It has taken 15 months to get here, but finally an end is in sight. At the beginning of 2011, the best collection of heavyweight fighters outside the UFC were gathered for what was promised to be the best heavyweight Grand Prix since Pride’s in 2004.

The field started with arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, the heavyweight champion from multiple organizations, the BJJ phenom, two former UFC champions, and other highly regarded and ranked fighters rounding out the field. But what looked to be an amazing tournament seemed cursed.

Almost immediately matchmaking and the brackets were criticized. This was followed by fan-favorite, and the biggest draw in the event, Fedor Emelianenko, getting knocked out in the first round. Then there was a delay in finding a location to hold the remainder of the first round due to Barnett’s licensing issues. This was followed by the next biggest favorite, Alistair Overeem, been ripped out of the tournament because of contract issues. In all, over half of the original entrants for the Grand Prix were cut before the tournament’s conclusion this week.

But we are finally down to the final two. Josh Barnett is one of the top-ranked fighters in the division and he has been since winning the UFC title back in 2002. His path through the tournament took him through Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov. Daniel Cormier is a superstar wrestler who has transitioned his strong amateur wrestling into the MMA world to make himself one of the fastest rising prospects in the division. He was an alternate brought in to replace Overeem. He defeated Antonio Silva to make it to the finals. Now the veteran faces the newcomer in the final fight of the Grand Prix.

The Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Finals takes place Saturday, May 19, in the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The main card airs live on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET, with the preliminary card airing live on Showtime Extreme at 8 p.m. ET.  Here to break down the main card and give quick picks for the prelims is the MMA Corner Round Table panel of Richard Wilcoxon, Bryan Henderson and Brian McKenna.

WW: Nah-Shon Burrell (8-1) vs. Chris Spang (4-1)

Henderson: Nah-Shon Burrell captured a split decision over James Terry in his last outing, and it was enough to earn him a spot on the main card against fellow prospect Chris Spang.

Nah-Shon Burrell (Esther Lin/All Elbows)

Burrell has managed eight wins in nine outings thus far in his career, with a 2010 decision loss to Christopher Curtis as the only black mark on his record. Burrell has put in a lot of (T)KO’s for victories, but the length of his fights has increased as time has gone by.

Spang is only five fights into his career, with a single loss as well. That loss came via unanimous decision to Ricky Legere in Spang’s last bout. Until he reached Strikeforce, he tended to make quick work of his opponents, but lately he’s gone the distance.

I think we’re in for a striking battle here. Spang finished two foes in quick fashion with his fists, and Burrell has done the same six times over. I like Burrell’s experience and his win over Terry. If he gets beyond the first round, I think it’s his fight to take. I see Burrell scoring the TKO midway through this fight.

McKenna: Burrell definitely holds the experience edge in this fight despite the fact that he is two years younger than his opponent, Spang. Not only does he have four more fights and four more victories, but he is 3-0 inside the Strikeforce cage and is clearly comfortable there.

Chris Spang (Strikeforce)

Spang has fought twice in the promotion’s hexagon, but as Bryan pointed out, his transition to it hasn’t gone as smooth considering he needed all 15 minutes to win his first fight there, and lost his second outing by unanimous decision. Clearly, the step up in competition has caused struggles for the Swede.

Generally, I love picking fighters who are coming off of their first professional loss because it tends to humble them and push them even harder for their next outing, but I don’t think that this fight is a good match-up for Spang. I am going to piggyback on Bryan’s pick of a TKO by Burrell.

Wilcoxon: This going to be short and sweet. I don’t have much to add to my colleagues breakdown of the fight. Burrell holds an experience advantage and he has stopped more opponents. He also appears more comfortable in the Strikeforce cage. It is unanimous. Burrell wins this via TKO.

LHW: Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante (11-3) vs. Mike Kyle (19-8-1)

McKenna: Rafael Cavalcante has three losses in his career, one of which came from the hands of Mike Kyle. That fight took place for Strikeforce in 2009 and saw Kyle winning the fight by knockout at the end of the second round. After that fight, Kyle has done well while bouncing back and forth from heavyweight to light heavyweight, while Cavalcante won three straight with the promotion including a third-round TKO victory over Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal for the light heavyweight title.

