Daniel Cormier turned heads Saturday at Strikeforce in Cincinnati. | File Photo: Sherdog.com
And then there were two.
With the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix final set, Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett both scored impressive wins Saturday night in Cincinnati, setting the stage for an intriguing showdown.
On the undercard, Luke Rockhold scored an inspiring decision win to lift the Strikeforce middleweight belt from champ Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, despite never having fought past the first round. Muhammed Lawal delivered a rousing knockout of previously unbeaten Roger Gracie, while tough veteran Pat Healy submitted Maximo Blanco.
Here’s a closer look at the players and events that transpired at this weekend’s bouts, with the Strikeforce “Barnett vs. Kharitonov” Stock Report.
Josh Barnett: If death and taxes are two certainties in life, Barnett’s mount ending poorly for the recipient of said position is a strong third. After eating some decent shots from Sergei Kharitonov early in the first round, it appeared Barnett might be getting sucked into a slugfest. But with his trademark quickness, Barnett flipped the script, scoring a nice takedown to land into mount --precisely what he did in his quarterfinal blowout of Brett Rogers.
From there, Barnett exhibited outstanding positional control with true patience, picking shots and securing mount, forcing the Russian’s hand as Kharitonov turned to avoid more punishment. Sinking in an arm-triangle choke for the win at 4:28, Barnett’s performance reminded fans of why he’s been such a consistent, high-level heavyweight for more than a decade. It also sets up an intriguing bout against Cormier in the tournament finale, as the Olympian’s wrestling and sharp striking will pose a stylistic counterpoint against Barnett’s athleticism and top-notch submission game.
Daniel Cormier: Cormier’s entry into the grand prix proved a smart decision. Filling in for Alistair Overeem, who withdrew after his quarterfinal win against Fabricio Werdum, Cormier was perceived as a talented work-in-progress off the heels of his decision win over Jeff Monson, where his improved striking was on display. It’s since gotten even better, as Cormier smashed Antonio Silva early with a booming right hand, and subsequently battered the Brazilian into a brutal first-round knockout after 3:56 of action.
Now, on the cusp of winning the tournament, Cormier gave himself a huge boost in dispatching the conqueror of Fedor Emelianenko. Wrestlers typically take much longer to develop such competent hands, and his ability to explode into small openings is clearly the sign of the high-level coordination and commitment of a gifted fighter. The fact that he’s only got nine fights under his belt and trains daily with American Kickboxing Academy and UFC champ Cain Velasquez is just plain scary.
Luke Rockhold: It was equal parts inspiring and sobering to see Rockhold hang tough after a rough start and collect himself en route to outworking and decisioning Ronaldo Souza to take the Strikeforce 185-pound title. Using his height advantage and mustering up every ounce of tactical smarts to survive the early ground onslaught of “Jacare,” Rockhold outworked the champ to lift the belt by a well-deserved unanimous decision.
Impressively, the fight came after a year-and-a-half layoff, where Rockhold had worked through various injuries. Given Souza’s clinical dismantling of Robbie Lawler in his last defense, the champ was one heck of a tall order; yet as the bout progressed into the second round and beyond, Rockhold’s work rate and accuracy allowed him to carry the day. A huge win for him, as he vaults from relative anonymity to being a Strikeforce champion.
Muhammed Lawal: “King Mo” saw his star rise and fall dramatically over two fights. With his gutsy five-round decision over Gegard Mousasi to take the Strikeforce light heavyweight title in Aug. 2010, Lawal looked like a rising star in the game; then, in his first defense against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, he ran out of gas and lost via TKO after a ruthless series of hammerfists punished him on a takedown he simply couldn’t finish.
But tonight, Lawal showed the patience and striking acumen that allowed him to gauge the style matchup correctly against Roger Gracie. Refusing to take the bout to the ground, Lawal assessed the range and eventually drilled home a big-time right hand on Gracie, negating the Brazilian’s best chance to win, which was on the ground.
With the victory, Lawal didn’t miss the chance to call out Cavalcante in a rematch, which would offer a fitting shot at redemption for the one loss on his record.
Pat Healy: You gotta love Healy, who once again showed why he’s such a respectable plugger in submitting Maximo Blanco. In a lightweight match between a rising prospects and battle-hardened vet, Healy overcame a slow start, getting lit up by Blanco’s fancy and varied strikes. But once he secured the takedown and brought the fight into his world, he used his grinding style and size advantage to finish the speedier Blanco with a rear-naked choke. Healy’s not the prettiest fighter, and he’ll never be the fastest or most aesthetically pleasing. He’s like the Dodge Dart your grandpa has that still starts and runs like a top, even when it’s twenty below and the damn thing is forty years old.
Maximo Blanco: Despite losing to Healy, Blanco put on a noteworthy performance. Using slick kicks and strikes, he looked outstanding early, only before getting sucked into a ground battle that ultimately proved his undoing. He might be undersized for lightweight, but the with expected eventual merger with the UFC, he could definitely find a place there -- or somewhere -- as a featherweight.
Sergei Kharitonov: Coming off his big KO win of Andrei Arlovski, fans were reminded of why Kharitonov was considered a dark horse in the tournament. His heavy hands and hard-boiled style, along with plenty of experience fighting top heavies, made him a compelling entry. However, he was never able to escape Barnett’s mount, and was dominated en route. The loss wasn’t necessarily a surprising one, but it’s definitely a setback considering both the stakes at hand and Kharitonov’s career trajectory. It’s going to be tough to get this close to another opportunity this big in the foreseeable future.
Antonio Silva: How quickly fates change in the fight game. After stopping Fedor, Silva fell flat against Cormier. Never in the fight and stepping in potholes after getting rocked early by a big right hand, the Brazilian was unable to apply his best assets -- size and sheer pressure -- against Cormier, who simply used angles and sharp hands to peel him like an onion en route to the stoppage. A big setback here, especially considering how good Silva looked against Emelianenko.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza: One of the world’s top three no-gi grapplers (along with Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia, thank you) Souza fell flat against Rockhold, who simply wouldn’t buckle. Souza’s conditioning seemed to betray him by the middle of the fight, where he lacked the horsepower to get a takedown and his standup became increasingly tentative. A stunning loss here for Souza, but thankfully, with Strikeforce’s thin middleweight cupboard, a good win would probably set him up for a rematch.
Roger Gracie: A complete crash-and-burn for Gracie, who represented the best hopes of MMA’s royal family. After building a 4-0 record, Roger’s standup game was exposed with one blistering right hand by Lawal. In his defense, Gracie has fought some pretty good competition considering his career has comprised merely five bouts; but lacking the extensive building process most with so few fights receive, Gracie definitely could use a revaluation of either the level of competition he’s going to face or tweak some things with his training regimen. With limited standup, a repeat of tonight’s result is inevitable against this level of opponent.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.