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Five things to look for at Strikeforce

5/19/2012

It took 15 months and some monumental forks in the road to arrive at the end point of the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix. No, it didn’t go the way people thought it would, nor the way many hoped. There isn’t going to be Fedor Emelianenko versus Josh Barnett. That fight, for its entire luster, never could come to terms with fate. Not in Pride, not in Affliction, not in Strikeforce.

However, of the eight-man field that was rolled out in January 2011 as the greatest stock of heavyweights ever assembled, Barnett was the steady. He was supposed to be in the final, and he is. He got there by competing in the quarterfinal (a submission of Brett Rogers) and the semis (a submission of Sergei Kharitonov). Isn’t it strange that the man with the most asterisks coming into the tournament was in the end the only one who could stick to the script?

On the other hand, Daniel Cormier’s course was improbable. He was an alternate to this tournament. A deep alternate. He was the 11th man in an eight-man field. Yet he worked over Jeff Monson on the same night Barnett clubbed Rogers in something called a “reserve bout.” Then Cormier found his entry when Alistair Overeem was unceremoniously removed. What did Cormier do? He obliterated heavy favorite Antonio Silva on the feet with speed and power.

And that’s how we arrive at the moment. The old “War Master” Barnett, against the opportunistic, understudy-turned-contender Cormier. The 1-seed versus the 11. Just how crazy has the 15-month journey been to San Jose? Crazy enough that sports books have these guys at even money heading into Saturday night.

Here are five things to watch for at Strikeforce this weekend.

Cormier’s lack of experience

Daniel Cormier is a nerves-of-steel guy. He is always relaxed. Right before his fight with Bigfoot Silva, he wore and expression that said, “I wouldn’t mind a nap” more than “I’m about to lay waste to somebody.” Needless to say, Cormier keeps himself cool under pressure.

This can be attributed to his wrestling days at Oklahoma State and later as a part of the 2004 U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Cormier has competed his whole life. You really believe that fighting -- for all its literal brutality -- is just another competition for him. He believes in his ability and knows he has deceptive explosiveness and speed. In short, his confidence shows in that calm expression.

Yet with only nine professional MMA bouts, and realistically only one of those against a top-10 opponent, how will he handle a submission specialist like Barnett? Even when training with the likes of Mike Kyle and Cain Velasquez, it’s hard to duplicate the strength and slickness of Barnett, who has been at this a long, long time (since he was 19 years old, to be exact). Cormier will very likely find himself in fixes he hasn’t been in before in the cage. How will he handle himself?

Barnett’s comfort zone

Everybody knows what Barnett likes to do. He likes to muscle you to the ground, straighten you out, and work for submissions from that top position. He’s not afraid to punch a hole in your head, either. Just ask Pedro Rizzo and Gilbert Yvel. But Barnett's most effective way of finishing a guy is to put him on his back and then fish for limbs to manipulate.

Dating back to 2006, Barnett has finished foes via toeholds, heel hooks, kimuras and arm triangle chokes. He does these things more with brute force than textbook jiu-jitsu. In Cormier, Barnett gets a guy who has never been made to fight off his back and has never had his shoulder joint pressured into a panic situation.

But the bigger questions are these: Can Barnett get Cormier to the ground? And if so, can he keep him there?

Melendez’s motivation

Trilogies are usually pretty personal grudge matches. In the case of Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson, it feels more like a necessary evil. At least to Melendez, who will be asked to duplicate what he did in 2009 when he smoked Thomson in the rematch to unify the interim and meaningful belts. That fight was so definitive that most thought he was done with Thomson for good.

Well, circumstance has made that impossible. Thomson gets a chance to strip Melendez of his belt a second time because the “Punk” was the best option available on Strikeforce’s depleted roster. It’s a rubber match that benefits Thomson a thousand times more than Melendez, because third chances rarely come along.

Which begs the same question that has fallen to Melendez for the past year: How motivated will he be to again prove himself against Thomson? Knowing the work ethic of “El Nino,” it’s easy to expect to see him in vintage form. But complacency is a hard-to-detect virus that usually gets discovered after it’s too late. Will Melendez suffer from this?

(Probably not, but you never know ...)

Thomson’s attitude

The first time Thomson fought Melendez in 2008, it was as if Thomson was showing up for a day of capers and fun. He was smiling the whole time. He was loose. There were moments when it almost felt like he was messing with his younger brother, just fooling around. Every so often he would do something to remind Melendez that, when serious, he could dictate things how he wanted.

But the key to that fight was that Thomson was first. He was quick with the leg kicks. He was effective with his combinations. He would shoot now and again for a takedown and keep Melendez off balance. Thomson thwarted Melendez’s wrestling. And by being the aggressor, he disrupted Melendez’s timing and flow. Can he do that again?

Remember, Thomson had broken (and rebroken) his fibula before that rematch with Melendez in 2009, and he was carrying some ring rust after 15 months on the shelf. Chances are we'll see a combination of those two fights with one similarity: that it goes the full five rounds.

Feijao returns

Though it’s getting very little fanfare, former 205-pound champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante returns to the cage on Saturday night against Mike Kyle. Remember, Cavalcante is the guy who beat Muhammad Lawal to win the Strikeforce belt not all that long ago. And, in his title defense against Dan Henderson, there was a moment where it looked like Cavalcante had Hendo in trouble.

It’s been eight months since Feijao beat Cuban freestyle wrestler Yoel Romero, a fight that Cavalcante finished even with a broken arm. He’s still one of the best 205ers in the world, and a win over a tough Kyle might make Feijao a tempting property for the UFC to bring over and fortify its own light heavyweight division. After all, the list of contenders for Jon Jones has shrunk down to Henderson and change.