An eight-man tournament conceived as a challenge to the UFC's heavyweight division, a yearlong competition comprised of some of the finest heavyweight MMA fighters outside the industry leader, a throwback to the mega-events of Japan's heyday -- the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix took one step closer to its denouement Saturday in Cincinnati.
Did anyone care?
A few thousand in the Queen City, give or take, depending on your vantage point in the U.S. Bank Arena. The American Kickboxing Academy, who's fighters went 4-0. A former champion and an unheralded underdog. Maybe a few hundred thousand watching at home on TV, at best.
Despite the best efforts of those who conceived it, the tournament seems to be losing steam as it trudges forward.
Of course, the amount of effort put into Strikeforce these days is up for debate. By audience numbers, the amount of press covering the show, and the incessant distractions offered the week of the event by its new parent company, the six-year-old MMA promotion appears headed the way of the dodo bird.
Word is Zuffa LLC, the UFC's parent company that in March purchased Strikeforce, wants to keep the promotion around as a feeder league to groom talent for the big show. Strikeforce would then serve as a matchmaking laboratory and perhaps keep competitors from filling a programming gap.
With fall on its way, Strikeforce broadcast partner Showtime will soon decide whether that's something they can live with. Most of the fighters who move the needle ratings-wise have been snatched away, or are soon to be snatched away by the UFC. If Showtime decides to renew a broadcast agreement for another two years, they will probably need to lower ratings expectations.
In the meantime, though, Strikeforce fighters are still doing their jobs. Four out of five bouts on Saturday's main card ended in finishes, including tournament competitors Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier, who blasted their semifinal opponents in the first round. The former champion and unheralded underdog are now set to fight at the grand prix finals, which are scheduled for early 2012. The winner earns a tournament belt.
Beyond that, things are up in the air.
Sadly, the public doesn't appear to be interested. Maybe it's apathetic Cincinnati fans, or last week's saga of Nick Diaz and The Reem, or a lack of resources invested in a sister promotion. Whatever the case, Strikeforce is struggling to hold the spotlight. The promotion is a secondary brand now, and it's always been a stretch the idea of giving consumers a diluted product.
It's a shame. For all its twists and turns, the tournament addresses an important question: who's the best heavyweight outside the UFC?
The answer may not be the most popular. But the finalists have been better when its counted.
There's still one more test to go. Here's hoping fans get behind it.
And now, a stock watch:
Josh Barnett: The former UFC champ was a heavy favorite to win his semifinal fight against the aggressive but historically uneven Sergei Kharitonov, and he certainly didn't disappoint. With 32 seconds left in the first round, Barnett had the Russian tapping for dear life.
A few moments earlier, things didn't look so certain. Kharitonov inched forward, fists at the ready. Barnett was dangerously planted, back closing on the cage. Kharitonov had clobbered the last guy he cornered, former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski. For a moment, it looked like Barnett's ego may have gotten the better of his common sense.
Then Barnett landed an overhand right off Kharitonov's left and broke forward. The ploy was outed: Lull the Russian into a state of confidence, then steal it. Make your opponent play your game.
And that's exactly what Kharitonov did in the few minutes he survived. Barnett raised the concern of a takedown. He got the clinch. He expertly swept and took mount position. From there, it was just a matter of time before he locked in the submission, and Kharitonov submitted -- really, just folded -- when he tried to escape the dominant position and found himself trapped in an arm triangle.
This tournament looks like a showcase for Barnett's return to glory, and not a moment too soon. He's wasted years of his athletic prime on the benches, or fighting off the radar. That's a shame, but it's partly his doing. His obstinacy hasn't done him any favors in this business. However, the Strikeforce Grand Prix is perhaps the best chance to get on the right foot, and with the competition likely to serve as a precursor for a run in the UFC, he's in the catbird seat if he wins it all.
How will he do it? My guess is the clinch and top control. His strength and grappling acumen is such that an escape is almost impossible for those who find themselves under him. But he's also got hands -- stand with trade with him and you'll get trouble there, too. And as he showed again on Saturday, he's also a cunning tactician. Indeed, a tough draw for fellow finalist Daniel Cormier.
Daniel Cormier: The two-time Olympian is as of Saturday crossed off the prospect list.
