CINCINNATI -- It’s the deepest card in Strikeforce’s history, and yet it’s one of the stranger atmospheres you’ll find leading up to an event. For starters, the Nick Diaz/Carlos Condit/Georges St. Pierre drama is playing out at the same time, as is the announcement that Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem have agreed to a colossal heavyweight battle in a week that colossal heavyweight battles were supposed to belong to Strikeforce. These things don’t help.
In fact, those two storylines have sort of exhausted the hype quotient for the week. The mood matches the rain and drizzle in Cincinnati.
But the main reason for the strangeness is that Strikeforce, as a brand, is sort of teetering on the brink of disappearing. Everybody knows this, and it’s become elephant in the room. No microphones made their way around the small media contingency at the prefight newser today, and none were needed. Scott Coker asked more questions of the fighters in attendance than the press. If he didn’t have to, he would have just as happily skipped opening things to the floor where dreaded topics might be brought up. In the end, they weren’t, because most of the media is to the point where they know he has no answers (and if he does, he isn’t likely to share them).
Regardless of everything surrounding the card, the fights themselves remain compelling. The three primary bouts have the same situational feel -- American wrestlers against guys who are good-to-excellent in other areas (read: non-wrestlers). It’s easy to pick out the biases. People who see wrestling as an always playable trump card are picking Josh Barnett over Sergei Kharitonov, Daniel Cormier to upset Antonio Silva, and Muhammed Lawal over Roger Gracie. The sight of wrestlers neutralizing talented jiu-jitsu players and great kickboxers has become all too common over the years. It’s easy to imagine Barnett taking Kharitonov down, just as he did Brett Rogers, and keeping things there. And keeping things there. And possibly pounding him out while he’s keeping him there.
Listening to Barnett, you know he’s weary of the Russian’s hands, and he promises the fight won’t go the distance. “I know he’s going to bring a never say die attitude, and we’re going in there with our shields and coming out either on them or on our own two feet,” he said. “So, it’ll be a good tussle. But being the type of fighters we are, I think we’re going to finish one another within that three-round limit. I don’t think there’s going to be any extra rounds, no decisions here.”
As Barnett also mentioned, it could be a main event-worthy scrap. But the fight that could steal the show is between middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza and Luke Rockhold. This is wizard jiu-jitsu player against the card’s sleeper.
“I think I’ve got the best jiu-jitsu credentials that Jacare’s ever fought,” Rockhold told ESPN.com. “My jiu-jitsu’s no slouch. I thought that jiu-jitsu was going to be my career for a long time. I thought I was going to be the best guy in the world, but I realized real quick that if you want to be the best at something, you can’t be the best at everything. And when I switched over [to MMA], I decided to be the best MMA fighter I could be, not the best jiu-jitsu guy.”
Besides that, you’ve got former light heavyweight champion Rafael Cavalcante on the undercard, as well as Evangelista Santos and Mike Kyle. Pat Healy is fighting Maximo Blanco on the fifth main card fight. It’s the deepest Strikeforce card ever, and for whatever reason, its timing couldn’t be worse.
Keeping it real
To further voice the general air of preoccupation, just turn to Muhammed Lawal.
“I don’t even know what to say; I’m just ready to fight on Saturday,” he said. “I was hoping for more people out here, more media and more questions, but I guess you guys don’t care about Strikeforce. Me and Roger are going to put on a good fight; it’s going to be a good card, and I think people are going to miss out on it, because everybody is worried about other issues instead of the fights this weekend. I’m just being real.”
Keeping it even realer
Want to be real? How about Cormier on his expectations against Silva?
“I’m excited for the fight,” he said. “Josh [Barnett] said that [he] and Sergei [Kharitonov] are going to finish each other. Just to put it out there, I’m fine to win a decision. Is that OK?”
Of course it is, but if Cormier wins a decision, we can almost guess at the type of fight it will be -- and that sort of forward-thinking doesn’t make it sound as fun.
Kharitonov, the Russian wrestler stifler
Kharitonov made his game plan clear for Barnett.
“I’m going to try and have a stand-up fight," Kharitonov told ESPN.com. "I’m going to try and put on a good defense against getting taken down, and that’s my main strategy,” he said. “I’m ready for anything. If it’s on the ground, or if it’s a stand-up fight, wherever it is, I’m ready.” (Subtext? I’d really, really like to knock him out on the feet).
From Russia with fists
More Cormier, this time about him and King Mo knowing what time it is when it comes to wrestling and fighting.
“We fought thousands and thousands of times,” he said. “In wrestling competitions, and not only wrestling but fighting Russians over there [in Russia]. We’d get into actual fistfights when we’d go wrestle Russians. You can find mine on YouTube, and Mo is fighting the guy right before on YouTube; we’ve had a thousand fights.”
Wonder if he’s had any experience fighting behemoth Brazilians?