MMA: Josh Barnett
Mir (16-8) will try to end a three-fight losing streak when he meets Alistair Overeem during the main card of UFC 169 on Saturday at the Prudential Center.
Regardless of the outcome, Mir, 34, says he can't even fathom this fight could be his last, and he's less than convinced the UFC would cut ties with him should he lose.
The former heavyweight champ is comfortable heading into the matchup, despite his recent skid. In fact, he views his losing streak differently than some others.
"I kind of know no matter what, it's not going to be my last fight," Mir told ESPN.com. "I'm still younger than a lot of the guys in the division.
"There are two ways I would consider retirement. One is losing to guys who are not top-level competition. The other is if I started losing where it's like, 'OK man, you were knocked out viciously and staring at the rafters.' I won't endanger my health."
Mir is steadfast in his belief that neither of those scenarios is currently playing out. He still shakes his head at referee Rob Hinds' decision to stop his most recent bout against Josh Barnett in the first round at UFC 164 after he absorbed a knee along the fence.
The other two losses -- to Daniel Cormier and Junior dos Santos -- were disappointing for Mir, but not inexcusable. And in no way evidence that his career is over.
"I'm sorry if those three losses aren't killing my ego," Mir said. "Let's see, the losing streak started with Junior dos Santos, the No. 1 heavyweight in the world at the time. Then I lost to Cormier in a pretty boring fight and then to Barnett, which to me was a no-contest because the fight had a very controversial stoppage.
"Look at who I've fought. I should retire? Wow. We'd only have five guys in every weight class, because everybody else would need to retire."
The Nevada State Athletic Commission requested Mir undergo additional brain tests for precautionary reasons last year when the UFC initially wanted to book his fight against Overeem at UFC 167 in November.
Mir agreed and says he passed every exam with no issues, although the fight was eventually moved to February anyway.
The delay actually produced several benefits, none bigger than the addition of former UFC heavyweight James McSweeney (12-11) to Mir's camp. McSweeney, who fights out of Las Vegas, has trained alongside Overeem in the past.
"McSweeney is a guy who was trained by the same trainer as Alistair," Mir said. "I really don't think I could find a better person to simulate him."
In addition to McSweeney, Travis Browne (16-1-1) was a part-time presence in Mir's camp. He was in Las Vegas for the final week of preparations before Mir flew to Newark. Browne (16-1-1) knocked out Overeem at UFC Fight Night 26 in August.
Like Mir, Overeem (36-13) is also battling a losing streak, having been stopped in consecutive fights by Antonio Silva and Browne. But as far as an opponent to try and bounce back against, Mir says he hasn't exactly been given a gimme fight.
That can be a problem when you're a former champion who sells tickets. A nice easy win over a no-name opponent might have been a good way to boost confidence. Mir claims, however, he's happy the UFC never steered him that way. The losses have made him grow as a martial artist.
"I prefer this route that I've taken," Mir said. "These hardships have made me stronger."
Truthfully, the circumstances surrounding his first fight were far more intimidating.
Browne (15-1-1) has come a long way since February 2009, when he made his professional debut for a promotion named Cage of Fire in Tijuana, Mexico.
It was the best opportunity Browne’s management could find at the time. He would open the show as part of the very first prelim, for which the promotion would pay him $250 to show plus a potential $250 win bonus.
Monetary compensation was really the least of Browne’s concerns. At the time, Tijuana was caught up in frequent turmoil, as U.S. and Mexican officials were cracking down on the city’s drug cartels.
Browne, who moved to San Diego from Hawaii, had read several unpleasant news reports coming out of the area where the event would be held.
“They were pushing to get the drugs out of Tijuana,” Browne said. “Cartels were hanging cops from bridges and shooting tourists walking down the street.”
Browne eventually agreed to do the fight. The promotion offered to put him up in a Tijuana hotel the day of the weigh-in, but he declined; the less time in “TJ,” he thought, the better.
On Feb. 6, 2009, the day of the weigh-in, Browne parked his car on the U.S. border and walked into Mexico. He took a 20-minute cab ride to a high school-size theater, placing his sports bag against the window along the way so people couldn't see in.
There was no drug testing for the event, Browne said, only a piece of paper that stated he wouldn't legally go after the promotion if he suffered injury.
At least, he thought, he wasn't facing a local fighter. He didn't want a Tijuana crowd cheering against him. That was one of really only two requests he had in terms of an opponent: Avoid locals and giant Samoans.
“I had told my manager I’d fight anyone, just try not to get a Samoan for my first fight,” Browne said. “I fought those kinds of guys growing up in Hawaii and dude, they are ruthless.”
Upon arriving at the weigh-in, Browne met his opponent, Evan Langford -- a 290-pound Polynesian.
“I was like, ‘Ah fricken-ay,'” Browne said.
The day of the fight, Browne repeated the process -- parking at the border and taking a cab to the auditorium. He was the first fighter to walk out that night, before a crowd of perhaps, “a couple thousand people.”
Two of his strongest memories of the night involve smells. The hallway he walked out of, big enough for just one person to walk through, smelled of bleach and ammonia. The concrete flooring appeared to have been freshly soaked with both.
When he walked into the arena, it smelled like smoke. Whether that was from the crowd or the surprising pyrotechnics used in production, Browne doesn't know.
The fight itself lasted 43 seconds. Browne dropped Langford immediately with a left hook and eventually finished it via TKO, landing a left head kick in the final seconds.
Promotion officials invited Browne and his team to stay in Mexico for the night and attend after-parties -- Browne respectfully grabbed his paycheck and bounced.
“As soon as I got my money, I bailed,” Browne said. “They were like, 'Come by the “Coko Bongo” Mega Nightclub afterward,' and I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure. I’m just going to get something to eat.’ We took off.”
Browne said his friend owned a bus he had renovated into a “party bus” of sorts. He picked Browne up from the fight and drove straight back to the U.S. In terms of a celebration, Browne said they caught dinner at Applebees and that was it.
Twenty days later, he fought again at a casino in Highland, Calif. He crammed seven fights into 2009 and signed a contract with the UFC in 2010.
This weekend’s bout against Barnett will likely go a long way in determining the division’s next No. 1 contender. Browne said he hasn't been told specifically what’s next for the winner, but believes it will be a date with Fabricio Werdum.
“I read something that Dana [White] was saying he wants the winner of me and Barnett to fight Werdum for the No. 1 spot and I agree with that,” Browne said.