The tournament alternate came into his semifinal bout with Antonio Silva a modest underdog. Connoisseurs knew he had the tools to make it to the finals. But he was up against a bigger and more experienced fighter in Silva, who in February pulled off a major upset with a win over Fedor Emelianenko in the quarterfinals.
With a first-round knockout of Silva, there's no more doubt: Cormier is the real deal. He can punch, kick, and wrestle, and he's not a bad learner, either. The overhand right with which he floored Silva was the same one used by teammate Mike Kyle against the Brazilian, and it had the same effect.
All the while, Cormier was calmer than a picnic. Nothing in Silva's arsenal fazed him. A kick to the ribs? Sweep the leg. A flurry of charging punches? An escape and a smile.
Now, the response: a short right uppercut and a few hammerfists. That's a wrap, folks.
Can Cormier beat a more experienced, more technically savvy Barnett? It's certainly possible. He has great hands on the inside. He's got poise. He's an accomplished wrestler. Is he the better grappler? We'll see. Barnett's game is a different animal than most of the heavyweights out there right now. You can take him down, but you could be in more danger of getting submitted. Cormier may choose instead to keep the bearded assassin at bay with fists.
But with or without the Grand Prix belt, his skills bode well for the UFC. And isn't that where all this is headed?
Luke Rockhold: Like his American Kickboxing Academy teammate Cormier, Rockhold walked into the Strikeforce cage an underdog -- a big one. He was less experienced than his champion counterpart, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, and he was coming off rust-inducing 19-month layoff due to multiple injuries. He had eight fights to Souza's 17.
All of that didn't matter much. Rockhold was just a little bit better in every facet of the five-round title affair, outpointing Souza to take the Strikeforce middleweight belt. In a fight with very little lateral movement, he more frequently was the aggressor and kept the decorated grappler from taking him down.
As durable as Rockhold proved to be, it's too early to call him the future of the middleweight division. Souza did a little too well in the standup portion of the fight, which raise questions about the new champ's ability to handle some of the UFC's precision strikers. But in the end, he may not have much choice. Beyond one-time challenger Tim Kennedy, there are few logical challengers in Strikeforce.
Muhammed Lawal: It's anyone's guess why jiu-jitsu ace Roger Gracie chose to trade punches with Lawal. Did he not watch tape? Did he not see the former wrestler's fluid and fast hands? Whatever possessed him to slug it out, King Mo sure didn't mind. Well, he did mind the knee Gracie planted on his face, but holes he saw in the expert grappler's defense gave him all the confidence to end the fight in the first with two well-placed punches.
The more interesting subplot to emerge from the bout -- a mismatch in hindsight -- is the corner Lawal has painted himself into. The former Strikeforce champ afterward told reporters that he isn't interested in a title shot if current king Dan Henderson vacates the belt for a trip to the UFC. That's tough, because as much as anyone can tell, Henderson is going for the bigger fights and the bigger paydays in the UFC.
So what's next? There's a rematch with Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, the man who took his belt. That's an OK start. Gegard Mousasi for a belt? He's not interested.
Is it that Lawal sees the writing on the wall with Strikeforce? If the promotion is to fold into the UFC, is there a better deal in running out his old contract and cutting a new deal? Or is the value of Strikeforce's vacated belt so little that he won't on principle fight for it?
Whatever his reasoning, the king apparently doesn't have much use for the throne.
Pat Healy: He seemingly gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield from the promotion, but with a second-round submission victory over Maximo Blanco, Healy has won three consecutive fights and doused the flames on two hot prospects. Sengoku standout Blanco had enjoyed a six-fight win streak before Healy tapped him with a modified rear naked choke, and Lyle Beerbohm's undefeated run came to an end when Healy outpointed him in February. Just what does the veteran need to do to get a marquee opponent?
Jordan Mein: He's had some rough patches in his career, but for those in the know, Mein has for some time been one of the best kept secrets in Canada. He finally got a chance to shine against Evangelista Santos, and after a slow start, finished the Brazilian in the third with a series of brutal elbows. A fight with Bobby Voelker seems like the next logical step to solidify his status as the contender in the Strikeforce welterweight division.
