What a difference a few months makes, huh?
Four months ago, the second-biggest MMA promotion in America, Strikeforce, was still struggling to make their mark on America’s radar. After several attempts to import successful Japanese promoting tactics (the occasional freak show match, talent trades with DREAM, etc.), they set 2011 off with a bang – the Strikeforce World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament.
The eight participants (Fedor Emelianenko, Josh Barnett, Fabricio Werdum, Strikeforce heavyweight champ Alistair Overeem, Brett Rogers, Antonio Silva, Andrei Arlovski, and Sergei Kharitonov) and subsequent opening round were celebrated by fans and MMA media alike. The WHGP looked to be the closest thing to a legit heavyweight tournament since the PRIDE Fighting Championships 2006 Openweight Grand Prix, which featured Barnett, Overeem, Werdum (in their first match, ironically enough), Fedor Emelianenko, Hidehiko Yoshida, Mirko Cro Cop, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, among others.
Jump ahead to this month and, to say the least, things have changed. Unfortunately, issues of finding a state where Josh Barnett could get licensed (due to being denied a California license in 2009 after testing positive for steroids) delayed the second bracket of opening round matches, not to mention ‘The Sale,’ which could easily have ended up as the death knell to this tournament going forward.
Thankfully, this tournament is still ‘business as usual,’ as UFC President Dana White promised when Zuffa bought Strikeforce in March. That phrase became something of an ironic punchline when Strikeforce staff was let go shortly after the purchase, as well as announcing Georges St-Pierre vs. Nick Diaz for UFC 135. Notwithstanding whatever contractual obligations Zuffa is forced to fulfill to Showtime, its wholly possible that Strikeforce’s heavyweights could have been absorbed into the UFC and the tournament scrapped altogether.
Unfortunately, the tournament does have a lame-duck feel to it in light of recent developments, but if nothing else, hopefully we’ll get to see some exciting heavyweight action.
Here’s a breakdown on this weekend’s card, including the second bracket of opening round matches of the Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix:
170 lbs. – Nah-Shon Burrell x Joe Ray: Burrell and Ray’s records are identical (5-1), though Burrell clearly is the striker, with all of his wins coming by TKO / KO. Ray reportedly trains with American Top Team, and splits his wins 3-2 striking finishes to submissions. Ray’s competition has been stiffer, including a third-round KO over 27-13 Chad Reiner.
Prediction: Ray via submission (round one)
170 lbs. – Todd Moore x Mike Bronzoulis: Expect fireworks in this match, as both fighters come in very evenly matched in record. Moore fought in WEC and DREAM, though he didn’t fare well. His last match was a second-round TKO win in November 2010. Moore will be giving up size here, as someone who appears to alter between lightweights and heavyweights, whereas Bronzoulis stands 6’0”. Both men have eight TKO / KO victories to their record, so conventional wisdom would dictate this plays out as a striking match.
Prediction: Bronzoulis via TKO (round three)
155 lbs. – Brian Melancon x Isaac Vallie-Flag: Bit of an experience difference here, with Melancon sporting a 5-1 record while Vallie-Flag stands at 11-3-1, with fights going as far back as 2003. Even more impressive is that Vallie-Flag, now training at Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, has fought 2-3 times since 2006. If experience is on Vallie-Flag’s side, youth could be on Melancon’s, however, as his recent wins were over fighters with up sided records similar to Vallie-Flag’s.
Prediction: Vallie-Flag via submission (round two or three) or decision
155 lbs. – Conor ‘The Hurricane’ Heun x Magno Almeida: The storyline here is Heun, a grappling talent with high expectations who’s suffered injuries and inactivity in the past two years, against Almeida, a young prospect on a five-match submission win streak, four of which in the first round, dating back to 2008. Heun hit the restart button on his training earlier this year at Jackson’s MMA, and reportedly has been training hard with that team’s usual suspects. His two losses, against KJ Noons in 2010 and Jorge Gurgel in 2009, were incredibly close decisions which I thought he win. This is a gut-check match for the former collegiate wrestler and 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu brown belt. As for Almeida, this marks his ‘big show’ debut, though he has finishes against decent competition in Brazil and California. I’d expect Almeida to stick to his bread-and-butter and try to take this match to the ground. Heun should keep this match standing, as he has against stiffer competition. This match will be broadcast live on HDNet.
Prediction: Heun via unanimous decision
155 lbs. – Gesias ‘J.Z.’ Cavalcante x Justin ‘The Silverback’ Wilcox: Wilcox is an AKA (San Jose) fighter riding a six-fight win streak. Those wins are mostly decisions on Strikeforce Challengers shows or the untelevised portion of major Strikeforce events. After an eight-match win streak from 2005-2007, Cavalcante is in fact 1-3-1 since 2008. That said, his losses were decisions to Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Josh Thompson, respectively. Handing Wilcox his first defeat would put Cavalcante back on people’s radar, though Wilcox, as a former body builder and D-1 wrestler, has the strength and pedigree to hold his own grappling with JZ. I expect that to play a major factor in what happens in the cage here. This match will be broadcast live on HDNet.