Seems like a high-pressure situation, for sure -- but Browne, as we all know, doesn't rattle easy.
“[Overeem] had heat-seeking ability in those knees,” Browne said. “He’s always had devastating knees.”
Indeed, Browne survived a vicious 40-second tirade of strikes and knees from the former Strikeforce and K-1 heavyweight champion and came back to knock out Overeem in the first round at UFC Fight Night 26 on Aug. 17.
It was a gutsy performance by Browne, who, compared to most UFC fighters, is a relative latecomer to MMA, having taken up the sport professionally in 2009 and only first stepped foot in a jiu-jitsu dojo at 25.
Six years later, the 31-year-old is on the cusp of becoming the No. 1 contender for the UFC heavyweight title, if he can defeat veteran and former UFC champ Josh Barnett at UFC 168 on Dec. 28. The winner will face Fabricio Werdum for the next title shot when champion Cain Velasquez returns from injury.
As he was against Overeem, Browne is once again a decided underdog at plus-170 odds, according to most MMA betting websites. But Browne is used to that and doesn’t sweat it.
“I don’t have a combat sports background, so I’ll always be the underdog,” Browne said. “I want to be the best and fight the best. But people who know will tell you I’m just a big softie. I’m more of a lover than a fighter.”
And who doesn’t love an underdog?
Browne is half Hawaiian, and his nickname “Hapa” literally means “half.” Browne says his middle name, Kuualiialoha, means “Prince of Love” in Hawaiian. And while the literal translation from a Hawaiian-English dictionary might suggest something more along the lines of “beloved child,” either way Browne holds his Hawaiian heritage dear to him as a symbol of his compassion, as well as his warrior pride.
Raised in Hawaii until he was 10, Browne learned to swim, surf and do anything but fight. He dabbled in a little karate, but he admits he was an “emotional kid.”
“I cried a lot,” he laughed.
Sadly, his parents’ divorce took him and his mother to San Diego where he eventually developed into a standout basketball player. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, Browne dominated his local competition and had offers to play some smaller schools and even semi-pro leagues overseas.
“I had good quickness to play a big 3 or small 4, maybe even the 2 at times, depending on the lineup. I could play on the perimeter or down low. I was a strong kid and liked the contact.”
I told my buddy 'show me how you do [jiu-jitsu]', and he put me in an armbar. I was hooked and just became obsessed with it.” -- Travis Browne, on his start in mixed martial arts
After one season at Palomar College, Browne gave up the hard court and took to the mats. On a whim, a buddy convinced him to try jiu-jitsu.
“I told my buddy, 'Show me how you do [jiu-jitsu],' and he put me in an armbar,” Browne said. “I was hooked and just became obsessed with it.”
Browne began in at Oceanside’s North County Fight Club, the starting point for fellow UFC heavyweight Joey Beltran. After the fight club disbanded, Browne landed at Alliance MMA for a while and developed his wrestling and muay Thai skills. It wasn’t until he joined Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn’s gym in Albuquerque, N.M., however, that Browne’s career took off.
Browne’s laid-back style and warrior spirit is a juxtaposition that fits in well with the Zen-like atmosphere of Jackson and Winklejohn’s.
“It was the perfect fit for me,” Browne said. “They encourage creativity and teach you to believe in yourself, your skills. The coaches are on board with experimenting with different things. So I asked Winklejohn to teach me a new skill for Barnett.”
“Heat-seeking knees” was the response.
“I try to do different stuff for every camp,” Browne said. “Always add something you can use. Train smarter, harder.”
He will have to first get through Barnett, a grizzled 16-year MMA veteran who has fought wars in nearly every fight league that’s existed -- Pride, Pancrase, Affliction, Dream, Sengoku, Strikeforce -- and held the UFC heavyweight title in 2002 after defeating Randy Couture.
Barnett is an oppressive grappler, with 20 wins by a multitude of submissions. He also is a devastating striker, as evidenced by his most recent demolition of Frank Mir at UFC 164. In many ways, Barnett contrasts with Browne like day and night. If Browne is a lover and a fighter, the fighter part will have his work cut out for him.
At 6-foot-7, Browne’s length and 79-inch reach gives him some safe distance to gauge Barnett’s striking. However, in the clinch there are few better than Barnett. That’s fine with Browne.
“I want to be the best and fight the best. I have momentum now,” Browne said. “To stop me, my opponent is going to have to finish me to win.”
It’s not just that Mir was the victim of a first-round TKO -- the stoppage was a bit premature. It’s that Mir has now lost three in a row, and wasn’t competitive in any of those fights.
Making matters more unfortunate for Mir is that the loss comes against a fighter who hadn’t competed inside the Octagon since 2002. Barnett is still a good fighter, but other than Daniel Cormier, he hadn’t faced top-level opposition of late.
This was the type of fight Mir was supposed to win, or at least be competitive in -- he did neither. Barnett punched him, kneed him and pushed him around. At no time in this brief encounter, which came to an end at the 1:56 mark, did Mir pose the slightest threat to Barnett.
Mir was simply outclassed in his third straight fight. And at 34, and showing little sign of improving, his future as a heavyweight to be taken seriously appears to have run its course.
Never in his professional mixed martial arts career had Mir dropped three fights in a row. If ever there was a worse time to experience such a drought, this was it. And at 34 years old, the odds of Mir rebounding from this hole to get back in title contention are slim.
What Mir has to fight for now isn’t a title shot; that option isn’t reasonable. His goal today is finishing his career on a positive note. It’s about getting wins, even if they must come against second-tier fighters.
“He may no longer be title-worthy, but Mir has achieved enough inside UFC to retain his spot on the promotion’s roster. No one should, for one second, think Mir will be released by UFC. It won’t happen and it shouldn’t.
It felt great to get this win here in the UFC. It's been a long time coming.” -- Josh Barnett on beating Frank Mir in his return to the UFC.
But his name should not even be considered for another co-main event as participants are being bantered about by matchmaker Joe Silva. This isn’t a knock on Mir, especially when he is down -- it’s just facing reality.
Mir looks slow in the cage these days, even with the improved physical conditioning he’s been receiving under the guidance of Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, N.M. And Mir deserves credit for taking the extra step to train in Albuqurque, spending weeks away from his family in Las Vegas.
The determination to succeed remains. It’s just that Mir is struggling to find a way to do so in today’s UFC.
