What a long, strange trip it's been.
The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament, featuring a live finale of Josh Barnett vs. Daniel Cormier this Saturday night (May 19, 2012) at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, finally concludes after a long and tumultuous journey.
It's a disappointing end to one of the promotion's most ambitious endeavors, which has now become less about crowning a tournament king and more about padding a resume for prospective employers in Las Vegas. We recently learned that Strikeforce has torched its heavyweight division and most of the valuable parts have already been picked from the burning wreckage.
Look no further than the UFC 146: "Dos Santos vs. Mir" fight card for proof, where Shane del Rosario, Lavar Johnson and Antonio Silva try to get themselves "into the mix" later this month in "Sin City."
Expect the winner, and perhaps even the loser of "Barnett vs. Cormier," to soon follow.
I called it a disappointment, but I'm not suggesting "The Warmaster" and "DC" won't hold up their end of the bargain and deliver a thrilling finale -- they most likely will -- but it's hard to flash back to the opening brackets and not wonder what could have been, rather than what was.
So what went wrong?
In late 2010, when Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker first gave birth to the idea of a heavyweight grand prix, it mattered.
It mattered because the 265-pound division was like the Devil's Island of mixed martial arts (MMA). Name one other weight class at that time, not shackled by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), with four fighters ranked in and around the top ten?
That means Strikeforce had an eight-man tournament with half its participants widely considered to be among the world's best.
But most importantly, it had Fedor Emelianenko.
Despite a shocking submission loss to Fabricio Werdum earlier in the year, the former PRIDE champion was pegged as the tournament favorite from the onset. An eventual showdown with Alistair Overeem, who had recently captured the K-1 World Grand Prix title (to hang alongside his DREAM and Strikeforce belts), was all but a foregone conclusion.
Too bad "Bigfoot" didn't stick to the script.
"The Last Emperor" was smashed by the Brazilian behemoth in the opening round with a performance that turned the grand prix on its head -- but only temporarily -- since we still had another fan favorite to keep the momentum going.
Except we didn't.
That's because Andrei Arlovski was knocked clean out by a Russian paratrooper that most causal fans had never heard of. Popular among the fanatics and Japanese crowds who recognized him from PRIDE, Sergei Kharitonov could barely utter a few words in English, let alone hype a stateside fight.
But hope was not lost.
Down late in the game, "Demolition Man" was prepared to take over and crank out a few innings of relief -- until he bombed against Fabricio Werdum in a fight he nearly lost. Not that it mattered, seeing as how he stubbed his toe and decided to withdraw from the grand prix altogether.
The undefeated (but unheralded) tournament reserve came in and made Emelianenko's loss look even worse by knocking out Silva with relative ease and sashaying his way into the championship final.
And just like that, the entire left side of the original bracket had been eliminated.
Over on the "other" side, embattled free agent and grappling wizard Josh Barnett had it so easy he might as well have earned two byes. His first bout paired him against a former tire mechanic, who could punch your head into the second row, but had the ground game of an overturned turtle.
Tapping Brett Rogers was simply a tune-up for his submission win over the equally mat-challenged Kharitonov.
So here we are, over a year later, thanks in part to Cormier's hand injury and the ZUFFA red tape that came with the Strikeforce acquisition. That kind of thing happens when the two sides (Showtime and the UFC) can't stand the sight of each other.
So what went wrong?
Well, to be fair, nothing. You know the old expression about "The best laid plans." The tournament was a noble idea and it had the best heavyweights that Strikeforce could produce; however, they failed to produce. Emelianenko (Plan A) couldn't get the job done, Overeem (Plan B) proved to be as reliable as his testosterone levels and Arlovski (Plan C) was about as durable as a Faberge egg.
That leaves Barnett vs. Cormier.
Probably not the way anyone expected the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament to finish, but at least this odyssey has a happy ending. After all, within the next year, the remaining heavyweights (at least the ones worth their salt) will be repackaged and later opened inside the Octagon with a new lease on life.
And if UFC 146 is the heavyweight appetizer, I can't wait for the main course.