The mass appeal of this Grand Prix finale is that Josh "The Warmaster" Barnett (31-5) and Daniel Cormier (9-0) are the best of the best in their respective wrestling trades. Cormier reached the pinnacle of traditional wrestling by competing on the 2004 Olympic team and it's utterly blasphemous to discuss catch-wrestling in MMA without mentioning Barnett's name.
More Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier Dissections
Despite sharing an illustrious background in grappling and being of similar age, they've traveled distinctly different paths in MMA. Barnett is one of the last of the crusty, old-school pioneers who's competed all over the world since the Vale Tudo days of the mid-90s, while Cormier is a newer entry to top-level MMA with only a few years of experience and just 2 A-level wins under his belt: Jeff Monson (decision) and Antonio Silva (TKO). Cormier employed his wrestling in reverse against Monson and Silva and relied on his shocking hand-speed to unhinge them with blinding boxing combinations.
Though it had been some time since Barnett had tangled with an upper-tier heavyweight, he went back to his roots to advance to the finals. Showing that he still has cat-like agility for a beefy 260-pounder, Barnett sliced deep into the hips of Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov to topple them over with takedowns, then administered his potent submission grappling venom to elicit tapouts via arm-triangle.
Analysis continued in the full entry.
Technique is obviously a critical aspect between these world-class specialists, and when it comes to scrutinizing technical grappling details, there are none better than Bloody Elbow's K.J. Gould and Michael Riordan. The following links are absolutely imperative reading material to better understand the mechanics at play in this match up.
Let's start with Riordan's specific observation of Cormier's effective use of a wrestling basic: the go-behind.
Daniel Cormier happens to be the king of the go-behind. He can proficiently shoot singles and doubles, but these are not the skills that brought him close to amateur wrestling's summit. Daniel may be the best ever at stuffing opponents down and spinning behind them. In fact, he became a world medalist and Olympian based mostly on this distinct ability.
Though "going behind" may sound dismissively primitive and it certainly is not the foxiest way to succeed at wrestling, its effectiveness is undeniable. In an MMA bout, Cormier's incredible go-behind skills pose a big problem for any opponent, particularly those who want to take him down. This could lead to big problems for Josh Barnett, his opponent in Saturday's Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Final this Saturday on Showtime.
Before we get into examples of Cormier's knack with the go-behind, it's important to understand how his frame and physical attributes factor in. Cormier is quite short (5'11") and squatty (247-pounds) for a premiere heavyweight. The traits that complement his stature extremely well are his startling quickness, his agility and the powerful poise and balance from his wrestling acumen. If a casual fan were to take in a Cormier fight for the first time, they would probably take note of his amazing dexterity before detecting his extraordinary wrestling savvy. Though his shoulders are as broad as a barn, Cormier moves like a middleweight and, since his boxing has probably been his best weapon, his uncanny dexterity is his cardinal attribute. Let's pick back up with Riordan on Cormier's go-behind.
He was so good at it that he used it to take down the greatest college wrestler of all time. This is Daniel wrestling Cael Sanderson in the 2001 NCAA 184 lb. finals. (It is interesting to note that in the match immediately before this, Josh Koscheck won his NCAA title and in the match immediately after Mark Munoz earned his national championship) Wrestling does not get any simpler than this.
Cormier catches Sanderson leaning forward, snaps his head down to the mat, cross-faces and rotates behind for a take down. This move can be seen repeatedly at any junior varsity wrestling tournament throughout the nation, and here Cormier uses it on folkstyle wrestling's biggest stage and against its biggest star.
On many a wrestling room wall is a poster listing the 7 basic skills of wrestling: penetration, lift, back arch, back step, motion, positioning, and changing levels. This is wrestling on an ontological level. Every single wrestling movement reduces to one of these skills. A great coach once taught me that of all these 7 skills, the most important was positioning. If a wrestler can maintain perfect position, he can never be scored upon.
