This was Daniel Cormier’s weekend.
Some 15 months after the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix began with a star-studded field that included Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski, Cormier was crowned its unlikely champion after delivering a one-sided beating to Josh Barnett on Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
Cormier was not supposed to be there. The 2004 Olympic bronze medalist was an alternate as the tournament began, an afterthought not quite ready to shed the “promising” label and rub shoulders with such an accomplished cast of heavyweights. For Cormier, who began his mixed martial arts career at 30, there simply was not enough time to ease into his development.
The 33-year-old American Kickboxing Academy product was given a golden opportunity when Overeem exited the tournament following a win over Fabricio Werdum in June; Cormier seized it by the throat and never looked back. Each of the three fights on Cormier’s path to glory demonstrated parts of his rapid progression.
He showcased his improving standup against Jeff Monson, eschewing his wrestling to outstrike the well-traveled veteran over the course of three rounds. In his first official tournament bout, Cormier displayed his remarkable speed and power in dispatching the much larger -- and heavily favored -- Antonio Silva. On Saturday, against a Top 10 heavyweight who had not lost a fight in nearly six years, Cormier was the total package.
He let his hands go in round one, working the head and body of the former UFC champion with equal aplomb. When Barnett initiated the clinch, Cormier deftly changed angles so “The Warmaster” could not take advantage of his superior size. In the second frame, Cormier went back to his roots, scoring a takedown and busting open Barnett with elbows in a powerful ground-and-pound assault.
The highlight of the match came in the third frame, as Cormier dumped his opponent to the canvas with a highlight-reel high crotch slam that was equal parts strength and technique. Meanwhile, the Californian stuffed Barnett’s lone takedown effort, keeping his sterling 100 percent defense rate intact.
“That’s about as close to taking Cormier down as anybody’s been in this sport,” Strikeforce analyst Pat Miletich remarked as the 37-fight veteran attempted to wrestle his adversary to the canvas. And it was not even that close.
The 5-foot-11 Cormier rocked Barnett toward the end of the third stanza with a right head kick and then fired off a couple more high kicks toward the beginning of round four. Barnett’s last real threat came when he rolled for a heel hook after a Cormier takedown, but the AKA product was able to slide his leg out of the submission attempt. From there, it was academic, as Cormier rode out an uneventful final round to announce his official arrival as one of the top heavyweights in the world.
“It feels amazing. I look down at the names on this belt, and it’s a complete honor to actually be wearing it. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Cormier said in an interview with Showtime Sports. “This ranks right up there with making my Olympic teams. This is the most important thing that has ever happened to me outside of my children. Thank you, Strikeforce and Showtime, for giving me the opportunity.”
Now comes the hard part. At one time, Strikeforce’s heavyweight roster rivaled -- and perhaps even surpassed -- that of the UFC’s. As of Saturday, Cormier and Barnett were the last two big men left under contract with the promotion. The grand prix finalists will be a tough act to follow for this week’s all-heavyweight, main-card extravaganza. The matchup was as good as anything UFC 146 has to offer; if the title tilt between Junior dos Santos and Frank Mir gets top billing, then Cormier-Barnett would be no worse than 1A on the same card.
There simply are not many fighters over 230 pounds who can go five hard rounds like Cormier and Barnett did. One of those who probably could, former UFC champion Cain Velasquez, was in the audience cheering on his AKA training partner as he rolled through Barnett.
“I owe [my striking] to my teammates,” Cormier said. “They’re all right here. Those guys kick my ass every day. That means I can go with anybody else in the world.”
As of now, it is not difficult to visualize Cormier beating anyone in the UFC outside of the Big Three of dos Santos, Velasquez and Overeem. Unfortunately, the term “plus one” might keep us from finding out whether that is true until 2013. Brittle hands do not rank as Cormier’s greatest obstacles to immediate success, though they are a serious concern. Instead, it is the fine print in Cormier’s Strikeforce contract that promises one more fight to Showtime after the conclusion of the grand prix. You can bet, especially after his performance against Barnett, that the network will want to cash in on that stipulation. Strikeforce is currently a wonderful bargain for Showtime, which gets to produce a live sports product for a relatively cheap price.
In college football vernacular, “plus-one” has always been a tantalizing term that represents a significant step toward crowning a true national champion. In Cormier’s case, it means he could be locked into a meaningless fight and an anticlimactic conclusion to his Strikeforce career.
The list of potential opponents outside the Zuffa umbrella is scarce. Bellator Fighting Championships heavyweight titleholder Cole Konrad is not walking through that door. Let us hope Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski or the like is not, either. UFC President Dana White has already made his distaste for the way Showtime handles its business abundantly clear. He will have to set aside his differences with the network if Cormier is to get a worthwhile fight before 2012 concludes.
The talk of bringing fighters from the UFC has often been rumored, especially when it comes to Gilbert Melendez, but it has never come to fruition. The lack of depth in the heavyweight division makes it more of a necessity in Cormier’s case. Give him Shane Carwin, Travis Browne or anyone who does not consider it an affront to his pride to leave the Octagon for one big-ticket fight. Somebody has to be willing to step up to face one of the best heavyweights in the sport, right?
So, yes, this was Daniel Cormier’s weekend, but given his contractual obligations, it might not be his year. As one of the sport’s fastest rising stars, there is no time like the present to maximize his talents.