After months of waiting, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finals are almost here. In preparation, here are eight questions, concerns, and comments, in no particular order.
I. Remember how this whole thing started? The Strikeforce Grand Prix, I mean. It seems like so long ago that Strikeforce -- then under different ownership -- put all its eggs in the heavyweight basket, announcing a tournament that many of us in the media described as ‘ambitious.’ What we really meant was, ‘damn near impossible.’ Come on. That many heavyweights, that many egos and potential contractual headaches, and Strikeforce was supposed to be the one to organize them all? There were times when I wouldn’t have trusted Strikeforce to organize an intramural softball league. Now you want me to believe that they can get Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett and all the rest to focus up and finish this thing within a reasonable amount of time? That seemed improbable enough just based on the personalities involved. Factor in the likelihood that one of these behemoths would injure himself in the cage or the gym, and you had yourself a recipe for disaster. To some extent, those fears proved well-founded. Injuries and contract shenanigans did pop up along the way. Plus, the whole company changed hands, so there was that too. And yet, here we are in the finals with a fight between one original participant and one reserve fighter, and it’s a legitimately awesome match-up. Oddsmakers have it almost even. Fans are actually buzzing about it. Whoever wins will have made an excellent case for himself as one of the world’s best heavyweights. Even the loser will probably get a chance to redeem himself in the UFC. It took a little while to get here, but now it seems worth the wait. And let’s face it: this could have turned out so much worse.
II. Daniel Cormier could sure use a win on Saturday, but Barnett needs one. Even though they’re almost the same age, Barnett has a lot more MMA miles on him, not to mention more than a little baggage. From his history of failed drug tests to his adamant refusal to publicly own up to the same, Barnett offers a lot of reasons for a potential employer to be wary. If he wins this Grand Prix (and the ‘just for the hell of it’ fight that follows), the UFC pretty much has to take its chances with him. If he gets knocked out by Cormier, it’s a different story. Cormier, on the other hand, is an attractive prospect no matter what happens. Even if he gets submitted by Barnett you could write it off as a learning experience. It is, after all, only his tenth pro fight. It’s Barnett’s 37th. Cormier obviously still wants to win this, and he has a good shot at it. But as long as he doesn’t look positively awful, he’ll be fine. I don't know if you can say the same about Barnett.
III. With five rounds to beat up on each other, how does the Barnett-Cormier fight end? If you think this one will make it to the judges, you can get +200 odds from a couple online oddsmakers. If, like me, you don’t see it going five full rounds, then you start to ask who will end it and how. Cormier has a dangerous combination of quickness and heavy hands, but Barnett has proven that he can take a thumping. Barnett got to the finals by submitting his way through the first two rounds, but a) he fought two very submittable fighters, and b) if Cormier has a weakness there, we’ve yet to see it. That’s what makes this one so tough to call. Cormier has yet to face anyone with Barnett’s skill and experience in his MMA career, while Barnett has spent the last few years cruising through fights that were, well, one hates to use the word ‘easy’ to describe a professional cage fight, so let’s just say not as challenging as some of his Pride fights. They are, in their own ways, a couple of unknown quantities. That’s why the outcome here is anybody’s guess.
IV. Josh Thomson really, really wants you to know that he’s not injured...any more than usual. The Strikeforce lightweight challenger voiced his frustration with "the MMA media" in an interview with Bloody Elbow, blasting earlier reports that he was pulling out of his title fight with Gilbert Melendez and calling it "typical of the low level of MMA media stuff." Turns out he’s not injured (at least not beyond a "tweaked" wrist and some other, unspecified ailments), and he’s none too pleased about someone on Twitter possibly giving his opponent a heads-up as to what parts of his body might be vulnerable. I get that, even if my teeth grind together every time someone launches an assault on that convenient, monolithic boogeyman known as The Media. But in Thomson's case, one thing he’s got going for him is his own reputation as one of MMA’s most injury-prone fighters. If you wanted to target an existing injury in a fight with him, your biggest problem would be choosing one -- not discovering one.