By extension,a wrestler who continuously maintains position only needs his opponent to lose position once to win a match. This is wrestling's version of the "three yards and a cloud of dust" philosophy; he who makes fewer mistakes wins. Daniel took this philosophy to heart. He would beat extremely good wrestlers with an approach both brutal and basic: staying in position throughout a match, when an opponent lowered his head to shoot or he pulled it down by relentless pressure, he would stuff it and and go behind.
Of course, in order for Barnett to impose his strength, he has to initiate a grappling match -- and taking an Olympic wrestler down is no easy task. Cormier's go-behind will be an integral facet when defending Barnett's takedowns. Overall, the head-to-head takedown battle should be staunchly dictated by Cormier. Barnett is a deceivingly adroit wrestler; his experience could factor in with subtle details like using the cage wall to prevent Cormier's escape routes and limit his tactics, or timing his shots while Cormier is planted to throw strikes. However, on paper, Cormier gets the nod for control of the location of the fight (which is not the same as controlling the pace, but usually leads to it).
Let's hear from K.J. Gould on a technical walk-through of Barnett's takedown tactics against Rogers.
For many this was one of the few highlights of the fight where Josh Barnett was able to partially catch a kick from Rogers and drive him into the fence before eventually picking him up and slamming him onto the mat. What you may have missed -- Barnett executes this Double-Leg pick up almost perfectly from a technical standpoint. To begin with Rogers has widened his base and turned his hips to make it a lot harder for Barnett to lift and he's also trying to pummel his arms inside to bring Barnett back up to his level.
Barnett adjusts his base by rotating slightly clockwise while switching to a Single-Leg grip on Rogers right leg. Once he has the grip and hugs Rogers' leg close to his body he rotates anti-clockwise pulling Rogers into him and causing him to withdraw his arms to defend while becoming more upright. Barnett then drives Rogers back into the fence and switches back to a Double-Leg grip that's now free of Rogers' arms. Barnett locks his hands just beneath Rogers butt keeping his base narrow and square.
Barnett is able to step in and penetrate Rogers' base to get his hips below and parallel to Rogers' hips. Keeping his back straight Barnett is able to lift Rogers fairly efficiently before driving him to the mat while turning his right shoulder into Rogers' body which allows him to protect his own head from impact as well as land him in side control. By problem solving the situation to attain better grip and positioning Barnett wastes less energy than if he just tried to power through with a takedown that might have landed him in Guard or Half-Guard, potentially giving him more work to do on the mat later on. In the diagram below I've highlighted in green Rogers' actions and highlighted in blue Barnett's actions. You will need to click the diagram to get it to animate in a new tab / window.
I know what you're thinking -- "Cormier is no Brett Rogers," which is entirely indisputable. Barnett's experience could come into play during tie-ups or scrambles that result from takedown attempts from either competitor. Cormier has the clear edge in straight wrestling, but Barnett has an equally slanted edge in creativity and unexpected attacks. Cormier isn't as well versed in defending against a rolling kneebar off a failed takedown attempt nor an opponent willing to pull guard and/or drop back for an ankle lock. Here's my chosen pair from the many techniques within K.J. Gould's piece on Barnett's exemplary intelligence and creativity when pursuing submissions.
While the Kneebar is fairly familiar to those that watch MMA we often see it from open guard work like Frank Mir vs Brock Lesnar 1 or sometimes from rolling attacks when an opponent tries to take your back. Lesser seen because of the risk involved is the Stepover Kneebar when inside an opponent's Half-Guard. There is a risk of getting swept if you are too close to them, but in this gif we see while Barnett's opponent tries for a basic sweep early on Barnett stands high enough to swing his leg over without it getting caught up after winning the hand-fight on the ground to begin with.
The safer option usually is to Back-Step kneebar so you free leg doesn't get wrapped up by the opponent's arms resulting in the same seated position before you drop back for the kneebar. Also worth noting is how Barnett falls almost on to his opponent's face. The reason for this and why it's beneficial is that it stretches out the hamstring before you extend the knee joint making it much harder for the opponent to contract and resist the extension. Sometimes when we see kneebars they're in a position where the hamstring is relaxed and while possible to finish it's easier to get a tap when working the hamstring, especially with less flexible opponents.
