Josh Barnett is one of the five best heavyweights in the history of mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, because of a decade long feud with the UFC, Barnett hasn't had a chance to showcase his greatness to the masses in America. The Strikeforce Grand Prix was his opportunity to make the case that he still belongs in the discussion at 265 pounds, and he's made a strong argument.
In the semifinals of the eight man tournament, Barnett took on feared Russian striker Sergei Kharitonov. A former Pride star who once knocked out Alistair Overeem, Kharitonov has been slowed over the years by a string of injuries. He claimed to be one hundred percent for the Barnett bout and posed a significant threat to the submission specialist.
5:00-4:00: Barnett opens with a big right that Kharitonov easily avoids, countering with a left/right combination of his own. Barnett, one of the greatest heavyweight grapplers of all-time, sometimes seems to bite off more than he can chew during standing exchanges. Considering it's Kharitonov's one avenue to success, it would behoove Barnett to approach things cautiously here - but Barnett is not a man with a particular cautious demeanor.
Barnett lands a jab, but Sergei is walking him down, trying to cut off any possible retreat by trapping Barnett against the cage. "Do not get caught on the cage against Kharitonov," Strikeforce colorman Pat Miletich wisely advises. Barnett backs the Russian off with a right hand and follows with an inside leg kick. He's light on his feet, while Kharitonov, who has a history of back issues, looks a little plodding.
Kharitonov comes forward with a series of punches, just missing a huge right uppercut. "Ooh," Strikeforce play by play king Mauro Ranallo exclaims. Ooh indeed. That was a fight ender if there ever was one. He follows the miss with a straight right that lands and the two clinch, with Kharitonov continuing to be the aggressor with a couple of short uppercuts. Barnett forces a break with a hard right but Ranallo isn't sure this is what the former UFC champion wants. "Barnett is in risky territory." As if on cure, Barnett shoots for his first takedown at 4:16 of the round.
Kharitonov stuffs the double leg attempt, but Barnett transitions nicely to a body lock and trips him down, landing right in the mount. "I think after taking a couple of those shots he thought 'let's take this south,'" Miletich says.
4:00-3:00: Kharitonov is holding tight to Barnett's arms for all he's worth and the two stare meaningfully at each other. "I don't think they're whispering sweet nothings," Ranallo assures us. Barnett gets his left arm free and smashes Sergei in the face with an elbow. He uses the momentary shock and awe to free his right hand as well, but Kharitonov fights furiously for hand control.
Barnett lands some ground and pound, but for the most part Kharitonov is defending well. "The one thing about sambo - the have great throws, great striking, and they do have great leg locks," Miletich says. "But their positioning knowledge sometimes is lacking. You don't see Kharitonov fiddling with his legs, spending a lot of time getting out of this position. He's kind of just riding it out."
3:00-2:00: Barnett picks up the pace with his ground and pound attack. "Free cosmetic surgery," Ranallo calls it. Frank Shamrock is also allegedly part of the broadcast team as well, but he's been conspicuous in his silence. Barnett is know landing pretty steadily -even when Kharitonov tries to control his wrists, he's able to use gravity and brute strength to drop down some short hammerfists.
Kharitonov's defense is all being fought with his upper body. ""You're right Pat," Shamrock says, joining the crew. "His feet are dead. They're not going anywhere." Barnett at one point lands eight straight rapid fire punches, but Kharitonov is still defending intelligently, if not well. Barnett eventually decides to wear his opponent down, stretching his body weight out and flattening his Russian.
2:00-1:00: You can tell that Barnett has been around the block a time or two. He has the dominant position and he's in no hurry. He doesn't want to risk wearing himself out with a wild attack. He's picking his openings and making Kharitonov pay. Eventually Segei panicks and gives up his back. He doesn't make a strong push to his feet and doesn't roll to try to put Barnett on the mat. He seems to be waiting for the inevitable.
Barnett lands two hard elbows to the side of Kharitonov's head. Brutal. He's been completely dominant since the moment the fight hit the ground. "Kharitonov turtling up and being fed a steady diet of short right uppercuts," Ranallo says.
1:00-0:00: Despite Barnett's performance, the crowd lets a few boos escape. Fans are used to more aggression from fighters in these kinds of positions. But Barnett is leaving nothing to chance. He flattens him out again and lands nine consecutive punches. "Saturday night ride," Shamrock says. When Kharitnov turns over to avoid the punishment, Barnett is in the perfect position for a side choke. It was a textbook example of ground chess. Barnett forced Kharitonov to move and then was right where he needed to be to take advantage of it. "Catch wrestling!" Ranallo screams as Kharitonov submits with 32 seconds left in the round. Barnett does the "Arn Anderson" throat slash gesture and the countdown to Barnett versus Daniel Cormier begins.
"I think I'm going to takedown the Olympian," Barnett joked about his future foe. "I'm going to suplex him for five. I think Cormier is a super opponent. He's a guy who has competed at the highest level of athletics.And I know I have to train real hard for him. Fighting him will be a lot different than these last two guys. A very different style."