Mike Kyle (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

I mentioned in my breakdown of the Burrell vs. Spang fight that I love picking fighters that are coming off of their first victory because of the fact that generally they’re extremely motivated. Well, I feel the same way about guys that are given a rematch. Cavalcante took the loss from Kyle and turned it into a title. Sure, he lost the title to Dan Henderson, but he came out of that and knocked out Yoel Romero Palacio. The guy feels like he is driven, and that really stands out to me.

While Kyle has done very well since their last fight, I have to go with Cavalcante in this fight. His drive will push him to be victorious with his 11th career victory by (T)KO.

Wilcoxon: As Brian mentioned, this is a rematch from a 2009 fight. At the time of that match-up, Kyle was working hard to rehabilitate his image and his career while Cavalcante was flying high with hype as the next big thing. While that fight sidetracked Cavalcante briefly, it completely changed Kyle.

Since the fight in 2009, Kyle has gone 6-2 fighting both in Strikeforce and other organizations to stay busy. The former bad boy has taken on everyone offered to him and has become, dare I say it, a company man. His only losses during that span are against top-10 heavyweights Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva.

Cavalcante also went on a run since their last meeting, going 4-1 including winning and losing the Strikeforce light heavyweight title.

Rafael Cavalcante (Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog)

The strengths of the two are very similar. They are both heavy hitters that have combined for 22 knockout victories. They both also have been knocked out fairly regularly in their losses. That means this one has the potential to end suddenly and violently, it is just a matter of who lands cleanly first. Really a fight like this is always going to be a coin toss. However, while it feels like Cavalcante is the younger fighter on the rise, the truth is he is only a year younger than Kyle. He just hasn’t been on the big stage as long and hasn’t stayed as active. I say that experience helps Kyle slow the hype train down one more time. This fights ends like the first with a TKO in the second round.

Henderson: This is the good type of coin toss, one where both men have the skills to finish the other off in sudden fashion. Both men have taken on some solid competition since their 2009 bout, with “Feijao” losing to Dan Henderson and Kyle losing to two top heavyweights.

While Cavalcante’s overall run during that stretch features the bigger win in defeating Muhammed Lawal, I like Kyle’s ability to hang with the heavyweights. I think that plays the biggest factor here, as there’s no way “Feijao” has the same power as, say, an Antonio Silva. I agree with Richard on this one: Kyle turns in a repeat performance and comes out with the TKO victory.

LW Championship: Gilbert Melendez (20-2) vs. Josh Thomson (19-4)

Wilcoxon: Is this the conclusion of the trilogy that no one cares about? Usually, a trilogy has a ton of energy and excitement behind it. When I think back to Chuck and Randy III or even Edgar and Maynard III, there was some talk about it. But this fight just feels like it slid off everybody’s radar.

Josh Thomson (R) (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Thomson is the former Strikeforce lightweight champion. He is also the last person to beat Melendez, back in 2008. Thomson has always been a good athlete with a ton of talent, but he also has been injury-prone. There are even rumors he is injured for this fight. When healthy, Thomson is a handful for any fighter.

Melendez has slowly climbed the top 10 rankings more on the power of not losing and a few big wins than consistently fighting top opponents. His combination of wrestling and striking gives him an advantage in most of his fights by allowing him to take the fight where his opponent is least comfortable.

While Thomson has the talent to win, I have a hard time envisioning it. His combination of injuries and age make it feel like he is nearing the end of the road, while Melendez is still climbing. Melendez takes this fight on the judges’ scorecards as he dictates where the fight happens.

Henderson: The topic of Thomson’s injuries is key here. That rumored injury was not even completely denied by Thomson in a Twitter spat the fighter engaged in with a guerilla MMA journalist. Thomson was more focused on insisting that the fight will go on, and simply shrugged the suggestion of injury off as something that’s commonplace in training for a fight.

While some level of injury is common in training, Thomson has become one of those guys where it’s more newsworthy to hear that he’s healthy rather than injured. Maybe Thomson is denying the severity of this injury, and maybe the injury isn’t even that severe, but I just don’t like where this is headed.

Gilbert Melendez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

For that reason, I think Thomson will be at a disadvantage heading into the final installment of this trilogy. Thomson is always game, but Melendez is continuing to evolve as a fighter. I think we’ll see him keep Thomson grounded and work for a dominant unanimous decision victory.