Barnett, on the other hand, shouldn’t be pumping his chest too hard. He had the good fortune to catch Mir on the down side of his career. Regardless, competing and winning in the Octagon for the first time in years had Barnett in a jovial mood.
“It felt great to get this win here in the UFC,” Barnett said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
The best time to gauge where Barnett truly stands at this point in his MMA career will be in his next fight. Hopefully, it will be against a fighter on the upswing.
Travis Browne comes to mind. Byt hat might be stretching it a bit. How about Ben Rothwell, who showed tremendous resolve in his come-from-behind, third-round TKO of Brandon Vera in an earlier main-card bout.
"I hope in passing the torch to Josh he will represent the sport in a positive way, and I know he will," Couture said following UFC 36. "He's going to be a great champion."
It didn't work out the way anyone would have imagined, which is why Saturday's fight against Frank Mir at UFC 164 in Milwaukee marks Barnett's first appearance in the Octagon since dethroning "The Natural" 11 years ago.
At ease in a sun-drenched emerald green room with a view on the morning of March 23, 2002, his new belt within arm's reach, Barnett, then 24, believed he should be paid much more than he'd ever been paid in his career.
But his contract was up -- something Zuffa learned not to let happen with future would-be champions -- and rumors were he wanted $1 million per fight from the UFC. Just back on pay-per-view, doing mostly dim numbers on television, the promotion was hardly in position to break the bank. It balked at the young champion's demands.
"I fought when no one was fighting for money, really," Barnett, 35, recalled during a recent conference call. "I fought when you couldn't get MMA gear at your local sports store. We had to make it ourselves. I fought when most of the time we didn't even wear gloves. We were under attack from all angles."
Mir, a two-time UFC champion holding the most victories and submissions of any heavyweight ever to fight in the Octagon, knows this period well. He signed with Zuffa in 2001 -- not something worth bragging about back then, he said -- and was in the midst of starting his career the night Barnett became champion.
"It wasn't something you went and told a girl when you were trying to go on a date with her that you were aspiring to beat people up in the Octagon," said Mir, now 34. "In fact, even if I tried to describe it a few times, it was like no one had a clue what you were talking about. So it wasn't something really to garner fans."
Mir moved to 4-0 at UFC 36 thanks to an iconic shoulder lock against Pete Williams. That win, coupled with his first in the UFC, a fast armbar over Roberto Travern, prompted people to mention Mir as a future champion.
However, he knew he wasn't ready for the likes of Barnett, and showed it in his next fight against Ian Freeman. Mentally, Mir said, he just didn't have it in him then to beat the blond brawler Barnett.
"I think I [would have] had an opportunity early on in the fight to get him, a submission to catch somebody, but if the first couple failed, I would have been in a lot of trouble," Mir said.
Said Barnett: "On paper, I had a lot more fights and experience, but, hey, Frank was going out there and beating plenty of experienced guys, and tapping them out," Barnett said. "I think people would have been interested to watch the fight back then, just as much as they'd like watching the fight now."
Neither fighter is especially hot. Within 11 months of one another, each lost decisions to Daniel Cormier, who's preparing to leave the division and fight instead at 205. They're not kids anymore, either, though Cormier suggested that each man remains capable and because of their styles, the bout should be fun to watch. That could be especially true if they grapple. Mir is thought of as the UFC's best heavyweight submission artists. That may have been Barnett, had he stuck around.
From Cormier's perspective, Barnett's the better, faster fighter right now.
Any chance of seeing a contest a decade ago between youthful submission mavens took a tumble shortly after Barnett became king. His fate with the UFC was sealed when he became the first fighter to face discipline from the Nevada State Athletic Commission for steroid use. The news came a month after he defeated Couture and shook UFC's heavyweight division. Zuffa stripped Barnett of the title, creating a scenario, by Dana White's own estimation, in which the belt wasn't worth much for a while.
Matt Hume's strong ties to Japan, the place to be in MMA at the time, created a current that carried his charge Barnett overseas. It was a fine fallback: A few months after Barnett bested Couture (a result that stands because NSAC guidelines at the time didn't allow a result to be overturned due to a positive drug test), Pride and K-1 collaborated for an event that drew more than 91,000 fans to Tokyo National Stadium. This was fantastical stuff for U.S.-based mixed martial artists. Also, from a sport perspective, Pride champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was the best heavyweight in the world, and the following year he was eclipsed by Fedor Emelianenko.
Barnett picked up five wins against a mixed bag of opponents before settling into Pride on Halloween 2004. Mir returned to form following his loss to Freeman by defeating David "Tank" Abbott and Wes Sims. This was enough to get him a shot at the beleaguered UFC belt owned by Tim Sylvia. It wasn't the prettiest period for UFC heavyweights, but the Las Vegas native looked to offer salvation when he snapped Sylvia's forearm.
Mir went from winning the title to vacating it after a motorcycle accident kept him sidelined for two years. He has since fought for some version of a UFC heavyweight belt four times, winning once. Barnett took his share of important fights, but lost big ones as well. He also had more run-ins with performance-enhancing drugs, costing him, most prominently, a contest against No. 1-ranked Emelianenko in 2009.
Having finally returned to the UFC, despite intense moments of disagreement with Zuffa that made any reconciliation appear impossible, Barnett's confidence in his ability to win fights and hurt people at the highest level remains strong.
"The first time around I went all the way to the top and won the heavyweight championship of the world," Barnett said. "I don't expect any different -- other than to get paid a lot more money and a lot more stardom and fandom out of this whole thing because of the explosion of MMA as a whole."
As Mir (16-7) and Barnett (32-6) prepare to face off at UFC 164 for a long overdue, yet barely discussed bout, they'll do so in the final stages of successful, though ultimately wanting, careers.
But even back then, he wasn’t done losing. There were all those losses in Japanese promotion Dream. First it was Alistair Overeem. Then it was Melvin Manhoef at Dynamite!! 2008. Then to Gegard Mousasi. All five of his losses were first-round finishes, either by knockout or armbar. He was 5-6 when the UFC, having failed to buy him out of the inherited contract, finally relented and threw him in the Octagon.
Know what he did then? He lost again. This time in 63 seconds to Sean McCorkle, now late of the UFC. To say his UFC beginnings were inauspicious would be an understatement. And that makes what’s going on with Hunt right now nothing short of remarkable. To be in title contention two years after sporting a 5-7 record in an organization where people generally have career winnings around 75 percent just doesn’t happen.
