It took more than a year, but the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finally came to an end on Saturday night. If you’d told me at the start of this thing that an alternate would be the one to win it all, I’d have said that it was just Strikeforce’s luck. But actually, it worked out well, all things considered.
Cormier is not only a major up-and-comer in the MMA world, he’s also something of a homegrown talent for Strikeforce. He began his career there, working his way up from Challengers undercards to a Saturday night main event, and now he’s the last big man standing in the most ambitious tournament since the demise of Pride. Not bad at all, if you ask me.
With Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier now in the books, we turn our attention to the biggest winners, losers, and everything in between.
Biggest Winner: Daniel Cormier
I’ll just come right out with it: if the former Olympic wrestling team captain is going to turn out to be that good of a kickboxer, then no one is safe. Lock your doors, barricade your windows, and don’t let Cormier get within kicking or shooting distance of you. With the striking skills we saw on display on Saturday night, he’d have little problem picking apart many top heavyweights. Those who could land more strikes than they absorb would no doubt find themselves on their back from a takedown soon enough, maybe after they’ve gone for a fun little ride like the one that upended a 250-pound expert grappler in the Grand Prix finals. It almost doesn’t seem fair for Cormier to have come so far, so fast as a mixed martial artist. It also doesn’t seem fair that he should have to stick around in Strikeforce for one more fight, when the victory over Barnett clearly showed that he’s ready for the best big men the UFC has to offer. At the moment, the only significant weakness in Cormier’s game is his hand. That is to say, the bones in his hand, which keep breaking as a result of him flinging it against the skulls of his opponents. If he can fix that while also continuing to improve along the same trajectory, he’ll be a nightmare of a matchup for anyone in the UFC.
Biggest Loser: Mike Kyle
Question: when does it make absolutely no difference whether your fight is for number one contender status? Answer: when you lose in the first minute. When that happens, you might wish you had played it a little cooler before the fight. Kyle’s a talented fighter. When he gets his game working (and when he doesn’t blatantly violate the rules), he’s a problem for a lot of light heavyweights. He also seems like a bit of a head case at times, and going off about Scott Coker’s refusal to promise him a shot at the vacant, essentially non-existent Strikeforce light heavyweight strap is one more example of it. If he felt like MMA almost wasn’t worth the effort before this bout, you have to wonder how he feels now.
Most Impressive in Defeat: Josh Thomson
He came on strong late in his rubber match with Melendez and made things interesting on the judges’ scorecards. Maybe if he’d had a greater sense of urgency earlier in the fight we might be talking about his shocking upset this morning, and it would be Melendez sitting around and complaining about the state of judging in MMA. Instead, Thomson will have to settle for the ‘attaboy’ that comes with putting up more of a fight than many expected out of him. Melendez, meanwhile, gets to go home with the belt.
Least Impressive in Victory: Gilbert Melendez
It’s not his fault. Not really. This is what happens when you have to keep defending your title against challengers who are supposed to have no chance. If you don’t absolutely crush them, it looks bad. If you come in as a 5-1 favorite and let it go to the judges, in a way you’ve already lost. That’s the situation Melendez is in, and there’s no easy way out. He’s going to keep on fighting these mostly meaningless battles, and every one that he doesn’t thoroughly dominate will take a little more of the shine off that Strikeforce gold. His only solution is to treat these fights like it’s not enough to simply win. He has to give people the destruction they crave, even if he risks self-destruction in the process. At least it would be better than this slow decline via decision. And at least then his fiance wouldn’t have to face mush her way out of the arena when it’s all over.
Making the Most of Unexpected Opportunity: Chris Spang
How a little-known, 4-1 fighter ended up on the televised portion of this card is anybody’s guess, but Spang made it count with his first-round TKO of Nah-Shon Burrell, who was out on his feet for roughly half the fight. It got the Strikeforce broadcast off to an exciting start, and gave fight fans a reason to remember Spang’s name. His nickname, however? "The Kiss"? Yeah, that could use some work.
Least Secure Future: Josh Barnett
I still think the UFC would be wise to try and make a deal with Barnett when it comes time to talk contracts, but his negotiating position was significantly weakened by the one-sided loss on Saturday night. Yes, he broke his hand in the first round. And yes, he still went the full five with a guy who is probably only a fight or two away from a shot at the UFC heavyweight title. At the same time, Barnett comes with baggage. His history of failed drug tests makes him the wrong kind of risk at the exact worst time for the UFC, and he also has a tendency to overestimate his value. That’s not to say Barnett wouldn’t be a great pickup for the UFC. Even with the heavyweight division now more flush than it’s ever been, the big show could still use a seasoned self-promoter like "The Warmaster" who can take and deliver beatings with the best of them. Then again, even though the UFC could use him, it doesn’t need him right now. Not as much as he needs it. Hopefully he keeps that in mind when sitting down at the bargaining table.
Most Surprising: Guto Inocente and Virgil Zwicker
If you didn’t tune in to the prelims on ShoExtreme, buddy, you messed up. While the "Rezdog" may have been outmatched against a dynamic fighter like Inocente, he hung tough and made a battle out of it, delivering some of the best action of the card in this three-round slugfest. I’m still not sure how Zwicker survived some of those shots, and I’d wager that Inocente was just as mystified at certain points. Mostly, I’m just grateful that the new Strikeforce has a way of airing great prelim bouts like this one. In the old days, this one wouldn’t have made its way onto any TV broadcast. Then again, in the old days, this bout wouldn’t have happened here at all. It would have been saved for a Friday night Challengers event that no one watched, and its spot on the prelims would have gone to local boys who could guarantee a couple hundred bucks worth of ticket sales to their friends, family, and teammates. Sort of makes you glad it’s no longer "business as usual" in Strikeforce.