Strikeforce is all set to kick off the semifinals of its heavyweight grand prix tournament this Saturday night (Sept. 10, 2011) live on Showtime from the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Who gets one step closer to the promised land and who goes home?
Here's my best guess:
Josh Barnett vs. Sergei Kharitonov is an intriguing battle in that it presents two heavyweights that are the best at what they do. Barnett is a master grappler with serviceable hands and can usually hang tough on his feet until he finds a way to wrestle his foe to the floor.
Kharitonov, by contrast, has a stingy defensive ground game that is designed to get him back into the upright position so he can empty the clip on his five-knuckle Tokarevs.
Not coincidentally, both fighters did what they were expected to do in their respective quarterfinal match-ups. The Russian paratrooper pasted Andrei Arlovski and the part-time pro wrestler strangled Brett Rogers. In short, they're both 265-pound gangsters.
So what happens when you marry the best of both worlds?
Unfortunately for Kharitonov, Barnett is not the kind of grappler who doesn't know how to set up the shot or lunges in desperation. He's a cerebral fighter who understands how to overcome flying fists, no matter how furious.
To that end, I believe "The Warmaster" will give the boo-birds reason to sing as he rides out the opening frame while using his MMA radar to lock onto Kharitonov's footwork and timing.
Unless Barnett gets careless, and he rarely does, there's a tap coming at the end of round two.
Prediction: Josh Barnett def. Sergei Kharitonov via submission
Antonio Silva vs. Daniel Cormier, like the aforementioned headliner, is going to send one of these two men to the tournament finals later this year.
And despite upsetting Fedor Emelianenko, it won't be "Bigfoot."
It's hard to pick against Silva, because Cormier is already undersized for a heavyweight, and being squished by the Brazilian Yeti is what undid "The Last Emperor's" offensive attack.
But while many people are handing the fight to Silva, I'm taking it away, precisely because of the size disparity. You know the old adage, speed kills? Cormier was a good enough wrestler to get to the U.S. Olympic team and despite the extra baggage he carries in light heavyweight defiance, he's a speedy little bandit.
Silva is indeed a dangerous heavyweight, but still the lumbering, rock 'em-sock 'em robot he's always been. I fully expect Cormier to exploit that weakness and surprise people with how long he keeps this thing standing through defensive mat work.
That to me, is the key to winning this contest.
If "DC" goes right to his bread-and-butter, he'll be sucking wind by the second round. No matter how strong or how talented, schlepping around a monster like "Bigfoot" will break even the most conditioned athlete. I predict he stays off the ground, scores points when needed and rides out a unanimous decision win.
Prediction: Daniel Cormier def. Antonio Silva via unanimous decision
Ronaldo Souza vs. Luke Rockhold is what the pro wrestling world calls a "squash match." The champion is experiencing a layover while the promotion digs up a suitable contender so they throw him a bone and let him notch the easy win.
That's not meant to be disrespectful to the "Rock," but he's been riding the bench for over a year, hasn't fought top-tier competition and comes into this 185-pound title fight with a jiu-jitsu based attack.
Could be problematic against a guy like "Jacare."
I don't think it's an exaggeration to call him one of the best grapplers in the entire sport and he's shown in recent fights that he's got the hands to hang tough. In fact, the more he improves his striking, the more dangerous he becomes.
That leaves Rockhold, who's never been out of the first round, with very few choices.
I don't see how he can beat Souza, as the Brazilian has the advantage in every skill set and has also demonstrated those advantages against some very tough 185-pounders, including Tim Kennedy and Robbie Lawler.
Rockhold will bring it, but he won't bring enough to make this an upset.
Prediction: Ronaldo Souza def. Luke Rockhold via submission
Muhammed Lawal vs. Roger Gracie should be an exciting stand-up battle between two talented strikers. Well, not really, but don't think this doesn't have the potential to be just as electric.
Wrestling vs. jiu-jitsu ... is there a better way to decide which discipline reigns supreme?
Skill set vs. skill set, I'd say they're pretty evenly matched. Gracie made a mockery of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) while Lawal is a NCAA Division II champion and freestyle gold medalist.
That means this thing is eventually headed south and what has me leaning towards "King Mo" is the speed of his shot and his strength from top position. He made Gegard Mousasi, who is a terrific grappler in his own right, look like a turtle on his back.
Gracie is superior to Mousasi, clearly, but there's no gi here to exploit and with Lawal's unparalleled strength, it's hard for me to imagine him losing a sweaty limb and succumbing to the tap.
Fatigue is a factor in any fight, but even more so here. It would not shock me to see Gracie be the first man down, only to wilt under the "King's" second round ground-and-pound.
Heresy? We'll see...
Prediction: Muhammed Lawal def. Roger Gracie via technical knockout
Pat Healy vs. Maximo Blanco is likely to be a wrestling chess match, much to the chagrin of the restless live crowd. And expect the drunken "USA! USA!" chants to start somewhere around the 3:30 mark of the opening frame.
What we have here are two wrestlers of similar age and of similar skill sets.
Healy is the more experienced fighter and coming from Team Quest, you know he's a grinder. His record can be deceiving, as he struggled with consistency in the earlier part of his career, but he's 7-3 over his last 10 with consecutive wins over Lyle Beerbohm and Eric Wisely.
World beater? No, but in a clash that puts grizzled veteran vs. stateside debut, I'm taking the former.
Blanco has shredded the Japanese competition in recent years, but his list of opponents reads like the credits to a low-budget Hong Kong karate flick. You couldn't match a name with a face if Geno's life depended on it (not that you'd want to) but my point is he has yet to be tested.
Healy will be that test.
I don't think he passes, but that's because historically, I've been underwhelmed by overseas imports as it pertains to stateside cagefighting. Blanco can prove me wrong, but he'll certainly have his work cut out for him.
Prediction: Pat Healy def. Maximo Blanco via unanimous decision.
Alright folks, you've heard what I've had to say about tomorrow night's fights, now it's your turn. Let's hear some main card predictions in the comments section below.
Who ya' got?