Yet here were are. Hunt faces Junior dos Santos Saturday night for the chance to fight for a title.
“I think it’s one of the coolest stories in sports right now,” Dana White told ESPN.com. “We didn’t want to bring him into the UFC. He was older, he was on a losing streak, so we just said, ‘We’ll buy your contract out. You don’t have to fight, we’ll just pay you.’ He said, ‘no, I want to fight in the UFC and earn my money.’ And we said no. So he got his lawyer involved, and we went back and forth, and we said, ‘Fine, OK. Let’s do it.’ Now the guy goes on this tear and he’s fighting the in the co-main event against the former heavyweight champion in the UFC.”
Good thing Hunt had legal representation out there in New Zealand. His resurgence is a story that involves brute power, heart, exhaustion, dual visas, cake, public outcry, cosmological eyes and, in all fairness, a dose of luck. For instance, he’s filling in for Alistair Overeem at UFC 160 this weekend. A timely win over dos Santos takes him one step closer to becoming the most unlikely contender the heavyweight division has ever known.
“It would make sense that the winner of this fight gets the next shot,” White said. “It’s a fun fight, and it’s an interesting fight. If you break this fight down, Mark Hunt probably has the bigger punch and the better chin. But, Junior decides to take this fight to the ground, he definitely has the better wrestling and jiu-jitsu.”
In any case, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t write off Hunt. Can he continue to buck the odds and fell dos Santos as he did Stefan Struve and Cheick Kongo? Hey, that’s why they take off their shoes. So that we can find out.
Barnett back in White’s good graces
Not long ago, when Josh Barnett submitted Nandor Guelmino to begin his “Warmaster” second phase, he fell into character when discussing his future.
“I just want to keep killing and keep killing and wading in pools of blood and guts until there’s nobody left to kill anymore,” he told MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani on that final Strikeforce card. When pressed about which promotion that sort of pillaging could fall under, he said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m a mercenary. Something will come up. Somebody will need somebody’s head taken off and they’ll call me up. In a perfect world, I’d fight everywhere.”
That obviously didn’t pan out to specification. The UFC, which has been contentious with Barnett going back many years, offered him a contract a couple of months ago that Barnett turned down. On Wednesday, upon realizing the market for marauders of Barnett’s stripe (and price tag) was tremulously weak, Barnett signed a multifight contract with Zuffa.
Now it’s a case of bygones being bygones. The last time Barnett fought in the Octagon was in 2002, at UFC 36, when he beat Randy Couture for the heavyweight title. That’s when things got ugly. He was subsequently stripped of the title when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.
“Josh and I have had a very interesting past,” White told ESPN.com. “He’s one of these guys who doesn’t really care about much. He’ll fight over here, he’ll fight over there. But we made an offer to him. He didn’t take the offer and went around and shopped for a while, then came back and said, ‘I want to sign with you guys.'"
Wrote Barnett on his Twitter account, “The enemy has returned. I’ve signed w/ the UFC & no heavyweight is safe. They’re all due a lesson in violence from the Warmaster.”
A perfect first opponent for Barnett is Frank Mir, and there are indications that this is the direction the UFC is headed.
Grant granted a second life (and making most of it)
Usually when Gray Maynard steps in to fight as a lightweight, he’s the massive 155-pounder in the cage. That was especially true in his series with Frankie Edgar. It won’t be that way against TJ Grant, a former welterweight who has reinvented himself in the lower weight classes, going a perfect 4-0 heading into Saturday’s tilt.
Just as he was heading into his fights with Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman, Grant is understated in how he has turned things around, but he does make one key distinction. “I’m getting to fight guys my own size,” he says.
And realistically, when you look back at Grant’s opponents at 170 pounds and where they are now, that’s a big factor. Guys such as Dong Hyun Kim and the UFC’s No. 1 contender at welterweight right now, Johny Hendricks. Remember -- Grant gave Hendricks all he could handle at UFC 113 before Hendricks earned the majority decision.
“I’m glad to see Johny Hendricks doing so well,” he told ESPN.com. “We had a close fight, and it was a good fight, very entertaining. I got a lot of experience fighting at 170, and win or lose -- we all learn from losses, right? Blah blah blah. But it’s true. And if you stay humble and you have the right people talking to you and have a good mind for it, you should learn more from losses than wins, and that’s what I always try to do. Every fight is a learning experience.”
As for fighting Maynard in a title eliminator, Grant says that he has toiled a long, long time to end up in this spot.
“At this point in my career, Gray’s the toughest,” he says. “He’s tough. He’s polished and he’s a veteran. He’s not raw in any way -- he’s definitely the most talented fighter I’ve fought at this time in my career. I’m ready for it. I’ve got 25 fights to get me to this point. I’ve got all the experience I need, and all the skills I need to be successful. I’m ready to rock and roll Saturday.”
WAR, what is it good for?
Nick Diaz has plans to start up his own Stockton-based fight promotion -- the ominously titled WAR -- which has drawn anything from smirks and raised eyebrows to genuine curiosity and support over the past week.
So, what does one of the game’s more notorious promoters, Dana White, have to say about Diaz and his latest foray?
“Good luck Nick,” White says. “Obviously it looks very fun from the outside, and it looks easy like you’re printing money. It’s anything but. The fight business is a very tough business that you have to be married to 24/7, and it’s not as fun and easy as it looks.”
Though White was fairly withheld in how he addressed WAR, he did say that the door is open for Diaz if he elects to keep fighting. Diaz, of course, is right now sort of conditionally retired -- meaning he’ll only fight again if it’s against somebody that piques his interest enough, somebody like Anderson Silva or a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.
It’s not likely he’ll get either of those, but ...
“If Nick wants to fight all he’s got to do is pick up the phone and call,” White says. “He’s under contract. If the promotion thing doesn’t work out he can come back and fight.”
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC on Fox 7 will air on free network television from the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., Saturday night. In the main event, UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against the debuting #1 contender Gilbert Melendez, who was the final Strikeforce lightweight champion. In the co-main events, Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier will face former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and Nate Diaz faces another UFC debutant in former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Here are the numbers you need to know for Saturday’s fights:
6: UFC decisions to start his career for Henderson, second among active UFC fighters behind flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. Henderson is the only fighter to start his UFC career with at least five consecutive decisions won.
