May 18, 2012

The green up-and-comer vs. the old veteran seeking to rediscover past glory.

That's one way of looking at Saturday night's long-awaited (or long-ago-forgotten-about, depending on your stamina) finale of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix (10 p.m. ET, Showtime). But that's a simplistic and incomplete view. What makes Daniel Cormier vs. Josh Barnett so intriguing a matchup is its complexity.

Cormier has only nine mixed martial arts fights on his resume, it's true, but in terms of competing at the highest level of sports, he is far from green. He's not gold or silver or bronze, either, because when he competed in the 2004 Olympic he did not win a medal. But Cormier's fourth-place finish in those Summer Games in Athens makes him among the most accomplished wrestlers to compete in the wrestler-laden sport of MMA.

And that's something that tantalizes Barnett. "I'm gonna take down an Olympian!" he said, somewhat gleefully, back in September after he submitted Sergei Kharitonov to set up this finale. (Yes, it's been eight months since that night in Cincinnati when Barnett won his semifinal and Cormier KO'd Antonio Silva in the other, breaking his hand in the process, necessitating the wait. You might call the long spell since then a buzzkill if only this tournament had any buzz left after its main attraction, Fedor Emelianenko, was smashed and eliminated and the then-reigning Strikeforce champion, Alistair Overeem, was pulled from the event for reasons mysterious to this day.)

What continues to captivate our attention is this weekend's match within the match. Will Barnett get the Olympian to the mat? Josh has no formal wrestling credentials, unless you count his participation on the professional wrestling circuit in Japan. (And you shouldn't count that, of course, because pro rasslin' is not a sports competition any more than the Oscars race is a sports competition.) That said, Barnett does have some chops on the mat. He has 17 submissions among his 31 career victories.

That's right, 31 wins to just five losses. Barnett has been using submission wrestling skills to win MMA matches since before the 9-0 Cormier even began his attempted climb of Mount Olympus.

By the time Cormier was competing in the 2004 Games, Barnett already had won the UFC heavyweight championship, beating Randy Couture, before being stripped of the title after testing positive for anabolic steroids. He went on to fight in the Pancrase organization in Japan, capturing its open-weight championship in 2003, and also in a K-1 MMA event. By the summer of 2004 he was 18-1 and poised to become a force in the top-level Pride Fighting Championships.

Barnett's pro MMA career goes all the way back to 1997, when he was 19. (In fact, when he later won the UFC title, he was the youngest to do so to that point, at age 24.) He was already 10-1 with a submission victory over one of the greatest wrestlers to compete in MMA, three-time Olympic team alternate Dan Severn, by the time Cormier was competing for a NCAA wrestling championship. Daniel finished as the 2001 Division I runner-up, losing the final to a legend of the amateur mat, Cael Sanderson.

So Cormier fell short of his NCAA championship goal. Then he didn't quite make the medals podium in the 2004 Olympics. Then he made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, was named captain, but was unable to compete because of kidney failure. As accomplished as he was on the wrestling mat, falling short at the highest level of his sport helped fuel Cormier's interest in competing in this new arena.

These days, MMA is attracting younger and younger competitors, but when Cormier made his debut less than three years ago, he was already 30. When he steps into the Strikeforce cage with Barnett this weekend, he'll be in with someone just a year older but generations more experienced.

"I've been fighting for 15 years now," Barnett said last week during a conference call with members of the MMA media. "Daniel's got nine fights, and I've been honing my craft for 50."

That well-honed craft is what should give Cormier pause. He's never been in with anyone who can scrap like Barnett. Sure, he has the credentials that would seem to equip him to avoid the takedown that Josh so craves. But will he? Daniel didn't have to worry whether Sanderson was going to punch him in the face during their NCAA final. He didn't have to concern himself with Russian gold medalist-to-be Khadjimourat Gatsalov attacking his legs with kicks in the '04 Games. There's wrestling and then there's MMA wrestling. Josh Barnett is a master at the latter, Daniel Cormier a comparative neophyte.

If the fight does go to the ground, Cormier had better hope he's on top. If he is, his high-level scrambling experience should keep him in good position against the submission game of Barnett. An even safer position for Cormier, though, might be on his feet. The product of American Kickboxing Academy has become an explosive striker, punching out six of his opponents. (Two of his three submission wins came when foes decided they'd been hit enough.)

Barnett packs a punch, too, but his hands are not as fast as Cormier's. He tends to use his punches mainly to set up his takedowns, anyway. And you know he'll be gunning for that. Just so he can say he did it.

For whomever imposes his will Saturday night, the spoils extend beyond the shiny Strikeforce championship belt. The fight organization's CEO, Scott Coker, insists that the Grand Prix champ will continue to fight in Zuffa's second-tier promotion, but the long view no doubt encompasses its alpha cousin, the UFC.

For Barnett, a return to the UFC, where he has not fought since that failed drug test a decade ago, would be redemptive experience. And for Cormier, who sees MMA as his last chance to become a champion at a sport's highest level, the UFC is the place to make his dreams come true.

But those are thoughts for the future, not now. "Thinking too far ahead gives me a headache," Barnett said during last week's media conference call. "My manager can think about that stuff all he wants to, ad nauseam. Me? I do not care. I've got to beat Daniel Cormier."

On that, the fighters are in agreement. "Josh hit it on the head. Everything will play itself out," said Cormier. "My job is to win this fight, and then whatever happens happens."

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