Saturday night could have been a big deal in mixed martial arts -- as big as things get, anyway, outside the UFC. But the Strikeforce Heavyweight World Grand Prix has been leaking stardust ever since it began back in February.
Fedor Emelianenko lost in the tournament's first round. So did Fabricio Werdum, who was fresh off handing Fedor his first defeat in a decade. Then Alistair Overeem, the promotion's champion, was ousted not by a loss but by an injury.
What was left as Strikeforce arrived in Cincinnati for the Grand Prix semifinals?
Just some exhilarating moments of fighting. And a few fascinating stories to go with them.
There was the extraordinary Josh Barnett barely breaking a sweat before tripping Sergei Kharitonov to the mat, ending up in full mount, then calmly battering and controlling the fish-out-of-water Russian until he decided the time was right to clamp on a side choke. That elicited a tapout with 32 seconds left in the first round and secured for Barnett one spot in the tourney final.
There was Daniel Cormier seizing the other berth in the championship match in a no less dominating and way more stunning way, dropping Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva with a concussive overhand right, letting him up to fight some more, then stumbling the big Brazilian several times more with punches before dropping him for good. Cormier finished the fight with a left hook-right uppercut combination, followed by a couple of stiffening hammerfists to the laid-out fighter before the referee jumped in at 3:56 of the round.
So now it'll be Cormier, undefeated but with just nine pro fights, a replacement for Overeem in the tourney, going against the indomitable Barnett (31-5), a veteran who's seen it all -- including seeing the UFC heavyweight championship belt wrapped around his waist (TKO over Randy Couture, 2002).
Wrestling vs. wrestling.
Cormier is a two-time US Olympian in freestyle wrestling, and also an NCAA runnerup. Barnett doesn't have those kinds of credentials, but as MMA wrestlers go, he's been one of the most dominant. And he also knows his way around a pro wrestling ring, making him as dangerous with a microphone as on a mat.
"Catch as catch can is the violent art," Barnett said in an interview in the cage, a smile on his face. "[Brazilian jiu-jitsu] can be the gentle art all day long, and those guys are badasses, but we catch wrestlers, we'll be the violent art. Pro wrestling all the way, baby!"
Don't know if Vince McMahon took notice, but Dana White probably did. If Barnett does to Cormier what he's done to his two Grand Prix opponents so far, he's going to get a knock on his door from his old friends at the UFC. That seemed unfathomable not long ago, with Barnett having been labeled a cheater for being the only fighter in MMA history to fail three drug tests. But he passed the test in Ohio -- both in the lab and in the cage.
So did Cormier, who before Saturday had never fought anyone of the size, stature and skill level of Silva. But he overcame an 11-inch reach disadvantage and a weight difference that was 17 pounds at Friday's weigh-in and no doubt much more by fight night. He, too, might get a call from the UFC before long.
"I fought one of the top five heavyweights in the world and knocked him out," said Cormier, whose KO sent a group of similarly big, roundish bayou country friends leaping from their seats in the front row and celebrating like it was Mardi Gras. "Give me some respect now."
You got it, Daniel. Even from Josh.
"I think I'm going to take down an Olympian. That's what I think I'm going to do," a smiling Barnett said when asked to assess the championship matchup. "I'm going to suplex him for five." He paused, the grin went away, and he continued. "I think Cormier's a great opponent. He's a guy who's competed at the highest level of athletics."
And now he'll get to step in the cage and test his skills in this sport against Barnett, a guy who's been in with many of the greats of MMA. "It'll be an honor. He's a UFC heavyweight champion," said Cormier, sitting at cageside for the Barnett fight with an ice pack on his right hand, which he injured with his first knockdown punch. "But, um" -- a grin spreads across his face -- "that takedown ain't happening."
Not a bad storyline leading into the finale of a tournament that's been on the ropes for months.
Even beyond the Grand Prix, it was a nice night for Strikeforce, which earlier in the evening crowned a new middleweight champion and saw a member of a legendary MMA family lose for the first time.
The new champ is Luke Rockhold, who in his first fight in 19 months out-worked Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza for a unanimous decision victory. The first-time loser is Roger Gracie (4-1), who was tagged by an overhand right by former champ Muhammed Lawal for a TKO at 4:33 of the first.
Fedor? Werdum? Overeem? Who misses them?