Cormier (10-0) dominated veteran Josh Barnett over the course of five rounds Saturday, claiming the belt from a tournament he didn’t even have a spot in when it was announced in 2010.
Strikeforce is a difficult realm in the current landscape of mixed martial arts in which to make noise, but Cormier has been the exception to that rule. No heavyweight’s stock has risen more in the past two years than that of the former Olympic wrestler.
“If you look at the heavyweight group that fought in this tournament, I think it’s something Daniel should be very proud of,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker told ESPN.com.
“It’s an amazing feat. I mean, Fedor [Emelianenko], Alistair [Overeem], [Antonio] Silva, Josh Barnett -- he didn’t have it easy.”
The improbable road through the Grand Prix started with a unanimous decision win over Jeff Monson in June. Cormier then went on to knock out Antonio Silva before handling Barnett.
Silva is currently the No. 10-ranked heavyweight on ESPN.com. Barnett was ranked No. 5 heading into the finale.
As is often the case in this sport, it wasn’t just the names of the competitors Cormier defeated. The most impressive moments hide in the details.
At the postfight news conference, Cormier admitted he had reinjured his right hand in the first round -- the same hand that caused a delay in the Grand Prix finals since September.
Daniel Cormier, left, has come a long way since the Strikeforce GP tournament began.
He hid it amazingly well the rest of the way and later speculated he’d undergo surgery now that the tournament is finished.
“I followed our game plan,” Cormier said. “Josh did great. He fought hard in there. He was in my face. I couldn’t believe some of the shots I landed on him and he was able to stay up. I think I broke my hand in the first round.”
His cardio held up well over the course of his first five-round fight, and he showed a terrific ability to slow down the pace during the only time he was really in trouble. After eating a straight right, then a knee from Barnett while regaining his balance from a body kick attempt, Cormier locked up his bigger opponent and survived.
As was the case when he fought Monson, the evolution of his standup was what stuck out most. He landed strikes on the inside and out, and seemed to have Barnett in trouble during the third round with knees from the Thai clinch.
“The thing I’m impressed with is that he comes from Olympic wrestling,” Coker said. “If you saw his fight against Jeff Monson, you said, ‘Who is this guy?’ He was a kickboxer in that fight, and today he was a complete martial arts fighter.”
Cormier will fulfill one more obligation with Strikeforce, a title defense of his Grand Prix belt against an unnamed opponent, possibly this year.
All that could wait Saturday night, however, as the 33-year-old Cormier simply wanted to enjoy the moment. For a man who suffered the loss of his father when he was young and a daughter to a car accident a few years ago, and who has experienced many wins in his career but perhaps never the big one -- it’s an understandable request.
“All the negative things that have happened in my life prepared me for this,” Cormier said. “Everything has kind of turned around.
“Not only is my career going well, but I’ve got two young kids and a great girlfriend. My family life is perfect. Everything is on the up and up.”