Remember that thing called the “Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix”? Well, it’s finally coming to a close tonight. That’s right, the tournament that began 15 months ago. Let’s take a look at what has happened during all the time since this baby began:
–Fedor Emelianenko helped open the tournament last February with a loss to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. Since then, he has added another loss to Dan Henderson, said goodbye to Strikeforce, and has fought and won twice outside of the Zuffa banner. That’s three fights since his first round Grand Prix fight, and he hasn’t even fought in 2012!
–Since he beat Fabricio Werdum in the June installment of the opening round, Alistair Overeem has had time to get himself involved in a controversy over not participating in the second round, get “cut” (which didn’t turn out to be accurate) by Strikeforce, sign with Zuffa, send Brock Lesnar into retirement, show elevated levels of testosterone in a drug test for the NAC, and has already waited two of the nine months before he can apply for a license to fight again.
I think you get the point. If not, let me remind you that way back when this thing began last February, neither UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo or UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz had defended their new titles yet. Hell, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was still the light heavyweight champ! Not only had Zuffa not purchased Strikeforce yet, but the WEC merger was only a month and a half old.
To say the overwhelming length of this eight-man tournament has been a missed opportunity is a tremendous understatement. Nonetheless, the final should be a good fight and a nice way to put a stamp on the end of Strikeforce’s heavyweight division. Let’s get to it.
Nah-Shon Burrell vs. Chris Spang
And you may ask yourself, “Why the hell is this on the main card?” And you may say to yourself, “I can’t believe they have Gegard Mousasi toiling on the prelims!” And you may say to yourself, “My God! What has Strikeforce done?!?”
Burrell is a decent enough striker, though it’s at 22 years old and coming off of a difficult victory over Terry Martin, he’s not yet a can’t-miss prospect. Still, Strikeforce clearly believes in him (or just hates Mousasi), and is feeding him the young, inexperienced Spang to help him get his groove back.
I haven’t seen a lot of Spang, but what I have seen does not bode well. He is a pretty good offensive striker with some nice kicks, but also has proven susceptible to leg kicks, which happen to be Burrell’s bread and butter. Burrell also is a varied striker who doesn’t shy away from any techniques and mixes things up nicely. If he needed to, I think he could take Spang down, as well. This is a pretty safe pick unless Burrell just takes a dump tonight. I think he wears down and finishes Spang in a much easier fight than he had against Terry.
Prediction: Burrell by KO/TKO
Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante vs. Mike Kyle
While this matchup would seem to favor Feijao in many ways, Kyle has the kind of game-changing power (and a previous win over Feijao) to put a little fear into the former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion.
In their previous matchup, cardio seemed to spell Feijao’s doom. Now, coming off an eight month layoff which is indicative of the inactivity levels Strikeforce’s remaining fighters have been dealing with, will Feijao be in shape? Motivated? What about Kyle, who isn’t exactly a cardio king himself?
Kyle’s takedown defense is not usually very impressive, which is my main reservation here. Feijao can certainly win the first round and maybe the second with well-timed takedowns and some control on the mat before he starts to wear down too much. Picking Kyle essentially boils down to betting that he can land a fight-changing punch or two, since you can’t depend on him to remain upright for long.
However, with Feijao having been finished twice in his last five fights by punches, as well as with Kyle having been on a tear that was only interrupted by his crazy, but admirable decision to take on Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in December of 2010, I can see Kyle pulling off the upset. I hope you didn’t bet on this one, though, because there’s no way to know which one will be more motivated here, and I think cardio could be the deciding factor.
Prediction: Kyle by KO/TKO
Strikeforce Lightweight Championship
Gilbert Melendez (#3 LW) vs. Josh Thomson
I hate to be a downer, but this fight doesn’t really do anyone any good. The fans would be better off seeing Melendez in the UFC at this point. Melendez does very little for himself (besides padding his wallet a bit) with a win over Thomson, who he already has beaten decisively. Thomson realistically has little chance to win, as injuries have ensured that his best years are sadly behind him.
I like Thomson, but he has had so much trouble staying healthy that his in-cage performances have really suffered over the past few years. Thomson hasn’t really looked good since 2008, which is coincidentally the same year that he had the biggest win over his career in his first bout with Melendez. Since then, he hasn’t been dynamic like he used to be, largely because his injuries have harmed his cardio by keeping him from having good training camps.
Meanwhile, Melendez has as big a gas tank as anyone in the division, and you’d be crazy to not think he will push the pace tonight. Even when they’re both fresh, Melendez is as good a striker as Thomson (though Thomson has more variety in his techniques, mostly because he throws some nice kicks in for good measure) and is now a superior wrestler, especially in the scrambles where Melendez really shines.
Thomson is in for a long night, even if he has a bright spot here and there with a decent combination or a good sprawl. As the fight wears on, Melendez will make it clearer and clearer that this fight shouldn’t have happened, and I think he’ll even get the late finish (which would make him the first fighter since Yves Edwards way back in 2004 to finish Thomson, by the way).
Prediction: Melendez by KO/TKO
Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix Final
Josh Barnett (#7 HW) vs. Daniel Cormier (#8 HW)
This is a very difficult fight to pick. Let’s look at some things to think about in regard to each fighter:
–This is Barnett’s toughest opponent since he faced Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira way back in 2006.
–Meanwhile, Cormier is undefeated but has never faced anyone with Barnett’s unique skill set, which combines crafty clinch techniques with elite control and submissions from the top.
–Cormier has obvious power, but Barnett has been knocked out all of once in his 15-year career- a career in which he’s faced knockout artists such as Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic (twice, and in his prime, no less), Gilbert Yvel, Mark Hunt, Semmy Schilt (twice), Pedro Rizzo (twice- Rizzo knocked him out the one time), Brett Rogers, and Sergei Kharitonov.
–Also, while Barnett has always had good cardio, Cormier appears to be a good candidate for a drop to 205 pounds. We haven’t seen Cormier really wear down yet, but this is a five round fight against a very experienced veteran.
It’s a lot to take into effect, along with the fact that each man is in his mid-30′s and coming off an eight-month layoff. It’s easy to say that Cormier will get the better of the striking, but Barnett is a very underrated technical striker who is fairly adept at hitting while not getting hit (that’s the point, right?), even if his technique is not very sexy. Cormier certainly has the advantage in power, and could possibly catch Barnett, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Cormier would seem to have the wrestling advantage, too, but this isn’t a wrestling meet. Barnett isn’t going to drop down into a wrestling stance and grapple Cormier in the middle of the cage. Barnett is a very intelligent fighter and will pressure Cormier and use the cage to wear him down with his weight advantage while working some takedowns from the clinch. If Cormier has been working a lot on his clinch game, he may be able to neutralize some of that, which is imperative because Josh’s top game on the mat is nothing short of elite.
If this wasn’t a five-round fight, I would lean toward Cormier, who I think could win the first couple of rounds, or at least two of the first three. However, I think Barnett wears him down and takes the championship rounds in an intriguing, yet methodical fight.
Prediction: Barnett by decision