Strikeforce preview: Barnett-Cormier

It took a year-and-a-half, but a Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion will finally be crowned Saturday in San Jose as former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett meets undefeated late tournament entry Daniel Cormier.

Also on tap is a rubber match for the Strikeforce lightweight championship as Gilbert Melendez defends his title against longtime rival Josh Thomson.

A potential light heavyweight title eliminator is also featured as Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante looks to avenge his 2010 loss against emerging contender Mike Kyle.

It all goes down at the HP Pavilion Saturday on Showtime and here’s a closer look at what we can expect:

Josh Barnett (31-5) vs. Daniel Cormier (9-0)

After kicking off in February 2011, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament finally culminates Saturday as unlikely finalists Barnett and Cormier vie for the top prize.

Barnett, 34, is unbeaten since his run in the Pride Fighting Championships, riding an eight-fight winning streak that includes victories over Jeff Monson, Pedro Rizzo and Gilbert Yvel.

To make it to the finals, Barnett used his bread and butter to submit strikers Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov with arm-triangle chokes.

Since a knockout loss to Rizzo at UFC 30, the first setback of his career, Barnett has lost to only two men widely recognized among the greatest heavyweights of all time during their primes, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Meanwhile, Barnett has enjoyed victories over Randy Couture, Semmy Schilt, Aleksander Emelianenko and Mark Hunt.

A catch-wrestling specialist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Erik Paulson, the CSW product has seen his reputation tarnished after testing positive for banned substances on multiple occasions throughout his career. Most recently, Barnett tested positive before a prospective clash with Fedor Emelianenko under the now-defunct Affliction banner, a turn of events that ultimately led to the cancellation of the pay-per-view and demise of the fledgling promotion.

Barnett has matured greatly since his early career run, changing his nickname from the “Babyfaced Assassin” to “The Warmaster,” but his WWE-style antics remain a staple. Barnett, who has spent a large portion of his career as a professional wrestler in Japan, likes to deliver animated promos and entertain fans. His popularity has declined considerably after repeated rules violations, but he remains an elite heavyweight in a division that has grown immensely since his run on top.

Win or lose, it remains to be seen if Barnett will return to the UFC as he’s had his share of differences with UFC president Dana White over the years. There’s little doubt he can hang with the best heavyweights on the planet, but a long track record of substance abuse and bashing the UFC could hinder his comeback chances. Before he can even think of re-entering the world-famous Octagon, he must first pass his toughest test in years.

Cormier, 33, a former Olympian and NCAA Division I All-American standout, entered the tournament field as a late replacement for Alistair Overeem. Fresh off the biggest win of his career against Jeff Monson in June 2011, Cormier made a resounding statement by knocking out Fedor Emelianenko conqueror Antonio Silva in the first round.

Anchored at the American Kickboxing Academy, the trainer partner of former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is still undefeated in his professional campaign and his level of competition continues to get stiffer.

With a seemingly undersized frame for the heavyweight division, the stocky Louisiana-born wrestler utilizes deceptively fast movement and footwork, coupled with relentless takedowns and an impenetrable sprawl. After knocking out Silva with a barrage of violent blows, Cormier solidified his punching power.

Despite being a late addition to the tourney, Cormier has emerged as one of the strongest fighters of the bunch. Still a relative novice to the sport, Cormier has adapted exceptionally well coming from a traditional wrestling background.

A savvy submission specialist with an abundance of high-level experience on the biggest stages in the sport, Barnett will have an edge on the ground if he manages to secure top position, as wrestlers are traditionally uncomfortable fighting off their backs and Barnett’s ability to punish fighters with relentless ground-and-pound is second to none.

However, based solely on his performance against Silva in the semifinals, Cormier will likely have an edge if he can keep the action standing. Armed with a wrestling pedigree leaps and bounds ahead of any other heavyweights, putting Cormier on his back could prove extremely challenging. In fact, the feat could be nearly impossible.

Barnett’s size and submissions will be critical elements of his repertoire, but Cormier’s tools will be the deciding factor in this fight as he moves in and out of range on the former UFC heavyweight champion, dissecting him with leg kicks and looping power punches, while sprawling when Barnett tries to close the distance.

If Cormier can stay off his back and rely on his improved striking to frustrate and outpoint Barnett, he will likely prevail. Barnett is one of the heavyweight division’s most durable competitors, but Cormier’s assault should take its toll as the bout progresses before he puts “The Warmaster” away with a cavalcade of heavy punches late in the fray.

Verdict: Cormier via TKO, Round 4

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