Most UFC Decisions to Start Career, Active Fighters
Demetrious Johnson 7
Benson Henderson 6*
Diego Nunes 6
Nam Phan 6
*Won all decisions
10: Consecutive title fights for Melendez, who held the Strikeforce title from April 2009 to January 2013 when the organization was dissolved into the UFC. Melendez won four fights by decision and three by KO/TKO. His notable wins include rival Josh Thomson (twice) and DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki.
11: Wins by KO or TKO for Melendez, four under the Strikeforce banner. Henderson has been knocked down three times in his UFC/WEC career, most notably the jumping kick off the cage from Anthony Pettis at WEC 53.
9: This will be the ninth time Melendez will fight inside the HP Pavilion, the proverbial stomping grounds of Strikeforce. He is 7-1 in previous fights at the “Shark Tank,” losing the Strikeforce lightweight championship to Thomson in 2008.
21: Takedowns for Henderson in six UFC fights (3.5 per fight). Melendez has a 71 percent takedown defense but allowed a combined 13 takedowns in his two career losses (seven to Mitsuhiro Ishida, six to Thomson).
3.6: Strikes landed per minute by Melendez. During his seven-fight win streak, Melendez has outstruck his opponents 482-272 (plus-210) in significant strikes. Henderson absorbs 1.5 significant strikes per minute and only 30 in his last win over Melendez teammate Nate Diaz.
8: Mir has an eight-inch reach advantage over Cormier (79 inches to 71). That’s nothing new to Cormier, as he’s beaten Antonio Silva (82), Devin Cole (79.5) and Josh Barnett (78).
6: All six of Mir’s career losses have come by way of KO or TKO. The former UFC heavyweight champion has never lost back-to-back fights in his career. Seven of Cormier’s 11 career wins have come via strikes (five KO/TKO, two submissions due to strikes).
8: Submission wins by Mir inside the UFC Octagon, tied for second most all time. Cormier has faced only one submission attempt in his Strikeforce career (Barnett).
Most UFC Wins by Submission
Royce Gracie 11
Frank Mir 8
Nate Diaz 8
Kenny Florian 8
3: This is Mir’s first camp with Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, N.M. If he wins, Mir would be the third UFC heavyweight from Jackson’s to win in this calendar year, joining Shawn Jordan (UFC on Fox 6) and Travis Browne (TUF 17 finale).
5: Of his eight submission wins inside the UFC Octagon, five have earned Nate Diaz a UFC submission of the night bonus (second all time). Thomson has never been submitted in 25 professional fights and also has nine submission victories of his own (four in Strikeforce).
Most Submission of the Night Bonuses
Joe Lauzon 6
Nate Diaz 5
Terry Etim 4
208: Diaz landed 30 significant strikes in his title fight against Benson Henderson, 208 fewer than his victory over Donald Cerrone in two fewer rounds. Thomson will be tough to hit as well; he absorbs 1.8 strikes per minute, but did absorb 3.0 per minute in his last loss to Melendez.
Belfort rambled through a winding nonanswer. Something about public and private information that's all so controversial it's not worth saying anything at all. Well, it didn't take a genius to figure out what the deal was because odds are if you're not on TRT, you'd probably say so.
On Wednesday, UFC officials cleared the fog (at least a layer of it) by confirming Belfort was "diagnosed with hypogonadism, or low testosterone" and "had been on medically approved testosterone replacement therapy under the supervision of a medical doctor from the state of Nevada."
In the face of rumors that he either tested positive or was using a therapeutic use exemption for TRT, Belfort's display last weekend in Las Vegas to reporters now borders on ridiculous.
Responding to anyone that might have wondered what was up, Belfort said: "I think people get jealous when a guy of my age is destroying these people getting title shots.”
A guy his age -- taking shots. Or rubbing in a cream. Or whatever.
We know now that Belfort -- challenged by anabolic steroid rumors even during his earliest days in the UFC, which were confirmed in 2006 by a nine-month suspension and a $10,000 fine payable to the state of Nevada after too much testosterone was found in his system (he blamed not knowing what a doctor had injected into him) -- is allowed to boost up his levels.
This raises questions.
For instance, how does a guy who tested positive for steroids remain eligible for a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone?
It turns out this is possible. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, for instance, does not prohibit fighters who tested positive for PEDs from getting a script for testosterone.
"The issue would be if an applicant's condition was caused by PED usage," said NSAC executive director Keith Kizer. "The applicant's burden would be much higher."
One could also say the same about the body responsible for setting and enforcing that burden. It's unclear how it was handled by Zuffa, which essentially ran the event while reportedly showing a new Brazilian athletic commission the ropes.
"The purpose of a medically administered TRT regimen is to allow patients with hypogonadism to maintain testosterone levels within a range that is normal for an adult male," the promotion said in a statement.
The potential for abuse seems obvious, so it's fair to wonder whether or not Belfort was monitored during his camp. It doesn't seem adequate to only test TRT patients around the fight.
What role did the UFC have in monitoring Belfort, particularly for an overseas event in which it essentially acts as a regulator?
Should Michael Bisping, at 33 just a year younger than Belfort, have been notified that his opponent was under the care of a medical doctor for low testosterone? And that this care allowed him to inject testosterone?
As pointed out in different places, three of Bisping’s last four losses have come against guys under the TRT therapy.
Does the public have a right to know before the fact? There is wagering happening. I imagine it would be helpful to know which fighters are augmented and which aren’t.
TRT isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a fact of life in the UFC, and needs to be managed the right way.
Would dictating who works a corner during a fight be a step too far for the UFC?
Dana White, of course, recently banished Randy Couture to what the UFC president sees as the hinterlands of the MMA world. “The Natural” can’t come close to the Octagon again, according to White. Maybe not even inside the building the cage is set up. And he can absolutely forget acting as the chief second for his son Ryan.
Seriously? There’s no good reason one Couture shouldn’t be allowed to help another, never mind some personal beef over business.
White should (re)read an article written by Lorenzo Fertitta for the Las Vegas Sun
that was published the night of Couture’s final fight.
If that doesn’t make White back off, Fertitta should put his foot down and stand by comments like:
“To me, the term ‘legend’ applies to a good friend, mixed martial arts pioneer Randy Couture,” whom the UFC chairman dubbed a “cornerstone” of their growth.
“Few people represent the sport better than Randy Couture.”
“I’m sure through many endeavors, Randy will remain connected to the UFC and the sport for many years to come.”
