SAN JOSE -- Let's get one thing out of the way at the top: From a strict business perspective, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix was the equivalent of "Tap Across America," the ill-fated tour from the movie "This is Spinal Tap."
In the mythical rock show, Spinal Tap started with full houses and ended with the band billed second to a puppet show at a hotel. The Grand Prix started with a turnout of 11,000 in New Jersey and drew Showtime's biggest-ever MMA audience. Then the crowds shrunk each time out. Last night, as the tourney concluded at the HP Pavilion, the entire upper deck was sectioned off, in addition to reserving one end of the building and much of the floor space for Showtime's excessive stage production.
Those who try to spin the tournament as a business success are deluding themselves.
But if you can separate the action in the cage from the histrionics outside, in time, much like that favorite band of yours that never broke big, the tournament could wind up viewed as an under-appreciated classic.
Nearly every Grand Prix bout offered something compelling. Antonio Silva's beatdown of Fedor Emelianenko was a stirring affair, as fans hoped for a patented Fedor comeback which never materialized. Andrei Arlovski gave a glimmer of his old self before Sergei Kharitonov knocked him into next week. Josh Barnett's wins over Brett Rogers and Kharitonov showed he still had considerable ground skills. Daniel Cormier's knockout of Silva is still seared into the brains of everyone who saw it. There was only one out-and-out stinker, Alistair Overeem's win over Fabricio Werdum.
Then there was Saturday night's magnificent final between Cormier and Barnett. This bout was everything you could hope for in a tournament championship match: An up-and-coming name against a grizzled veteran. Twenty-five minutes of mixed martial arts at its highest level. Cormier justifying his buzz with a transcendent performance. Barnett earning the respect of even his most ardent detractors by gutting his way through several scenarios which would have mentally broken a lesser competitor. And oh yeah, both guys doing it with broken hands suffered early in the fight, but fighting with such spirit that neither injury was apparent.
This was a fight which belonged in a packed stadium in Japan, like the great tournaments that inspired the idea of the Grand Prix, not one contested in front of an intimate gathering.
In the end, the Grand Prix was Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker's vision, his baby, and for better or worse, he pulled it off. So we'll let him have the last word.
"When we put this tourney together, if you look at the quality of the guys on the roster, we had champions from UFC, PRIDE, Strikeforce, Pro Elite," said Coker. "These guys were all champions. If you look at this group, for Daniel to come into the tournament and win it, it's something to be proud of."
Strikeforce Grand Prix Notes
*Let's slow the "Cormier should get the next UFC title shot after Junior dos Santos-Frank Mir" talk just a bit. For one thing, Barnett's long win streak was straight out of the Fedor/M-1 playbook, littered with the likes of Pedro Rizzo, Gilbert Yvel, Mighty Mo, and Geronimo dos Santos. For another, Cormier has yet to face a fighter with dos Santos' boxing skill or Mir's level of jiu-jitsu. And if Cain Velasquez beats Silva as impressively as Cormier did, can you really argue Cormier deserves the shot ahead of his campmate, a former champ whose only loss is to dos Santos? Cormier has proven himself in the top mix at 265 pounds, but at the very least let's see how next weekend's fights pan out before armchair booking Cormier into a UFC title shot.
*There's a tendency in the mixed martial arts media to give free passes to fighters who give good quotes. Blind eyes are turned to everything from drug-test failures to mortgage fraud, so long as the interview is entertaining. This tendency applies to Barnett, who's undeniably funny and engaging. So I'll go ahead say what you won't likely hear from anyone else, which is that Zuffa dodged a bullet by having Barnett lose resoundingly. Barnett's a two-time steroid cheat who has never come clean about his indiscretions. He single-handedly sunk the third Affliction card and caused delays to the Grand Prix. Is Barnett an ultra-tough fighter? Yes. Is he charismatic? Yes. But Zuffa has enough headaches to deal with right now without having a fighter with Barnett's baggage emerge as Grand Prix champion.
Strikeforce Grand Prix Quotes
"Now matter how bad things get, eventually the sun is going to shine. If you just keep it at, pursuing your goals, eventually good things happen to decent people. For a person who is set on his goals, good things happen. Everyone deals with adversity. It's how you bounce back from it." -- Cormier, reflecting on getting through a series of tragedies in his personal life.
Rafael Cavalcante: There's avenging losses, and then there's what "Feijao" did to Mike Kyle on Saturday night. The Team Nogueira fighter needed less than a minute to demolish Kyle, as Cavalcante leveled him with a vicious knee and then finished the job with a sweet guillotine choke. Coker indicated in the post-fight press conference that Cavalcante, a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, would likely meet Gegard Mousasi for the vacant crown.
Gilbert Melendez: Last night's fight with Josh Thomson was Exhibit A in why keeping "El Nino" in Strikeforce is a bad idea. It was going to be next-to-impossible for Melendez to come out of the trilogy fight looking good. Not only do these guys have the familiarity with one another you'd expect from a duo who already fought 10 rounds, but they also trained together for more than two years. There were no secrets left, no new weaknesses to exploit. The only way Melendez could have looked good against a competent opponent who knew him so well was with a flash knockout, which didn't happen. The shrill calls for a fourth bout from Showtime types were more the sound of desperation than anything fans want to see.
Fight I want to see next
Cormier vs. Velasquez. Sure, I'll go ahead and stir this pot. You know whatever goes down inside the walls of the American Kickboxing Academy whenever these two bulls lock horns is likely as entertaining as any main event you're plunking down $50 to see. AKA fighters are so loyal to each other that Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch won't fight each other even now, after Koscheck left the camp in a bitter split. So the chances of Cormier-Velasquez happening any time soon is slim. But we can still dream, can't we?