Truthfully, Daniel Cormier's progression as a mixed martial artist has been undervalued. Not only is Cormier unbeaten, he's done it in dominant fashion. Of his nine wins, seven have come via stoppage, with six coming in the first round. No one has yet to even be competitive with him. If he had the same resume in the UFC, he'd be buzzed about as the next big thing, a title challenger waiting in the wings. As it is, he's done it mostly under the radar.
That might change for good on Saturday night.
His Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix final opponent Josh Barnett has earned a level of stature and respect that would benefit Cormier if he can pull off the win. If he does, it will put a properly unexpected exclamation point on an utterly unpredictable tournament.
When it began in February 2011, Cormier wasn't even an official entrant. He was an alternate, and not even the first one, as that designation was supposed to go to Shane del Rosario.
But fate stepped in. Zuffa bought Strikeforce, del Rosario was badly injured in a car accident, and Alistair Overeem was cut following an issue with his management.
That left Cormier with a chance to step right into the semifinal, and he blasted his way into the final, knocking out Antonio Silva in a first-round finish last September.
The dominant win put into perspective what a quick study Cormier has been. He came in with a brilliant wrestling resume -- two-time Olympian, international star, and collegiate All-American -- but has done his best work in the standup department.
Those offensive numbers are outstanding. The most significant ones show that while he finds his target, he doesn't often take return fire. According to FightMetric, Cormier lands an average of 3.67 strikes per minute, but is only hit .98 times per minute. That is particularly impressive given that at 5-foot-11 and with a 71-inch reach, he is often at a height and reach disadvantage.
That will again be the case against Barnett, who is 6-foot-3 with a 78-inch reach.
Barnett (31-5) is a very well-rounded fighter. While he's made his bones as a submission artist (he has 17 tapout wins), he's well versed in striking and wrestling as well, skills that have allowed him the versatility to exploit holes in his opponent's game at times.
He has a striking accuracy rate of 48 percent, a tick better than Cormier's. Surprisingly, he's fared far better on takedowns, 58 percent to 27 percent. And he works well in the 50/50 positions.
But Barnett knows where his bread is buttered. He believes himself to be superior to any opponent on the ground, so he's usually insistent on putting the fight on the mat at some point. Barnett does that with his own style, favoring a form of Greco-Roman wrestling that is heavily reliant on body locks and trips.
While Cormier was primarily a freestyle wrestler by training, he's very well schooled in Greco-Roman as well, so Barnett will have his work cut out for him to take the fight down. As mentioned, Barnett has a 58 percent success rate on takedowns, but on the other hand, Cormier has yet to be taken down even a single time in his pro career. That's a point of pride with him, and so it's going to take something overwhelming to get him down.
So a lot of this fight hinges upon whether you believe Barnett can take the fight down. If he can't, then what? One possibility is that Cormier might want to take Barnett down. That though, seems unlikely. Despite his pedigree, he hasn't featured takedowns as a major part of his offense.
So we might be left with a standup fight, or some semblance of one. I think Barnett will exchange, but also try to work Cormier against the fence and look for positions for the takedown. Cormier, who strikes well from close range, is eventually going to find a way to free himself.
Back in the center of the cage, he's grown comfortable with his striking. That's going to happen training at American Kickboxing Academy. While he doesn't necessarily throw together advanced combinations, he pulls off the basics very well, and he has power. In his last fight over Silva, he also showed he was capable of navigating the distance necessary to land that power. Cormier excels in close distance, and because Barnett likes clinches, that could mean trouble.
This is a close fight. Most lines have it as a pick 'em bout for good reason. Barnett knows every trick in the book, but Cormier has a world-class skill, the aptitude to learn, and the ability to put what he's practiced into action. He also has a great training partner in Cain Velasquez, meaning he's been put through the ringer many times, so he won't be overwhelmed by anything Barnett does.
If Barnett can get Cormier on his back, he's capable of finishing. I just don't see him getting it there or keeping it there for long. If Cormier dictates the location of the fight, he'll win by landing the more significant strikes. This wacky tournament seems destined to end in some unexpected way, so Cormier by knockout.