The connection, if it’s to exist right now, can’t be about business. But that also has to mean Couture can’t work his son’s corner?
That can’t stand.
Middle-waitAnderson Silva has guys to fight at middleweight. He just needs to get going.
Chris Weidman appears on deck, and the 9-0 fighter from New Jersey is doing his part to call out the Brazilian icon.
The bout makes sense. It seems competitive, or at least as competitive as one can imagine a Silva fight to be. But don’t get carried away by the idea that 185 pounds has nothing left to offer Silva if he disposes of yet another challenger.
Underneath the champion, middleweight is as wide open as any class in the sport right now.
Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold’s athleticism and hunger are promising. Hector Lombard could do something crazy on a good day. Ronaldo Souza just comes across as a tough test for “The Spider.”
The division is producing worthy heirs, yet the king continues to comfortably do his thing.
»The heavyweight division just got strange. What was setting up to be a monster stretch of fights has lost its direction some following UFC 156. Word from MMAFighting.com that Josh Barnett turned down a deal to fight in the Octagon doesn’t come off as the best timing.
»UFC Primetime: Rousey vs. Carmouche was as heartfelt a half an hour of programming as the promotion has ever put together. It’ll be shown a million times leading up to Feb. 23, so find it and watch it. Women fighters can turn into stars so much faster than men. That’s been an amazing phenomenon to watch over the years. Rousey has all the makings of a superstar, so long as she continues to beat women perceived as real contenders and isn’t driven bonkers by the cameras.
It took some time and liquidation, but the UFC’s heavyweight division is finally made up of beasts. It’s to the point that there’s a legitimate top pairing (Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos) with a behemoth flexing in the wings (Alistair Overeem). The latter is worth his weight in asterisks alone.
Just those three names would have seemed like unfathomable depth back in Tim Sylvia’s day. Now there’s Daniel Cormier, who is still behind a partition for one more fight in Strikeforce, and Shane Carwin and Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve. There’s old warhorse Frank Mir hovering around, and young guns like Stipe Miocic. There’s Antonio Silva, and -- perhaps waiting by the phone right now as you read this, maybe wondering why the UFC hasn’t come calling -- there’s Josh Barnett.
At long last it’s a real division.
So why do we want to see Brock Lesnar against Fedor Emelianenko, two thirty-something past glories who’ve had their myths leaked out of them in recent years?
In short ... because we do. Because we did. Because it should have happened already. Because there was optimism that it could happen now. Because it never did. And because it never did, it won’t leave the imagination alone.
It was Dana White himself who fueled the flames of the matchup long after people had stopped thinking (and caring) about it. He went on the Underground forum and posed the question: “Is this the fight you guys want to see?”
The hard-cores raised their hands. The casuals? We know they’ll pay to see any “name.” So the antennae went up, and people began wondering if White was in the process of luring both backwoodsmen from their fishing holes.
A couple of months later, with the speculation simmering on a low blue flame that the fight could happen, White quashed the whole thing on Wednesday on the Dave and Mahoney Radio Show.
“There are so many new up-and-coming guys right now, which is very exciting,” he said. “’Bigfoot’ Silva looked good in his last fight so yes, the heavyweight division looks awesome. [Lesnar]'s done. He called me a couple of days ago. He’s never coming back. He just said he can wrestle, but he can't fight. He was contemplating coming back [but he's not]. Neither is Fedor. They're both retired."
[Brock Lesnar] was contemplating coming back [but he's not]. Neither is Fedor. They're both retired.” -- UFC president Dana White, on the retired Brock Lesnar and Fedor Emelianenko
So much for thawing out the Cold War.
When White reflirted with the idea of Lesnar/Emelianenko, the fight still looked like the biggest non-title fight in UFC history. That was the lure. Fedor, the terse Stary Oskol man, so private and reclined in his foundation that we never really knew him in the tabloid sense. Lesnar, the Alexandrian wrestler, who doesn’t necessarily like media or traveling or the fight game circus, yet who likes money enough to build up his tolerances.
One who packs a devastating punch; the other who doesn’t take punches well. One who hauls rocks and lumber in training, the other who enacts the running the bulls when the bell rings. Lesnar, the pro wrestler who’s impossible to separate the fictional parts from; Fedor the sportsman who is soberingly nonfiction.
Both guys have dropped from the ranks. Fedor was caught up to by fighters who punished his aggression; Lesnar by evolved fighters who punished his aggression, as well as diverticulitis. Yet the idea of pitting them was completely riveting. It was Fedor, who many would argue is the G.O.A.T., against Lesnar, who looks like he crawled out of Frank Frazetta’s imagination.
Coming out of retirement to fight each other.
It wasn’t just a megaclash between former champions, it was a megaclash between two of the more transcendent figures in the game.
And for that reason, it’s a little sad to hear it’s never (likely) going to happen. But it’s good to know it didn’t need to happen, too -- that there’s enough going on in the UFC’s heavyweight division to make the fight seem like gravy.
That’s how far we’ve come in the short time since Emelianenko and Lesnar were most relevant. So far that the idea of two or the world’s most glorified heavyweights never trading punches leaves us only with the slightest pang.
The injury that forced Frank Mir out of their much-anticipated Nov. 3 showdown was a big blow to Daniel Cormier’s career plans.
Mir was just the kind of fighter Cormier had in mind for his final Strikeforce appearance: a marquee name, two-time former champion and an impressive UFC resume.
Cormier isn’t shy about expressing his desire to become a UFC champion and a victory over Mir would have provided the appropriate notch in his belt to strengthen his case.
But with Mir unable to perform, Cormier’s chances of landing another heavyweight with such high Octagon credentials is slim. And it is forcing Cormier to reexamine his expectations.
“I kind of look at the big picture on a lot of things; so looking at the big picture and what that fight could have done for me in terms of visibility, the advancement of my career, it was disappointing,” Cormier told ESPN.com. “But I have to be focused on whoever they put out in front of me.
“Frank Mir was perfect. He made perfect sense. He’d just gotten off a title shot. He’s a big name; he’s always in title contention. It just made sense.
“I’ve heard that Fabricio Werdum stepped up and said that he would fight; Pat Barry said he wanted the fight, even Roy Nelson. There are guys who want to fight, it’s a big fight. But it’s also a matter of how big a fight they want to get in terms of title-shot implications.
“Certain people, if it is Fabricio, it almost becomes a top-contender fight in Strikeforce rather than in the UFC.”