McKenna: Right out of the get go here, I am a little confused at the fact that my fellow panelists are not excited to see the No. 2 ranked lightweight according to The MMA Corner fighter rankings. The Strikeforce lightweight champion, Gilbert Melendez, is one of the more entertaining fighters to watch. And as Richard pointed out, this fight is a trilogy fight, but at the same time, this fight is a rubber match. However, I agree with Richard in the sense that this fight is being overlooked, which honestly is a shame.

Sure, Thomson may in fact be hurt, but the question here is whether or not he is truly injured. Every athlete from basketball, to football, to combat sports is always hurt. While Thomson would likely not pull out of this fight unless he couldn’t walk—because it is likely the last time that the 33-year-old will be awarded a chance at the title—something tells me that he may be hurt, but not injured.

Even with all of that, this fight is Melendez’s to lose. Currently, the lightweight champ is trapped inside of what could be called a Zuffa purgatory. Some of the most dynamic Strikeforce fighters—Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson and Nick Diaz—have been relocated over to the UFC, but for some reason Zuffa is keeping Melendez in Strikeforce where there is clearly inferior talent to him. There are a lot of people out there who think that Melendez could defeat Ben Henderson, but so long as he is in the purgatory, that won’t happen. Even though the first two fights between the them went to decision and that both Richard and Bryan feel as though it is going to decision, I think that Melendez is going to try his best to make a statement and finish this fight early in the hopes of having Zuffa officials finally add him to the UFC roster. Melendez will take an early-round TKO victory in this one.

HW GP Final: Josh Barnett (31-5) vs. Daniel Cormier (9-0)

McKenna: Finally, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix will come to an end. When the promotion kicked off the tournament in January of 2011, Daniel Cormier wasn’t even in the field. But it was what he did on the outskirts of the tournament that lead Zuffa officials to plug him into the semifinals to replace Alistair Overeem after ‘Reem was plucked from Strikeforce and put in the UFC.

Daniel Cormier (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

At first, a lot of people were calling for Chad Griggs to replace Overeem because he had taken down Gian Villante and Valentijn Overeem in Grand Prix reserve bouts, but nobody can argue with “DC” being put into the tournament after his great knockout of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva to gain entry into the finals. After the Brazilian completely dominated Fedor Emelianenko in the opening round of the tournament, it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would be in the finals when he was paired up against Cormier. But the AKA product used superior striking to drop “Bigfoot” twice in that first round, and followed up the second knockdown to earn the knockout. We had heard about how great he was with his wrestling, but now the world knows not to sleep on the power behind his fists.

Across from Cormier is a man who a lot of MMA fans love, and a lot of MMA fans hate. We’ll start with the hate for a minute, because there was a time where Josh Barnett called the UFC home and even held the UFC title. After testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs after UFC 36, he was stripped of the title and given his walking papers. Fast forward to August of 2009, and in the weeks leading up to his fight against Emelianenko in Affliction’s third fight card, Barnett got popped again for PED’s, which not only cancelled the fight, but the entire card and eventually the promotion. But even if you dislike him because of all of this, you have to respect his abilities. The guy is very skilled and has been a top fighter his entire career. He rolled through Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov in the first two fights of the Grand Prix, and is looking to do the same in order to emerge as its victor.

To say it easily, Barnett is the most difficult fighter that Cormier has faced to this point in his career, while the inverse is not true. It would be dumb for the “Baby-faced Assassin” to sleep on Cormier, and that will not be the case as Barnett has the experience edge which will be the biggest factor in his second-round submission victory of “DC.”

Henderson: Cormier has definitely proven to be the real deal, but Brian mostly summed up my thoughts when it comes to the AKA product’s match-up with Barnett.

To add to what my colleague has already said, there’s a reason Barnett has remained a steady top-ranked heavyweight for years now. Throughout his days in the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce, with some stops in between, he has taken on the toughest competition and almost always comes out on top. He’s a proven warrior who has not met with much failure. His only true Achilles’ heel was Mirko Cro Cop, when the Croatian was in his prime.

Now Cormier will be a tough foe, no doubt, but Barnett is a catch wrestler who will have not only the experience edge but also is more ground savvy. Cormier’s best bet is to try to keep this fight standing and out-strike Barnett.

Josh Barnett (Sherdog)

I think Barnett’s a tough veteran who will find a way to take Cormier out of his comfort zone. We’ll see the less experienced Cormier take one round on the scorecards and last until the final bell, but it will be Barnett emerging with the unanimous nod and the Grand Prix championship.

