
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.
Daniel Cormier (8-0): The decorated amateur wrestler and former Olympic hopeful is quickly drifting out of prospect territory and into the neighborhood of future contender. Cormier held batting practice on onetime UFC heavyweight contender Jeff Monson and didn't once use his grappling skills. That was by design, of course. He thought it unwise to give Monson, an experienced grappler in his own right, the chance to threaten with a submission. So he mercilessly beat Monson on the fee. Somehow, "The Snowman" didn't go down despite being flash KO'd on several occasions. He should have, though. Playing pinata is dangerous to your health.
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.
Conor Heun (9-4): It takes a special type of tough not to tap when your elbow is about to pop out of place, and then it does. Heun is just that guy. Time after time, dangerous grappler Mango Almeida put him in trouble with submissions. Heun deftly escaped. But one armbar was Mango's, dead to rights. You saw the crank, saw the defense, and still, there was no way out for Heun. It was over, finito. When Heun pulled out, I was pretty sure there would be some kind of damage. As it turns out, there was. Heun fought on with a busted arm and earned a unanimous decision. That's not too wise for career longevity, but coming off two losses, it was likely do-or-die time for him. So while there might be a slight clicking sound in his arm for a while, he'll live to fight another day.
Alistair Overeem (35-11): Despite all the awkwardness, Overeem was clearly the dominant fighter in his bout against Werdum. Yes, the stats said the Brazilian was the more active fighter, the one who landed more total punches than Overeem threw in the three-round fight. Those strikes, however, exploded like pop-its compared to the TNT that detonated when Overeem let his hands go. Because that didn't happen as often, people have said that he looked hesitant. But there's a big difference between hesitancy and patience. To me, Overeem looked very much like a K-1 fighter fighting in MMA, picking his shots for damage and making sure he was never in trouble on the ground. When he connected, he hurt Werdum, who, as the fight wore on, rose from unsuccessful takedown attempts like a kid who had just been roused from sleep for school. Seeing the fight live, you HEARD the difference in power.
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.
Chad Griggs (11-1): A first-round TKO victory over champ Overeem's big brother, Valentijn, made it three in a row for the Arizona paramedic. But I'm holding off on a buy for Griggs because the way-past-his-prime Overeem wilted as quickly as the punches arrived. So did Bobby Lashley, the former pro wrestler who put Griggs on the map. There's no doubt that Griggs is a scary guy when he's throwing bombs in the first round. But I get the feeling that he's going to run into trouble when he fights the heavyweights with solid boxing and a good wrestling foundation. Griggs has been running parallel to Daniel Cormier as an alternate in the grand prix, and a meeting between the two is inevitable if injuries do not surface in the tournament.
Fabricio Werdum (14-5-1): Ugly, yes, but Werdum did win a major battle in throwing off Overeem's rhythm with his stuttering offense, a mixture of butt-flops and headlong charges. He won the third round on my card by being the more aggressive striker. But he most certainly lost the first two given his inability to get the fight to the ground, his petulant insistence that Overeem submit to his kind of fight, and his heel-dragging when Overeem refused to oblige. I suspect the year away from competition did a number on Werdum. He looked nothing like the confident fighter who went three rounds with Silva or, far more spectacularly, submitted Emelianenko. Instead, he looked like a fighter of limited skillset who was outclassed.
Brett Rogers (11-3): Now 0-3 in his most recent big-show appearances, it's all too clear that Rogers is going to take a big step back in competition. It was perfect timing when he called out the then red-hot Kimbo Slice three years ago, and even better timing two years ago when he caught former Andrei Arlovski on his way down. But the jump to Emelianenko was an impossibly steep task, no matter how well he availed himself before he was knocked out. To go from that to a fight six months later with Alistair Overeem reeked of bad business sense. Rogers had gaping holes in his game and needed time to further evolve. In hindsight, perhaps it was just take-the-money-and-run. Now, with another submission loss to a top-tier guy, it's going to be a long time before we see Rogers on a big-show marquee. He's going to need to start all over again in the heavyweight division.
K.J. Noons (10-4): The former EliteXC champion is in a rough spot. After tapering back down to lightweight, Noons is already on bad footing with a loss to Masvidal in a title eliminator. With Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz vacating his belt to return to the UFC, it would seem that class is looking pretty good right now.
Valentijn Overeem (31-29): The 15-year veteran looked good in his first Strikeforce bout against Ray Sefo, but it wasn't a true measure of his abilities. Sefo had little ground game to speak of, and hadn't fought in over a year. Overeem might have employed the same strategy for Griggs, a big puncher who's untested on the ground. But when Griggs unloaded upstairs, it seemed like Overeem wanted to be anywhere but inside the cage. Might be time for the older Overeem to hang it up.