Prediction: Wilcox via split decision
265 lbs. – Valentijn Overeem x Chad Griggs: This is one of two ‘alternates matches’ to the tournament. Make no doubt, Griggs is dangerous. He summarily dismissed Gian Villante, a rising heavyweight that Xtreme Couture had prepped and built. He also ran Bobby Lashley to the point of exhaustion by round two when they squared off last August in Houston. Overeem’s experience in comparison is on another level, with over 50 MMA fights alone. This elder Overeem (by four years) may have too much jiu-jitsu for Griggs, and though Griggs can take a punch, the guys he’s faced in the past aren’t of Overeem’s striking pedigree. If Griggs can execute a strategy of fighting from the clinch, where Overeem can’t throw long power shots, but also avoid Overeem taking the bout to the ground, that may be a viable strategy. Otherwise, I expect Overeem to be one of the two alternates to this (hopefully) continued tournament.
Prediction: Overeem via TKO or submission (round one)
265 lbs. – Daniel Cormier x Jeff ‘The Snowman’ Monson: This is the tournament’s other alternates match. Monson replaces Shane Del Rosario, who withdraw from the match after being hit by a drunk driver. Cormier is a former NCAA Division 1 runner-up and All-American, with a plethora of gold medals in international wrestling tournaments from 2001-2007. Monson is a noted Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and one of the top heavyweight grapplers in the world, having ranked and won numerous tournaments during those same years. To that end, Monson as a close grappling equal, is a more dangerous challenge for Cormier, who rides a 7-0 undefeated streak. Monson is a seasoned 42-11, and has already fought three times this year. In fact, he has a match in France scheduled three weeks before this event. If this goes to the ground, it could be a very interesting scrap, as Cormier might have the grappling to stay on par with Monson. Standing, Cormier could have the advantage.
Prediction: Monson via unanimous decision
155 lbs. – KJ Noons x Jorge Masvidal: The 10-3 (in MMA) K.J. Noons faces Masvidal’s veteran record of 21-6 in Masvidal, a Miami-based former street-fighter. Noons comes off a five-round war with Nick Diaz from last year, while Masvidal rides of a decision win over Billy Evangelista from March. Standing, Noons should be able to pick Masvidal apart, who hasn’t lost by strikes since 2008 (including going the distance with Paul Daley). Masvidal is associated with American Top Team in Florida, so I’d expect him to be polishing his jiu Jitsu for this fight.
Prediction: Noons via unanimous decision or TKO (round two or three)
265 lbs. – Josh Barnett vs. Brett Rogers: One of the two opening round tournament matches in bracket #2. Rogers returns to Strikeforce after a quick parlay to beat Ruben Villareal (who’s known for a hard chin) via unanimous decision. After 10 consecutive TKO / KO victories, Rogers got a taste of his own TKO medicine from Fedor Emelianenko and Strikeforce champ Alistair Overeem. Like Andrei Arlovski, this tournament is an opportunity to see if Rogers got his mojo back. Conventional wisdom sees Barnett taking Rogers down and threatening submissions. That may require taking some speed knots from the heavy-handed Rogers, but Barnett should still have his chin. Villareal doesn’t have Barnett’s ground game, so if Rogers’ previous match is any indication of his KO power, hopefully ‘The Grim’ is working on his grappling.
Here’s a nice little “empty arena” match, but also an example of how EVERY pro wrestler, MMA fighter, and quite frankly, the entire democratic party, should package what they’re selling:
Prediction: Barnett via unanimous decision
265 lbs. – Alistair Overeem vs. Fabricio Werdum: This tournament opening-round match has all the makings: a reigning champion enters the tournament, revenge against his opponent over a loss in a previous tournament (PRIDE Total Elimination Absolute in 2006), that opponent dethroning the People’s Champ (Fedor), anxious to prove it wasn’t a fluke win. Overeem is on a roll right now, finishing his last six opponents (nine if you don’t include the no-contest with Mirko Cro Cop. In MMA, he hasn’t recently faced competition the likes of Werdum, though any question about his hand and legs should view the K-1 World Grand Prix from December, where Overeem finished Gokhan Saki and Pete Aerts in one night (after winning a unanimous decision quarter final match). As “The Man Who Beat Fedor,” Werdum rides high on that accolade, though his career be hot and cold as well. He won his last three, but was TKO’ed prior to that by Junior dos Santos. Before that, he finished Brandon Vera and Gabriel Gonzaga. And prior to that, he dropped a decision to Andrei Arlovski. In their 2006 PRIDE match, Werdum submitted (a smaller, albeit only slightly) Overeem in round two. Will history repeat itself?
Prediction: Overeem via KO (round one)
There’s two interesting parts to this weekend’s show. One of course is the question of who advances in the tournament and how do the subsequent matches pair up. The other, which is part of the bigger picture, is what the matches say about these eight fighters’ place and relevance in the UFC.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen four of the UFC’s top heavyweights (Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Junior Dos Santos, Shane Carwin) compete in matches important enough to have title shot ramifications. And although one match was given Fight of the Night honors while the other one was booed by fans, both were one-sided decisions that left the UFC title picture flatter than expected. Conversely, only one of the four matches of the first bracket in the WGPH, Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva, went past the first round. In that match, Fedor’s stamina and resolve to surviving punishment was quite similar to Carwin’s.
All of these heavyweights are competitive enough to compete in the UFC, and given the speed at which Strikeforce fighters are being absorbed into the octagon, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the winner of this tournament challenging the winner of Cain Velasquez x Junior Dos Santos in early 2012. That injection of new competition will certainly be a shot in the arm for that weight class. In the meantime, expect more fireworks from Saturday’s behemoths, serving as a reminder of why people were excited for this tournament to begin with.