And that’s a major issue for Cormier. He has only 10 professional fights under his belt, with just four going into the second round or beyond.
There is no wear and tear on Cormier’s muscular frame. But he is 33 years old and time is of the essence.
Cormier is in his physical prime and must move quickly to capitalize on this short-lived time period.
He is currently ranked fourth among heavyweights by ESPN.com. This suggests Cormier is one or two wins from being offered a UFC title shot.
It’s the reason he was so gung ho about registering an impressive win over Mir. Now he’s likely back to his pre-Josh Barnett days.
Beating Werdum won’t hurt, but is likely to keep Cormier behind Alistair Overeem in the heavyweight pecking order. A win over Barry definitely doesn’t move the rankings needle.
“I still want to fight tough guys,” Cormier said. “The best guy they can actually get for me would be great. It’s a matter of who they can get that makes sense.
“I’ve dealt with disappointment before on a way bigger scale than this. I’ve learned to deal with it, it still [stinks]. I will get by; I’ll focus on the guy in front of me. You have to be a professional and I am.
“I just have to be my best on fight night.”
While some of the excitement over facing Mir has diminished, Cormier remains committed to fighting on Nov. 3 in Oklahoma City.
Whoever Strikeforce selects as the Mir replacement Cormier will be fully prepared to battle. He will not take any shortcuts during training.
“I want to be 235 again like when I fought Josh Barnett,” Cormier said. “I felt fast, I felt good, my cardio felt good.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to fight heavier than that again. That’s where I want to stay as long as I’m at heavyweight.”
Cormier realizes there is no guarantee that UFC officials will offer him a heavyweight title shot. But getting the title-shot offer might not be the only hurdle Cormier will have to overcome.
He’d have to think long and hard if his friend and teammate Cain Velasquez reclaims the heavyweight crown in December from Junior dos Santos.
There is a strong possibility that Cormier will decide not to face Velasquez, even if the title was dangled in front of him.
Fortunately, Cormier has options. And having options is the perfect cure to regaining that feeling of excitement.
“If the right fight (at light heavyweight) presents itself I will definitely consider it,” Cormier said. “After this fight (on Nov. 3) it’s over. I get to go to the UFC and take my place among the rest of the heavyweights because they’re no more (in Strikeforce).
“It’s exciting. It’s exciting to finish that part of my journey. That part of my career is over. Strikeforce is over after this fight. Now I can move on to the bigger things and the big things in UFC.”
And by ‘bigger things’ he means becoming a UFC champion at heavyweight or, if necessary, light heavyweight.
Kevin Randleman's first UFC heavyweight title defense was set to take place a month before I wrote the story that scored my first paycheck as a mixed martial arts reporter. Passionate as I was, I called around San Diego, where I attended college, to find a place, any place, showing Randleman's fight against dangerous young heavyweight Pedro Rizzo.
Eventually a sports bar informed me that it dared to be one of the few establishments carrying the UFC in the spring of 2000. I have this vivid memory of feeling like the only person in the place who gave a damn about these cage fighters. So, as this was my only option, I enjoyed a platter of nachos while watching one muted television set tuned to a night of fights in Lake Charles, La.
The evening rolled along with little fanfare. "Crazy" Bob Cook, a familiar face these days alongside American Kickboxing Academy fighters, made his lone Octagon appearance, which turned out to be the last time he stepped in a cage, and choked Tiki Ghosn. Less than a year before he would be crowned UFC champion, Jens Pulver was featured on pay-per-view for the first time. He was spry and determined while pummeling David Velasquez with punches.
All that was filler, though. I'd sought out a TV to see Randleman take on Rizzo. It was time. Or it should have been time. There wasn't any sound, but it was crystal-clear based on an interview taking place backstage that something was off. I begged a waitress to turn up the volume. She did, just in time to catch on that Randleman, somehow, some way, slipped on pipes! Fell! Cracked his head! Was in an ambulance on his way to the hospital? The fight ... off!?
This was utterly shocking -- even for Semaphore Entertainment Group, UFC’s original promoter that was on its last legs, doing things on the cheap, struggling to get by and keep its head above water.
I'd have felt ripped off if I actually had a chance to pay for it; nonetheless it was embarrassing to like this stuff.
Looking back on the episode 12 years, hundreds of events and many millions of dollars later, it's easy to laugh. Especially since the fallout was mild compared to similarly odd (though thankfully rare) events in this wild sport. Randleman fought Rizzo two cards later in what stands out as the least interesting championship bout in UFC history. That was as bad as it got.
It’s not as if a fight night was cancelled, a la UFC 151 or Affliction’s third card, which was supposed to feature Fedor Emelianenko versus Josh Barnett. The ramifications there were far larger, in part because the sport had moved beyond the nether regions it existed in during the early 2000s. Barnett’s failed steroid test was still stunning, as was Affliction Entertainment’s decision to close up shop and never promote again.
Ken Shamrock’s day-of-the-fight cut prevented his main event versus Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson from airing on CBS. Say what you will about the fight -- it was a farce -- but people would have tuned in. Instead, Slice was knocked out in 14 seconds; the promoter, ProElite, went under, and CBS hasn’t dared to wade waist-deep into MMA again.
Sometimes these things are serious and sometimes they’re not. For all the high-profile instances of promoters or fighters failing at their jobs, there are sadly numerous less noteworthy situations. Fighters get screwed on the regular in MMA. They get flown to far-off locales and left fending for themselves. They put in 8, 10, 12 weeks' worth of training, pay nutritionists and trainers and get nothing in the end. Promoters invest capital to sell a card, only to see fighters or shady partners subvert their efforts.
The cancellation of UFC 151 was stunning because that sort of stuff just doesn’t happen to Zuffa. These episodes were the domain of lower-tier brands, of lower-tier promoters and executives, of lower-tier operators.
Well, not anymore.
The lesson of UFC 151 and every other “what in the world just happened” moment in MMA is this: Sure things don’t exist, most especially when you’re talking fight sports.
As for the heavyweights?
That’s the dinosaur division in the UFC. It goes back to MMA’s prehistoric times. It’s gone through periods, times of near dormancy. In the beginning, a heavyweight of 500 pounds was allowed entrance into the eight-sided cage, and he’d take on Gi-donning fighters the size of thimbles. In those days, there were talks of moats that thankfully never came to be.
In the middle times, when weight classes were better designated, a guy barely over the minimum weight of 206 pounds became king. Twelve pounds of it were heart, the same weight as the belt.
