Upstarts upended the odds in Cincinnati

Breakout star: Cincinnati witnessed Luke Rockhold rise to the occasion on Saturday. Ross Dettman for ESPN.com

CINCINNATI -- It was sparsely attended and under-discussed, but the Strikeforce card was anything but underwhelming.

The continuation of the grand prix ended up producing an unlikely star in Daniel Cormier -- who was the third alternate to begin this thing behind Valentijn Overeem and Chad Griggs -- while the middleweight title now belongs to a guy who hasn't fought in 19 months. The last time Luke Rockhold did fight? It was as a virtually anonymous fighter on a Challenger's card in February 2010.

It took a long, long time for his fortunes to change just that fast. Remember, people doubted his merits to get a title shot to begin with.

"I love the doubters," he told ESPN.com after winning a hard-fought five round decision over Ronaldo Souza. "I didn't need any more motivation, but I love proving people wrong and I've always been an underdog for the most part in my career. I was confident. I train with the best guys -- jiu-jitsu, wrestling, everything. I know I can do it all. Jacare didn't intimidate me, and I think a big factor of that I wasn't worried about getting taken down. And I could relax in the stand-up and let that go."

Both of the American Kickboxing Academy fighters put themselves on the map. Cormier will now face Josh Barnett in the grand prix final after stopping Antonio Silva via a first-round TKO. In January, him fighting in the final would have seemed absurd -- unimaginable, almost, considering Cormier wasn't even entered at that point. Rockhold now has the middleweight strap and is contemplating Tim Kennedy, the UFC, whatever careening place his career is going. Before tonight hardly anybody knew who he was"

Talk about your strange outcomes. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker likened Rockhold's accelerated rise to a "Rocky story." And in a strange way, the card is emblematic of the exact thing that Zuffa could in mind for the future of Strikeforce as a brand: to harvest talent and build new stars as a feed into the UFC. And then again, even if it's not, it was a special night for guys who knew they had it coming.

"It's kind of overwhelming, it really hasn't sunk in yet at all," Cormier told ESPN.com. "I'm going to realize how big of a deal it was later. I believe in myself. I thought when I got the opportunity, the worst case scenario is I could outwrestle anybody and give myself a chance. I've got great coaches [like] Javier Mendez; it's great. You can see the improvement that we're all making in the stand-up."

And as for becoming a breakout star on the same night as the new middleweight champion, Rockhold?

"Luke's my guy, man, he's almost like my little brother," Cormier said. "I almost started crying when he won. And to see Mo [Lawal] win and get back in the win column was a big deal for me. This night was an overwhelming success for our gym, and an overwhelming success for me.

"I said it before, that people will be surprised whenever we are sitting here, but not us. We work hard. We have a great environment of hard workers. We push each other, and we all want to be the best."

Each guy took their detours, but on Saturday, both Cormier and Rockhold were among the best.

Chuck Mindenhall covers MMA for ESPN.com and Rumor Central. He can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.