Antonio Silva: In the end, Silva's exit is significant not for the upset of Cormier but the grudge match it extinguished. Perhaps the only easy sell in a tournament growing duller by the week was a bout between the Silva and Barnett. A rivalry had been birthed following Silva's upset over Fedor Emelianenko and nurtured in the week leading up to Saturday's event. Silva thought Barnett was an arrogant two-face. Barnett thought Silva an oversensitive, gossiping behemoth. Of the possible matchups remaining, it was the only one with any personal heat.
And now it's gone. Really, it was the moment Cormier's first big punch sent the Fedor slayer to the floor. Every subsequent shot further separated Silva from his senses, and Cormier wisely didn't let him recover by playing in guard. It was only a matter of time before the final cut.
Silva is 3-2 in the Strikeforce heavyweight division (2-2 if you leave out his win over a bulked-up Mike Kyle). He's a tough fight for anyone, but far too stationary a target for fast-handed strikers he can't get to the ground. He'll win more than he'll lose, but at the moment, a title is a faraway beach, as he likes to say.
Ronaldo Souza: The now-former champ is in a tough spot. He's beaten pretty much every middleweight of note in his division. Where does he go after a decision loss to Rockhold, a guy with half his fights? There's Tim Kennedy, who is chomping at the bit for a rematch. But that won't happen any time soon unless Kennedy passes on a title shot. There are always lower-tier guys to fight, but will the former champ want them? He's fought top-tier opposition since his Strikeforce debut, and -- if you haven't sensed a theme already -- there's not much of that left.
Souza's striking has evolved light years beyond other grapplers of his stature who have made the transition into MMA, and that's a huge feat in and of itself. I think the fight was a lot closer than the scores would indicate -- he nearly knocked Rockhold out in the first round, and, for my money, outstruck the striker in several exchanges -- but there's no doubt the ex-champ is still a work in progress. Luckily, he's only 31, and that means there's still time for him to grow. Don't count him out just yet.
Roger Gracie: It's hard to imagine the betting lines were so narrow between the grappling ace and his ex-champion counterpart. Lawal had more fighting experience, a host of high-level MMA training, world-class kickboxing training, a laundry list of amateur wrestling titles, a win over a champion...need I go on? If the fight hit the ground, things got interesting. Beyond that, it was a gimme.
Baffling as it is that Gracie chose to try his luck on the feet, he wasn't going to have an easy time on the mat. Lawal's skills could nullify the advanced jiu-jitsu basics he had used to dispatch a shaky list of opponents. Could you say Gracie had been thoroughly vetted when his previous resume was dominated by those far, far past their prime? Doubtful. You only needed a few seconds to figure out he was out of his league as he bounced around the cage with Lawal. His shoulders were stiff, his body rigid. Sure, he might get off a few shots, and he did. But he would be eventually get caught, and he was.
At 29, it's probably too late for Gracie to catch up. It was always a gamble that he'd would ever amount to anything in MMA, and a lot of people wanted to believe out of nostalgia and reverence to his last name. Unfortunately, there's the cold hard reality that grappling is only one aspect of the game, and the other parts of Gracie's combat IQ score low.
Yoel Romero Palacio: It seemed silly to give a guy with four fights an ex-champion in his promotional debut, but there was good reason. Romero looked like a beast in his highlight reel. He was a silver medalist in wrestling at the 2000 Olympic games. He was an absolute physical specimen. Everything looked perfect on the surface.
Things were far from that on fight night. In fact, Palacio was a disaster against Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. Bouncing side to side for minutes, he hardly threw a strike in the first round. But he didn't seem to care when he was rightly warned for timidity. A few striking attempts followed, and then he clowned Cavalcante. Sure, it was probably part of some master plan to draw "Feijao" in and bring down the hammer. He simply waited too long. Eventually, Cavalcante exploited the breach. A spinning backfist knocked Romero on his can, and he went nighty-night shortly thereafter.
There's still this sense that some beastly talent lurks with Romero. Hopefully, he'll show it next time.
Evangelista Santos: No doubt, the welterweight looks sharper at welterweight than as a blown-up light heavyweight. He's more patient, too, and measures his offense instead of shotgunning it. He had a few moments against the younger Mein. But he ultimately wilted under the Canadian's pressure, and at 1-3 in Strikeforce, it's clear his 14 years in the game have caught up to him.