The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix will conclude its semifinals this Saturday night (September 10, 2011) as former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett takes on "The Paratrooper" Sergei Kharitonov in the main event of Strikeforce Grand Prix: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Barnett has not lost a fight in nearly five years and has been furiously working a campaign to clear up his name in the court of public opinion. He looked terrific in his quarterfinal bout against Brett Rogers and he's hoping a victory in this tournament will make him a player in the heavyweight division.
Kharitonov has not been the most active heavyweight in the last four years, fighting only once as a mixed martial artist in 2008, 2009 and 2010. His inactivity caused many to forget how good of a fighter he is but he proved it with a vicious first round knockout against Andrei Arlovski in the quarterfinals of the tournament this past February. The Russian dynamo who trains out of Golden Glory is out for blood tomorrow night.
Will Barnett's catch wrestling prevail come fight night? Or will Kharitonov clean his clock with his superior striking? Which vaunted heavyweight will advance to the tournament finals?
Record: 30-5 overall, 1-0 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Aleksander Emelianenko (Pride Total Elimination Absolute), Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pride Final Conflict Absolute), Jeff Monson (Sengoku 2)
How he got here: Josh Barnett has had a roller coaster of a career. The craziness began back in 2002 when he defeated Randy Couture at UFC 36 for the UFC heavyweight title. He didn't have long to celebrate as he tested positive for a banned substance and was stripped of his belt.
Barnett has never returned to the UFC and would instead spend the next six years of his career fighting in Japan. He fought nine times in Pride where he mixed results, primarily due to three defeats at the hands of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. His most impressive victory, a split decision over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would be avenged in his final fight with Pride.
After Pride was bought out by Zuffa, Barnett would fight for World Victory Road's Sengoku Raiden Championships and he then teamed up with the upstart Affliction promotion in the United States. He won his first two fights and was all set up for a "mega-fight" with superstar Fedor Emelianenko before again testing positive for steroids while applying for his license to fight in California. This final steroid test would force him to back out of his fight with "The Last Emperor" and it crippled Affliction, causing the cancellation of its third event and forcing head honcho Tom Atencio to give up on his promotional dreams and return to the role of sponsoring fighters.
He next signed a deal with Strikeforce to participate in the Heavyweight Grand Prix and was grandfathered in when Zuffa purchased the promotion, where he has apparently made peace with Dana White at the Fight Summit earlier this year. "The Warhammer" crushed Brett Rogers in the first round of the grand prix and is set to face Kharitonov tomorrow night.
How he gets it done: Josh Barnett is a catchwrestler at heart, even competing in professional wrestling matches in Japan on the side of his mixed martial arts career. While his striking is respectable, he has absolutely no reason whatsoever to remain on his feet against Sergei Kharitonov. That's only asking for trouble.
Kharitonov has a bad habit of wading in too deep with his powerful hooks while he's looking for the kill and this would be a perfect opportunity for Barnett to take him to the canvas.
Expect Barnett to drop down for a takedown at the first opening he sees. Even if he doesn't get it right away, he'll push Kharitonov into the fence, keep a low base and try to lift him up into the air and slam him to the ground with authority. All it takes is one millisecond of being off balance and Kharitonov will be going for a ride.
If and when the fight goes to the ground, Barnett will be patient. He will not be in a hurry to get the finish against Kharitonov as time is on his side. Barnett has been in deep waters before and performed just fine. He'll be looking to slowly advance position on the ground until he can find an opening to work for a submission.
Barnett has extremely tight top control and it's very difficult to escape once he has you on the ground. He'll be just as happy to smother Kharitonov and make the Russian carry his weight for three rounds as he would be to give up top position and go for a fight ending submission hold.
Record: 18-4 overall, 1-0 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: Jeff Monson (Dream 8), Alexander Emelianenko (Pride Final Conflict Absolute), Alistair Overeem (Pride 31)
How he got here: Sergei Kharitonov earned his nickname "The Paratrooper" because he actually trained in the Russian Airborne Troops Academy. It was there that he began refining his Combat Sambo technique and was noticed by Russian Top Team.
He began training with Fedor Emelianenko as a sparring partner but his mixed martial arts career was taking off. Kharitonov won his first nine MMA fights, all in the first round which included his first four fights in the Pride promotion in Japan. Those four victories earned him a fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who would hand him his first career loss via unanimous decision.
In the next eight months, the Russian would win four in a row again including a knockout of Pedro Rizzo and a split decision victory over Fabricio Werdum.
In 2006, he would lose consecutive fights to Alexander Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem, both after absorbing a nasty knee strike in the stand-up. Kharitonov would come back with a vengeance in 2007, though, avenging his loss to Overeem with a first round knockout of his own as well as submitting tough American Mike Russow with an armbar. He would also switch fight camps to Golden Glory in Holland at around this time.
Kharitonov would be invited to the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix in 2011 and started it with a bang, blasting former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski with an uppercut and knocking him out cold with ground and pound in less than three minutes. He was so anxious to fight again that he took a kickboxing match three months later, knocking out American kickboxer Mighty Mo inside two minutes at a United Glory event in Russia.
After waiting seven arduous months, he finally will compete in the semifinals against Josh Barnett.
How he gets it done: Sergei Kharitonov absolutely 100% wants to keep this fight standing. He's earned eight victories in his career by way of submission, but Josh Barnett is a master on the ground and he does not want to go to the canvas if he can help it.
"The Paratrooper" is extremely dangerous in the stand-up realm as he was under consideration multiple times to compete in the Olympics for boxing. His style is a bit slow and robotic, but there's no denying his power.
The best gameplan against Barnett would be to slowly stalk the American, taking control of the center of the cage and work his jab while occasionally mixing in straight punches. The key will be to not overcommit to any huge strikes unless the opening is irresistible or it's late in the round.
Kharitonov needs to work fast as well. All but one of his career victories has been by first round stoppage and there's no telling what his cardio is like. The Russian has tremendous power in both hands and he has an uppercut or a knee attack that could knock Barnett out cold if he can time a takedown attempt.
If taken down, Kharitonov shouldn't screw around with submission attempts as Barnett is too crafty to get armbarred. He needs to immediately work to get back to his feet with everything he's got.
Fight "X-Factor:" The biggest X-Factor for this fight is time. The longer this bout goes, more likely it is that Josh Barnett will win. Sergei Kharitonov has only ever won one fight in his career that left the first round and that was a bout against a still-green Fabricio Werdum. If Barnett can really force "The Paratrooper" to defend his takedowns and grapple with him, he's going to tire the Russian out. Kharitonov needs to hurt Barnett early if he wants to be victorious but early aggression will also leave openings for takedowns.
It's a fine line between cautious aggression and recklessness that he'll have to walk.
Bottom Line: This is a classic "grappler vs. striker" match-up as Barnett is one of the most dangerous heavyweights on the ground while Kharitonov is one of the most powerful heavyweight strikers in MMA today. Whoever can keep the fight in their realm is likely going to win. Wherever this fight goes, a finish will be threatened at all times and that should be enough of a prospect to keep your eyes glued to the television at all times. This should be a good one.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" on Saturday night? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!