In front of over 7,000 fans at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Strikeforce presented the second pair of quarterfinal bouts in the Heavyweight Grand Prix.
With the city abuzz following the Dallas Mavericks’ NBA championship victory, Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum left the crowd wanting more, while Josh Barnett returned to U.S. soil with a bang.
Let’s examine where Strikeforce’s winners and losers will go from here.
Overeem tops Werdum in bizzare bout
One of the most anticipated clashes of the year was somewhat of a letdown on Saturday night as Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum fought three closely contested rounds with neither fighter sealing a convincing victory. Overeem earned the unanimous decision on scores of 30-27 twice and 29-28, but the fight was closer than the scores might indicate.
Werdum tried to pull guard over a dozen times throughout the contest with Overeem wisely avoiding the Brazilian’s masterful ground work. Werdum appeared to injure his leg in the second round, but Overeem never capitalized.
The Strikeforce heavyweight champion was expected to be too much for Werdum on his feet, but the Brazilian actually landed more often and tagged Overeem with numerous knees and combinations. Overeem did find some openings, however, and his more powerful strikes were apparently the difference-maker as judges saw the bout in his favor despite a razor-thin first and third round.
Considering Overeem’s status as the tournament favorite and arguably a top-three heavyweight, his performance has to be considered a disappointment. While most observers underestimated Werdum, there was no denying this would be a tough matchup for Overeem. The fight was strategic with neither fighter willing to take too many risks and Werdum’s repeated attempts at pulling guard definitely slowed the pace for the live crowd.
Overeem was visibly tiring in the third round. If he hopes to compete with the likes of UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, the 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix champion will need to diligently work on his conditioning. Considering Overeem’s accomplishments as a striker, he was expected to let his hands go more often instead of covering up when Werdum unloaded with combinations. But he exhibited strong takedown defense and an intelligent game plan by constantly shrugging off Werdum’s shots and backing up instead of engaging on the ground where he would risk getting tangled into Werdum’s BJJ spider web.
With the victory, Overeem moves into the semifinal bracket where he has a date with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, another Brazilian who conquered the legendary Fedor Emelianenko.
Other than their country of birth, choice of profession and triumphs over Emelianenko, Silva has very little in common with Werdum. He will be more willing to exchange strikes with the “Demolition Man,” which should translate to an explosive heavyweight showdown. Silva’s strategy will rely heavily on securing a takedown and controlling Overeem on the mat, while the Golden Glory product will have an edge with his lethal striking. Stylistically, Silva is a better opponent for Overeem and the fight will allow him to showcase more of his stand-up skills.
Werdum probably lost some fans with his performance, but he remains an elite heavyweight whose submission prowess would overcome most challengers in the division. To his credit, he never lost decisively and gave Overeem the toughest fight he has had in years. Some media outlets even had Werdum ahead based on his output and submission attempts. Pulling guard is hardly the most productive way to win a decision, but most fighters would have fallen into his trap. Depending on the outcome of Emelianenko’s upcoming superfight against fellow Pride legend Dan Henderson, a rematch against Werdum is a logical choice.
Barnett cruises to win over Rogers
From the moment the opening bell sounded, former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett assumed complete control of his quarterfinal tilt with Brett Rogers, dropping him with a spectacular slam and easily switching between dominant positions on the mat.
Rogers was clearly overmatched, but he survived until the second round after several minutes of Barnett’s full mount. Barnett sensed Rogers’ weakness on the ground and capitalized by taking him down again and sinking in an arm-triangle choke.
After three failed drug tests, Barnett desperately needed a strong showing to regain some respect from a rightfully critical North American audience. He got it on Saturday night and even cut a very pro wrestling-esque post-fight promo in an effort to get the fans behind him.
Barnett has now changed his nickname from the “Babyfaced Assassin” to “War Master” and he has seemingly matured since his days of bickering with UFC president Dana White. If he can stay off the sauce, Barnett is a veteran with the repertoire and experience to hang with any heavyweight on the planet.
There is very little to criticize about Barnett’s performance, other than maybe the fact that he could have finished Rogers in the first five minutes. However, licensing issues will continue to play a factor on when and where Barnett can fight.
In the semifinal round, the catch wrestling specialist will take on Russian slugger Sergei Kharitonov. It is yet another favorable outing for Barnett if he sticks to a calculated plan of attack and puts the Golden Glory member on his back. Jeff Monson exposed a major weakness in Kharitonov’s ground game, submitting him when the two faced off at Dream 8 in 2009. If Barnett is aggressive with his takedown attempts, Kharitonov will have a hard time dealing with his top control and submissions.
However, Kharitonov is a knockout artist, who has defeated the likes of Andrei Arlovski, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Pedro Rizzo and Semmy Schilt. Kharitonov’s versatility, durability and precision make him a tougher opponent than Rogers, but he will definitely want to keep it standing in order to land the fight-ending shot.
Rogers is now on a three-fight losing streak. He was exposed more than ever in his bout with Barnett, which is a sign that he needs a step down in competition. Chad Griggs, who defeated Valentijn Overeem to kick off the Showtime telecast, is a perfect foe to determine where Rogers stands in the heavyweight mix.
Masvidal sensational in win over Noons
In a fight that has now likely determined the next opponent for Strikeforce lightweight king Gilbert Melendez, Jorge Masvidal was outstanding with his assault, busting up K.J. Noons with precision striking and landing numerous takedowns throughout three rounds en route to a shutout unanimous decision.
Noons pressed forward, which forced Masvidal to be the aggressor. The bloodied Noons fought hard until the final bell, but it was not enough to match Masvidal.
Masvidal is now in line to challenge Melendez in what is undoubtedly the biggest opportunity of the 26-year-old’s career. A well-rounded scrapper, Masvidal is a tough test for Melendez. The champion may already be looking ahead to fights with the UFC’s top lightweights, but he needs to be at the top of his game to dispatch a game opponent like Masvidal.
Judging from recent performances, however, Melendez may simply be too much for anyone Strikeforce can throw his way, including Masvidal. His world-class wrestling could pose some obvious problems and his striking has also improved drastically.
Masvidal needs to embrace the opportunity and complete the toughest training camp of his career. The fight does not favor him on paper, but he has what it takes to pull off an upset.
Noons showcased his warrior spirit, but he has now dropped back-to-back decisions. The 28-year-old Hawaiian is clearly in it for the long run and he could match up well with Billy Evangelista or Vitor Ribeiro.