Down to four and the field is wide open.
Antonio Silva and Sergei Kharitonov can situate their minds on Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett respectively after the second leg of Strikforce's heavyweight grand prix quarterfinals on Saturday. The semifinals most fans pined for -- Overeem versus Fedor Emelianenko or the Russian against Fabricio Werdum -- didn't materialize. But so what? At a minimum, the tournament has unveiled two bouts that could be considered tossups between highly accomplished fighters.
For as much as people will attempt to find fault with the Final Four, let's not forget the facts. The winner of the tournament will be the lineal heavyweight champion in mixed martial arts. That may or may not mean much to you, but it is a tidy piece of MMA history and, I think, important. The UFC titleholder has not been considered MMA’s lineal champ since October 1998, when Randy Couture traveled to Japan and lost to Enson Inoue. It's part of the reason I suspect that when the tournament concludes, Zuffa won't have a choice but to match the grand prix winner against the UFC champion. The tournament king would likely be considered No. 2 in the world, and, whether he physically holds the belt or not, Strikeforce's heavyweight champion.
Beyond the "what's it worth” component, tournament brackets reveal fights we haven't seen before featuring two Europeans, a Brazilian and American. This event could also take on extra significance in the nationalism department, which would be welcome as far as I’m concerned.
Which fight makes for the best final?
From most to least interesting (there isn't a wide gap -- no matter the final, it will be worth watching):
1. Barnett vs. Overeem -- Once Emelianenko was ousted, Barnett-Overeem became the sexiest remaining possibility. Two impressive fighters with a long history in the sport.
2. Silva vs. Barnett -- As we were so ridiculously reminded of on Saturday, Barnett is a pro wrestler; so anything he says regarding a potential rival must go through some loudmouth reverse osmosis treatment. Having done that, it seems -- and I stress seems -- they don't like each other so much. Real animosity. High stakes. Sign me up.
3. Kharitonov vs. Silva -- Promotionally this is worst-case scenario for Zuffa and Showtime. Neither guy moves tickets. They don't speak English well, if at all. The only hope for attention comes if both fighters repeat their opening round experiences and win convincingly in the semis. A good heavyweight fight is always worth something.
4. Overeem vs. Kharitonov -- Overeem hanging around for the finals is good for everyone, but Kharitonov is a teammate and that may take off some of the edge. I've no doubt that both men would attempt to destroy the other, but the promotion might be awkward.
How does it play out?
Prior to the start of the tournament I pegged Overeem as the favorite. I'm going to stick with that, though I don't feel nearly as positive about his chances.
It's rare that Overeem is the smaller man. He will be against "Bigfoot" Silva. A resurgent Kharitonov is dangerous and has the game to stop Barnett. But just as easily Overeem could paste Silva like Mike Kyle did. And Barnett might have no problem using his size and smarts against the Russian everyone tends to forget about.
Barnett-Kharitonov is a true tossup.
Barnett gets hurt to the body, and we've seen Kharitonov dig to the ribs and abs. Can the Russian stay off his back? I think he can make it difficult, at least. The Russian is familiar with submissions, and should have enough skill to avoid Barnett's subs. Don't expect him to apply any, though. Kharitonov wins by boxing with Barnett, while the former UFC champion will have to play a top game. That means takedowns and control. That's how I envision the fight transpiring -- Barnett, on top, grinding down Kharitonov to a decision.
Overeem versus Silva is wonderfully dangerous for both. Silva took advantage of his size and surprisingly nimble movement to dominate Emelianenko. Overeem is a different beast and Silva will pay a stiff price for standing in front of him. I'm tempted to take Silva -- I think there's a good chance he can put Overeem on his back -- but the current Strikeforce champ is the play here.
And the finals ...
How about choice No. 1? Overeem fights Barnett. We don't know when or where, but that's my selection for the Strikeforce grand prix heavyweight finals.