This was known as the Couture Era. It was revisited, but always short-lived.
Then came Brock Lesnar and the rift of perceptions. He was a circus, a bull, a collegiate wrestler, a bona-fide martial artist, a charlatan, a mercenary, a hermit and a comic book character with a sworded thorax all into one. He couldn’t take a punch; he had more heart than we knew. He was a novelty; he is a future hall of famer.
We still have no idea how to assess him.
That’s part of the reason that, as we arrive at UFC 146, there’s a feeling of something inaugural going on even though the division has always been. Something like the "Modern Era" of the UFC heavies is finally upon us.
This is the era of Junior dos Santos and his level-changing boxing quicks and heavy hands, and Cain Velasquez and his legit wrestling. This is Antonio Silva, and the resilient Frank Mir. It’s Alistair Overeem, so long as Lorenzo Fertitta stands behind him when his suspension is up. It’s Lavar Johnson and Stipe Miocic and beanstalk fighters like Stefan Struve and returning fighters like Shane Carwin.
It’s a lot of guys, rather than a few. And for once we are about to have a consolidated idea of where the heavyweight division stands. The division has gotten so hot that Chad Griggs had to get out of the kitchen. Soon Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett will enter the mix. Jon Jones will be there before we know it, but right now the division has newfound depth. And it’s deep enough that when MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani asked Dana White about Cormier’s future, White replied that he wouldn’t mind seeing Cormier as a light heavyweight.
When the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix champion looks like a spare piece to the company president, you know the division has arrived.
Saturday night’s fight card is historic in that way. Gone are the days of Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia and a deck of middling hopefuls. Depending on how things play out in Las Vegas, the next title fight could be anything. It could be Velasquez/dos Santos II. It could be Mir/Velasquez, the fight that was supposed to happen anyway. It could be Bigfoot/JDS, or Cormier/JDS, or Mir/Cormier. This is the first time ever that not just one scenario makes sense, but they all do. Better yet, people would be excited to see any of those match-ups. In other words, UFC 146 in all its historical significance is hardly the culminating point.
For once, there is a broad horizon. This feels more like the beginning than the usual pitch. For once, heavyweights have something in common with the lightweights and the welterweights. The 265-pound division has the feeling of an ongoing story playing out, rather than one wrapping up.
The novelty isn’t an ageless wonder like Couture beating guys half his age and size, or a pro wrestler turned fighter who froths at the mouth and tramples people like it’s the running of the bulls. The novelty is that the division has the funny feeling of something complete.
And that can’t help but be anything other than exciting for fans of big boy MMA.
Given the fighter’s notoriously frigid relationship with Zuffa, LLC, we suspected all along the only way he might get back into the UFC was by force; by winning a tournament that had already begun by the time the organization bought Strikeforce last March.
In the past, Zuffa brass has occasionally invoked Barnett’s name as an example everything that is wrong with MMA and when news broke a few months back that the long-awaited GP champion would have yet another fight in Strikeforce before being allowed entry to the Octagon, at least a few conspiracy theorists wondered if it might be akin to “Barnett Insurance” for the UFC.
Now we might never know. Barnett’s bid to win the Strikeforce heavyweight tourney fell painfully short on Saturday night, as he was summarily out-struck and out-wrestled (pretty much out-everything’ed) by Daniel Cormier en route to a lopsided five-round unanimous decision loss in the grand prix final.
When at any point a 6-foot-3, 250-pound man gets scooped off his feet, turned upside down and unceremoniously slammed to the canvas during a fight, it’s a pretty clear sign that things didn’t go his way.
Funny thing about this sport, though: Sometimes even in defeat you come out looking better than before.
Fine, maybe not better -- not exactly -- but if there are any tangible takeaways from Barnett’s performance this weekend they are that the 34-year-old can still go, that he should still be solidly ensconced among the heavyweight top 10 and that he deserves to continue fighting the best in the world.
Now we just have to wait and see if Zuffa will give him the chance.
Prior to entering the Strikeforce tournament, Barnett had spent the last four years splitting time between professional wrestling in Japan and making sporadic appearances in any independent MMA promotion that would make it worth his while. He ran off six straight wins, but did so largely against nobodies like Geronimo dos Santos, spectacles like “Mighty Mo” Siliga and oldsters like Pedro Rizzo.
As a result, we didn’t know quite what to expect when he dived into the ambitious and star-studded GP draw. His first two bouts -- short and sweet submissions over Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov -- didn’t tell us a lot, either. It wasn’t until Saturday's final against Cormier that we truly got to see what Barnett still has in the tank, and it was impressive stuff.
Despite claiming to have broken his hand landing a hard left hook in the first round, Barnett hung in there with Cormier for the duration, continuing to fire off crisp punching combinations to the last. In the fourth round, he threatened the former Olympic wrestler with a leg lock and if not for 15-plus minutes worth of exhaustion, sweat and maybe that broken meathook compromising his grip, who knows what might’ve happened. He fought with the sort of guile and complete disregard for his own face that -- while troubling, if you worry for Josh Barnett the person -- was obviously not the showing of an apathetic, disinterested guy who was just there to get a few paychecks.
Finally, here was Josh Barnett. Here was the guy who crashed onto the scene with a submission victory over Dan Severn in 2000. Here was the guy who defeated Randy Couture to win the UFC title in 2002. Here was the guy who fought his way into the final of the Pride open weight grand prix in 2006 and the guy whose only previous MMA losses came to in-their-prime versions of Rizzo, Mirko Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
With his career possibly on the line here, finally, was Barnett, putting out the kind of effort we've been waiting to see from him since the fall of Pride. Yeah, he came up short against a man who could well prove to be “the next great heavyweight” or whatever the over-the-top Strikeforce broadcast declared Cormier on Saturday, but he did it with considerable style.
Simply put, Barnett looked like a UFC heavyweight. In the late stages he looked arguably better than some UFC heavyweights might after 25 minutes at a whirlwind pace, after taking a fairly hellacious beating and after breaking his hand in the early going.
Here's hoping he gets the the opportunity to actually become a UFC heavyweight again. Here's hoping that the baggage of the past does not obscure his future, that he and the UFC can ultimately find some common ground.
Barnett's effort against Cormier proved the 265-pound class would be better for it.
Daniel Cormier apparently writes his own script.
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.
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.”
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?
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 ...)
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.
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.