Two of the top heavyweights in the world will be battling for the coveted Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix championship tomorrow night (May 19, 2012) as veteran Josh Barnett takes on undefeated former Olympian Daniel Cormier in the main event of Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Cormier" in San Jose, California.
Josh Barnett has returned from MMA purgatory to become a prominent player in the heavyweight division again. After cruising past former title challenger Brett Rogers, he manhandled Sergei Kharitonov to advance to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix finals. If he can get past Cormier, he could be in line for the UFC title picture once the remainder of the division is consolidated.
Daniel Cormier emerged from prospect to powerhouse in 2011, defeating veteran Jeff Monson and then obliterating top 10 ranked heavyweight Antonio Silva via first round knockout to literally punch his ticket to the tournament finals. Cormier exploded from unranked to top 10 talent himself with his performance and the American Kickboxing Academy product is hoping to continue to build on his tremendous momentum.
Will the grizzled "Warmaster" be able to utilize his tremendous experience advantage against Cormier? Will Cormier's Olympic caliber work ethic and athletic ability be the big equalizer? What's the key to victory for both men?
Let's find out:Josh Barnett
Record: 31-5 overall, 2-0 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Sergei Kharitonov (Strikeforce: Barnettt vs. Kharitonov), Aleksander Emelianenko (Pride Total Elimination Absolute), Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (Pride Final Conflict Absolute)
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 Warmaster" crushed Brett Rogers in the first round of the grand prix and proceeded to steamroll Sergei Kharitonov in the semifinals, defeating both men easily via submission.
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 the ground is his home, he's got some underrated striking and don't take that lightly. I wouldn't be surprised one bit to see him stand for a bit with Cormier to at least test the waters and see how he holds his own. If he is indeed the better striker, he'll just keep it there and try to score in the stand-up.
At some point in the fight, however, you should expect Barnett to drop down for a takedown. Even if he doesn't get it right away, he'll push Cormier into the fence, keep a low base and try to lift him up into the air and slam him to the ground with authority.It won't be easy with Cormier's Olympic caliber freestyle wrestling background, but it's likely his best method of victory.
Barnett would likely be completely comfortable just grinding on Cormier against the fence, using his size to wear down the wrestler, mix in some dirty boxing and just frustrate and stifle him.
If and when the fight goes to the ground, Barnett will be patient. 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 Cormier and make the Russian carry his weight forup to five rounds as he would be to give up top position and go for a fight ending submission hold.
Record: 9-0 overall, 6-0 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: none
How he got here: Daniel Cormier was an incredibly accomplished American wrestler. He was a high school All-American, a junior college national champion and after transferring to Oklahoma State, he was also a national runner-up.
Daniel took his wrestling to the international stage, competing on the United States' world team five separate times including twice in the Olympics. He just missed medaling at the 2004 Olympics and after becoming captain of the team in 2008, was forced out of the competition with kidney problems due to cutting weight.
To avoid any further issues with weight cutting, Cormier decided to transition to MMA as a heavyweight. He made his professional fighting debut less than two years ago in Strikeforce, smashing Gary Frazier via TKO. Cormier would fight a very hectic schedule, competing in multiple Strikeforce events and also mixing in fights with other promotions to stay busy.
Upon returning to Strikeforce, he would begin to utilize his striking, outlanding Devin Cole over the course of three rounds to take a decision. He would face his first test in former UFC title challenger Jeff Monson this past June and would pass with flying colors, defeating "The Snowman" primarily with his much-improved kickboxing attack.
Cormier earned an alternate position in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, stepping in for Alistair Overeem and he would take advantage of his opportunity, knocking Antonio Silva senseless in the first round, by far the most impressive performance of his young fighting career. Now he's got an opportunity vault himself to an even higher status against Barnett in the finals.
How he gets it done: I wouldn't have said this before his last performance, but it might be Cormier's striking that could be the difference in this fight. He utilized incredible footwork and it was his speed that was the difference, giving him the ability to get in and out against the bigger, slower Silva.
Cormier also showcased some serious power if he can connect cleanly with his straight punches. I think the best plan of attack in this fight would be to avoid going to the ground completely, use his Olympic wrestling in reverse to keep the fight standing and try to outwork Barnett on the feet.
If the fight goes to the clinch or the ground, Cormier should do everything in his power to either take inside position along the fence or work to get back to his feet. He's got terrific scrambling and position skills on the ground, but it might not be wisest to mess around with someone as dangerous as Barnett on the canvas.
Fight X-Factor: One of the biggest X-Factors for this fight has to be Daniel Cormier's hand. He was supposed to fight at the end of 2012 but he broke his hand in the Silva fight and then broke it again rushing to come back. That's the reason the finals have been delayed as long as they have.
With his hands being so injured, Cormier likely hasn't had as much of an opportunity to improve his stand-up and striking at the same rate that he had been prior to the Silva fight. Also, one has to wonder how much confidence he'll have to throw his fists as hard as possible while hunting for a potential knockout. If he can't threaten to hurt Barnett or if he reinjures his hands during the fight, his biggest strength will be going right out the window.
Bottom Line: This is one of the toughest fights to call of 2012. Both Cormier and Barnett are very talented and they are equally dangerous in different areas. Both are dangerous with their grappling ability and have the skills to stand and trade on the feet. The odds are even in the betting department as well, -115 each last I looked. There's potential that this is one of the best back and forth heavyweight fights of 2012, but there's also potential that Barnett wall-and-stalls or tries to smother Cormier on the ground if he can close the distance. There could be a very exciting finish or there could be a very drawn out and ugly decision. I'm leaning on the excitement side, however.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!