This may not be the worst case scenario Strikeforce officials planned for when putting together their ambitious heavyweight Grand Prix last year, but it sure is coming close.
Tuesday’s announcement that heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem would be replaced in the semifinals by unbeaten alternate Daniel Cormier was a crippling blow to the much-maligned venture. Coming off a pair of underwhelming quarterfinal fights in Dallas, the loss of Overeem sucks the intrigue out of the semifinals, as Overeem’s meeting with Antonio Silva was the last remaining fight fans were clamoring to see.
Though hardcore fans and former Pride loyalists will still tune in to see Sergei Kharitonov and Josh Barnett do battle on September 10, Overeem-Silva had much more of a finals feel that whatever pairing is set up by the semifinals. None of the potential match-ups carry as much weight and meaning as the fight that was just lost, and while this isn’t the death blow for the tournament, it certainly leaves it in critical condition.
Back when the heavyweight Grand Prix was getting underway, I suggested that the event was either going to be epic or an epic failure; there was no foreseeable middle ground. Four-plus months in and still two months away from the semifinals, it doesn’t take a MENSA member to see which way this thing is leaning.
Right now, there are far more “epic failure” scenarios imaginable than situations that bring this event out of the Intensive Care Unit. In fact, the best I would say it can do right now is break even, and while that is a reasonable return at this stage in the game, it still falls well short of expectations.
It could also go completely off the rails and end up leaving the Strikeforce heavyweight division destitute.
Silva has to win this thing if Strikeforce has any hopes of getting out of the Intensive Care Unit in the future. His upset win over Fedor Emelianenko in February made him one to watch, and the removal of Overeem puts the bull’s eye on his back as the one to beat.
Silva needs to smash his way through the rest of the competition the way he did Emelianenko in New Jersey, and position himself opposite Overeem for the heavyweight title. Anything less and the heavyweight division goes into total disarray.
Try as he might, Barnett is never going to fully connect with fans and be the superstar he longs to be.
Newer audiences want their heavyweights chiseled and barbaric, delivering knockout finishes that embed themselves in their memory banks instantly as sweat glistens on their muscular frames. Barnett’s doughy midsection and catch wrestling pedigree miss the mark on both fronts. Though his win over Brett Rogers last month was technically flawless, it didn’t earn him any points with fans who have no interest in watching a heavyweight grappling demonstration.
His checkered past will always keep seasoned fans at arm’s length as well. Barnett has been caught using steroids not once, not twice, but thrice, though he claims all three tainted samples are erroneous. His stick-to-itiveness when it comes to his story is commendable, but hallow; no one believes Barnett could have that much bad luck when it comes to peeing in a cup.
Barnett is too risky a proposition to prop him up as one of the best heavyweights in the organization. His troubles with the California State Athletic Commission creates a shrunken list of States where he can compete, and having put Affliction on their death bed by popping hot ten days prior to Trilogy leaves you wondering when it’s going to happen again.
Add it all up and there is no way Strikeforce officials — or fight fans – would be overly pleased with “The Baby Faced Assassin” being crowned the Grand Prix champion.
While he doesn’t have the tainted history of his opponent, Kharitonov might actually be a worse winner than Barnett. Fair or not, his lack of exposure to the North American audience leaves him as an unknown at a time when a familiar face is needed.
Even though he has the resume to stand as an elite heavyweight and could be pushed in a trilogy bout with Overeem should he emerge victorious, Kharitonov would need two more crushing knockouts to validate himself as a viable threat to fans North American audiences.
Cormier presents the Cinderella possibility; the miraculous run of the unheralded underdog who enters late, isn’t expected to do much but ends up winning the whole damn thing.
But within that fairy tale finish lies the rub: for Cormier to carry this event out of the ICU, he’d have to win the entire tournament. He’d probably need to more than hold his own against Overeem down the line as well, provided the Dutch heavyweight remains the Strikeforce champion.
There should be an asterisk in there somewhere too, since Cormier would need more than a takedown-and-do-nothing method of victory to prove he belongs in the upper echelon of the heavyweight division.
Up-ending Silva and coming up short in the finals would be a crushing blow for all parties. That would leave either the untrustworthy Barnett or unknown Kharitonov as the winner, and stall the momentum of both Silva and Cormier.
Tuesday’s removal of Overeem was a crushing blow to an event that has already taken a serious beating. Save for an electrifying run through the final two rounds by “Bigfoot,” it’s safe to say that the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix has fallen short of expectations.
While people will still tune in to see how the remaining rounds play out, the most intriguing question heading into the semifinals might be, “How bad can this thing get?”
That’s never a good thing.