Reverse Pillow V-Arm Lock
This is a fun option from modified side control / Broken Scarfhold / Kuzure Kesagatame. Barnett is fighting a Brown belt in the advanced Heavyweight (205lbs+) class. The name of the move comes from the Japanese Catch Wrestling lineage such as Shooto and refers to the cradling of the head (to prevent a bridge) with an arm that reaches over and into the opponent's armpit in a similar way to the Stockade position.
With his other arm Barnett has a Single Top Wrist Lock grip and while lifting the head Barnett rotates the arm back and away to effect the shoulder and elbow joint, making a V shape with the arm. I have seen some BJJ referees claim that it's a neck crank and therefore illegal but that's a case of the referees being ignorant over lesser seen submissions that exist outside of orthodox Jiu Jitsu. It's definitely the shoulder and elbow that gets the pressure while the neck gets a slight tug, less than what would be felt in a good guillotine choke. Barnett's positioning is such that he goes for the far side V-arm and not the near which is fairly unique and I'd have thought more difficult to pull off.
Before we move on to the Striking Phase, my summary on the Clinch and Grappling Phase is that Cormier has to use his wrestling as an outlet to free movement. The last place he wants to be is in tight for any extended periods of time -- if he takes Josh down, he has to stay focused on keeping his posture up and/or throwing a few meaningful strikes before disengaging. If Barnett can control his posture from guard, this will limit Cormier's striking offense and the chest-to-chest position is where his catch-wrestling can turn the tables.
Striking-wise, Cormier's quickness and agility will be pivotal as well. Now, his boxing has looked phenomenal for a wrestling-based fighter with little MMA experience, but I'm still surprised that he's being asserted as the striking favorite. Barnett has always had under-rated boxing and he's far more proven against legit competition. Out-striking Monson, who's far from A-level on the feet, and Antonio Silva, a leviathan who couldn't compete with Cormier's quickness, does not convince me that Cormier deserves the edge standing.
The AKA product has pieced together a solid offering the feet, replete with crisp and hefty punches (his left hook is deadly) and and excellent grasp of footwork and angles for such a green fighter. Barnett is much quicker with his hands than Silva and a much better striker than Monson, plus the looming threat of his takedowns will only maximize his striking opportunities. Barnett will also have a few inches of height (6'4" vs. 5'11") and reach (78" vs. 71") to compensate for Cormier's blinding speed in addition to his rock-solid chin (his only TKO loss was to a prime Pedro Rizzo in 2001), and that additional height/length will translate to valuable leverage when they lock horns.
In other words, I think the striking match up is fairly even, or at least much closer than the majority opinion. This means that the only clear advantage for Cormier is in -- not wrestling as a whole, but -- takedowns. Realistically, a takedown transfers the fight from the standing or clinch phase to the grappling phase, where Barnett's scathing submission arsenal gives him the edge. From a scoring standpoint, judges love takedowns, so Cormier would be wise to phase-shift in order to dictate the pace and control the action. Popping in and out of the pocket while flashing his hands and alternating with takedown attempts could pay huge dividends, as long as he doesn't engage Barnett on the mat.
The chess match to overtake momentum will be a deciding factor. Barnett will inevitably shoot, and whether Cormier just defends and disengages or punishes Josh with strikes and counter-throws will largely influence the tempo. If Barnett can attack freely with no adverse repercussions, he will eventually find a way to impose offense, be it through dirty boxing, digging in a hook from the standing position and latching on in the clinch, pulling guard or dropping back to wrench some part of his lower limb into a painful angle.
Cormier could very well prove me wrong and out-strike Barnett. I do think it will be a stiff challenge to get him down and Barnett will have to use creativity and intelligence just as much as wrestling technique to do so. Barnett can take a punch though, and even if Cormier catches him on the feet he'll be at risk if he dives into his guard to finish. The betting lines have this affair about dead-even, which is hard to dispute. My pick is based on the more proven fighter who has more options to impose his strengths.
My Prediction: Josh Barnett by submission.