The long, undulating and semi-inglorious path the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix is almost over. This Saturday the two finalists, Josh Barnett and Daniel Cormier, will compete in the finals of a tournament that started in February of 2011. What the future will hold for each is still unclear, but the fight itself promises to be an tightly-contested affair. We'll also see Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez defend his title against Josh Thomson in a fight that marks their third meeting.
Is there any chance Josh Thomson can defeat Gilbert Melendez? Can Josh Barnett finally re-enter the top 5 rankings of the heavyweight division? Will this be the signature win to date in Cormier's mixed martial arts career?
I'll attempt to answer these questions with these predictions about Saturday's fights.
Where: HP Pavilion, San Jose, California
When: Saturday, the preliminary starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on Showtime Extreme and the four-fight Showtime card starts at 10p.m.
Predictions on the four Showtime fights below.
I've agonized over making a final selection for this fight for weeks, if not months. Oddsmakers are seemingly just as unsure. Ultimately, though, I'm going to go with the upstart in Cormier. Barnett's path to victory either results from out-striking Cormier or finding a way to land a submission. I find both outcomes to be improbable. Outside of submitting Kharitonov, Barnett hasn't faced a top-tier heavyweight in quite some time (although I suppose you can make an argument for Brett Rogers). It's true Barnett has handily defeated everyone since losing to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in 2006, but that includes fighters who shouldn't be competing anymore (Jeff Monson, Pedro Rizzo, Mighty Mo), a light heavyweight (Hidehiko Yoshida) and opponents who have no business facing him (Geronimo dos Santos). I'm not sure that's the best preparation for Cormier even if I grant Rogers and Kharitonov are fairly clear steps up.
Still, Barnett is going to have a hard time taking Cormier down and holding him there. That makes his clear submission edge hard to leverage. On the feet, Barnett has not been overly willing to stirke with clear threats. He took down Kharitonov, Mo and Yvel almost right away. Cormier's hand speed is surprisingly good as is his accuracy and combination striking. Over time, I'm betting that will be the difference.
There isn't much to say about this one. Thomson is a very talented fighter, but injuries and time off have stunted his development. Not so for Melendez. After losing to Thomson in 2008, he's rapidly improved every year and at this point in his career is far better than his opponent this Saturday. A healthy Thomson has enough skills to make it reasonably competitive, particularly with his ability to wrestle and scramble. Yet, there's no guarantee Thomson is able to show up healthy and I'm not sure even a Thomson free of injuries is going to do much more than go the distance. This is Melendez's fight to lose.
Kyle shocked a fair number of us when he beat the much more heralded Cavalcante in their first meeting at Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields. I think it will be different this time and here's why. Kyle was taken down in the second round and mounted. Yes, Kyle was able to hip escape, but Feijao was gassed terribly in that fight. Either from nerves or some other factor, he was totally shot by the middle of the second round. That's when Kyle landed the big bomb that put him out. I have a fairly hard time seeing that happen again. Feijao isn't characteristically out of shape and provided he's had an appropriate preparation, he can get revenge on Saturday.
This is more interesting than it looks to the casual eye. Burrell and Spang are two great athletes and two competent, if slightly different types of strikers. Burrell is a little more hand friendly while Spang employs a bit of a wider Thai boxing arsenal. The key difference for me, though, is aggression. Burrell marches forward and presses action; Spang tends to wait around more than I like and can be pushed around. Burrell also has some ability to wrestle, a key liability for Spang. Could go either way, but I've got a little more confidence in Burrell to get it done.