V. Once again, Gilbert Melendez finds himself in a fight where he has so much more to lose than gain. It was the same in his last Strikeforce title defense against Jorge Masvidal, and arguably also in the one before that, against Tatsuya Kawajiri. He already has a fairly recent win over Thomson, and he’s a 5-1 favorite to notch another. Anything short of a win via destruction would, at best, keep him right where he is in the rankings. You can just imagine what a loss would do. When you think about it in those terms, it seems pretty obvious that no one is getting a worse deal out of the current Strikeforce/Zuffa situation than Melendez. He’s more or less out of fresh challenges at this point, and no one with any better options wants to come to Strikeforce and risk a beating from him. Is he a top five lightweight? Top three? Hell, he could be the best lightweight in the world, but he’s not getting a chance to prove it right now, in what could very well be the prime of his career. There are definitely worse fates than being the top lightweight in Strikeforce, and being paid to prove it over and over again. It’s just that there are also better fates, especially for a man of Melendez’s talents.
VI. Mike Kyle may or may not get a title shot if he beats Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, and, somehow, that really pisses him off. Apparently, Kyle thought his current one-fight win streak in Strikeforce ought to set him up for a number one contender spot with a win over Cavalcante. After all, he already beat "Feijao" once, and his only losses in Strikeforce have come at heavyweight. Besides, with Mo Lawal out of the picture, who else does Strikeforce have at 205 pounds? That’s all well and good, but Kyle might want to be careful how he goes about agitating for a title shot. After Scott Coker told members of the media it "hasn’t been determined" yet what will happen to the winner of Saturday’s Kyle-Cavalcante rematch, Kyle went off in an interview with USA Today, saying:
"I think it's bullcrap. You heard what he said -- maybe I'll be the No. 1 contender. I haven't lost any 205-pound fights. I definitely believe that I'm the No. 1 contender. I was told before I'd be the No. 1 contender. It is what it is. I'm really upset by it. It makes me really not even want to fight. I don't feel like I'm getting nowhere in the sport. All the changes I've made in my life and the things I'm doing, there's no recognition for it. It really upsets me and it makes me not want to fight."
It is at this point that I must address Kyle directly and ask: are you kidding me right now? It’s true that you have no losses at light heavyweight. It’s also true that you have exactly one meaningful win there, and that was when you knocked out "Feijao" three years ago. I agree that the winner here should fight for the belt, if only due to a lack of other options. But let’s not fly into an indignant rage just because Coker wouldn’t scream it from the rooftops. He’s not in a position to decide those things these days. Even when he was, he wasn't one to give a direct answer when a non-committal one was available to him. Chill out, man. This is hardly the time for Strikeforce fighters to suggest that they might rather quit and go home. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s a wish that Zuffa might be all too eager to grant.
VII. Speaking of the undercard, this one’s actually pretty decent. I haven’t watched Showtime Extreme since I caught a late-night showing of Bikini Chain Gang -- a far superior film to Bikini Time Machine, which is overrun with historical inaccuracies and completely falls apart in the third act -- but the chance to watch Gesias Cavalcante take on Isaac Vallie-Flag is all the motivation I need. Throw in a couple former Challengers series fighters like Quinn Mulhern and Bobby Green, and you’ve got my attention. After sitting around all afternoon waiting for my chance to lose money on the Preakness, I’m sure I’ll be grateful for some programming that gets right to the point. Actually, now that I think about it, you could say the same thing for Bikini Chain Gang.
VIII. If the Barnett-Cormier clash reminds us of anything, let it be that we don't always need a fake rivalry to sell a fight. Promoters always want to go the 'bad blood' route, because it's easy and because it usually works. You find one barely plausible reason why these guys might hate each other, and boom, you've got yourself a promo. Barnett and Cormier are a couple of gregarious, likable guys who actually get along, and they haven't pretended otherwise. And you know what? It's still a fight that I can't wait to see. Give me a good, honest competition any day, and keep your phony grudge matches.