Wilcoxon: While I don’t disagree with anything my colleagues have said, I’m having a hard time jumping on the bandwagon. Here’s why:

Barnett has been picking off strikers left and right lately. Fighters where he had a huge wrestling and submission advantage. The last time he faced anyone with even a little bit of a wrestling base was way back in 2008 when he fought Jeff Monson. To find a true wrestler, you have to go all the way back to 2002 when he fought Randy Couture.

But the match-up with Cormier is completely different than those other match-ups. Randy was completely undersized in that fight and it was one of the match-ups that caused him to drop down a weight class, and Monson wants the fight on the ground as much as Barnett does. But if Cormier is smart, he will use his wrestling to keep the fight standing and turn this into a striking battle.

In a striking battle, I think Cormier has more power but probably a little less technique, which makes this a close battle. Barnett is a big favorite for a reason. His experience and submission game are at an elite level. I just think it is a much closer fight than many believe. My head is telling me to stick with the favorite and that Barnett will win this, but my heart is saying Cormier has a great chance. If I were playing the odds, I would go with Barnett, but something is telling Cormier will edge this out. Cormier wins by split decision.

The Prelims Quick Picks

LW: Bobby Green (17-5) vs. James Terry (11-4)

Henderson: Terry’s been hyped, but he hasn’t really backed that up with big wins. Green by split decision.

Wilcoxon: I’m going the other way. Terry has a huge wrestling advantage. He will get Green down and either grind out a decision or ground-and-pound his way to victory.

McKenna: Sure Terry has been overhyped, but his recent losses have come from Burrell, Caros Fodor and Tarec Saffiedine, who are all quality fighters. Terry gets the edge here in my book and wins by TKO.

WW: Quinn Mulhern (17-2) vs. Yuri Villefort (6-0)

Wilcoxon: This could either be an amazing display of grappling or a less than spectacular striking battle. Villefort is coming off an injury, but I think he is up to the challenge. Villefort wins by late submission.

McKenna: The fact that Villefort has been out for so long and is so young scares me in this fight. I have to go with less ring rust, age and experience while picking Mulhern here by submission.

Henderson: Not only has Villefort been on the shelf for nearly two years, he also built his six-fight undefeated record against low-level opponents. Villefort is the equivalent of the competition Mulhern thrived against in King of the Cage. Mulhern takes this via submission.

LHW: Gian Villante (9-3) vs. Derrick Mehmen (12-4)

Henderson: Villante has been disappointing in big fights, but so has Mehmen. It’s a coin toss; I give Villante a slight edge and the TKO win.

McKenna: Both fighters are looking for a strong performance, which generally leads to fireworks. Bryan’s coin landed in favor of Villante, mine landed for Mehmen.

Wilcoxon: While neither has been impressive, some of Villante struggles came from competing at heavyweight. Now at light heavyweight, he has looked better. Villante wins late in this one.

LHW: Virgil Zwicker (10-2) vs. Guto Inocente (5-0)

McKenna: Zwicker hasn’t fought since April 2011 while Inocente has been out since September 2010. A combination of longer ring rust and different American rules will hurt Inocente as Zwicker earns the decision.

Wilcoxon: As Brian said, both have ring rust. Zwicker is a brawler, but Inocente is a mixed martial artist. Inocente gets the fight to ground where Zwicker will struggle. Inocente wins this in the second round by submission.

Henderson: Zwicker might be known as a brawler, but he hones his game with Dan Henderson as a primary training partner. He’s facing a guy who comes and goes from the MMA scene—until now, never fighting outside of Brazil—and who has fought primarily sub-par competition. Zwicker presses forward and emerges with a TKO win.

LW: Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante (16-4-1) vs. Isaac Vallie-Flagg (12-3-1)

Wilcoxon: Vallie-Flagg hasn’t faced the competition that “JZ” has faced. “JZ’s” ultra-aggressive attitude and style will notch him a submission stoppage.

Henderson: Not only has “JZ” faced tougher foes, he’s only lost to the very best. Vallie-Flagg is a top regional guy, but he’ll be outclassed here. I also think we’re looking at a submission win for Cavalcante.

McKenna: Seven victories by submission for Cavalcante, three losses by submission by Vallie-Flagg. Do the math. Submission victory for “JZ.”

Top Photo: Josh Barnett (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.