Last Friday we saw Bellator kick their season off with a very entertaining opening round to the featherweight tournament. Capping off the card was one of the more prolonged, brutal finishes MMA has seen in quite some time, as Pat Curran usurped Joe Warren as the promotion’s 145-pound champion. Curran put the remaining four tournament competitors and current #1 contender Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire on notice that he intends to remain atop the Featherweight mountain.
A world-class champion and long line of high-quality competitors are what make the featherweight class the best in Bellator’s ranks. The next Bellator tournament we’ll be previewing fits one of those criteria, as Middleweight Champion Hector Lombard is one of the best, most violent men in MMA, but the depth after ‘Shango’ leaves something to be desired. Since joining Bellator in 2008 Lombard has faced a line of fighters both in and out of the organization who can best be described as journeymen. After defeating Jared Hess for the title, Lombard has notched an additional ten consecutive wins – five in Bellator – over the likes of Jay Silva, Whisper Goodman, Alexander Shlemenko, Falaniko Vitale, and Trevor Prangley. He is set to face Shlemenko once again in his next title defense (pending contract negotiations). Hardly inspiring stuff.
In terms of creating a competitive atmosphere in the division, recent news has indicated that Lombard’s contract has expired and he is open to negotiate with other potential suitors as of May. While losing one of their biggest stars would be a terrible blow to the organization in the short term, it would turn the upcoming middleweight tournament from wondering, “Who gets the next chance to lose to Hector,” to something that’s actually relevant in the division moving forward. That being said, Lombard is still with Bellator for the time being, so let’s break down who is going to earn the right to get beaten up by him after Shlemenko fails in his second bid against the champ.
While the end product of the tournament may not turn out to be all that enthralling, the tournament as an entity unto itself is actually quite interesting. The middleweight tournament has a wide-open feeling, and I get the sense the champion will come down to what matches get made as the tournament progresses.
Since there isn’t necessarily a favorite to be had in this tournament we’ll just work in the reverse order that the fights will air on TV meaning that Maiquel Falcao vs. Norman Paraisy is the first bout to look at. Probably the easiest of the opening round fights to break down, Falcao is best known for coming in to the UFC, upsetting Gerald Harris, and then disappearing due to a combination of injuries and legal issues. A talented striker whose 23 T/KO wins in 28 career victories expresses exactly what he comes to do in the cage, Falcao should have no trouble in dispatching Paraisy. The Frenchman’s moment of Zuffa fame was much more auspicious, as after going on about being a tough fighter and wanting to show the world how resilient the French are he refused to answer the bell for Round 2 of his elimination bout to qualify for the Ultimate Fighter 11. Since that time, Paraisy suffered his first official loss to well past his prime Dave Menne in Bellator’s inaugural season. While, a recent win over Zombie Paulo Filho may have some people leaning towards Paraisy in this bout, Falcao will hand the Frenchman his first T/KO loss and move on to the semi-finals where an impressive T/KO victory or humbling submission defeat likely await him, depending on the brackets.
The next fight really comes down to the game-planning of last season’s finalist, Vitor Vianna, and that is not a comforting feeling. Vianna has the tools to be one of the better fighters in Bellator but lacks the smart approach to each fight that will allow him to get there. He almost lost to Sam Alvey in the first round of the last middleweight tournament, stopped Bryan Baker with strikes in the semifinals, and looked completely inept against Shlemenko in the final. Not exactly a model of consistency, eh? While he will come in as the favorite, I actually see his strategic missteps being his downfall against a man who brings immense power to the cage in Brian Rogers. Of course, Vianna could actually try to take this fight to the ground and surprise me where he would likely have an easy time dispatching Rogers. I’m banking on that not happening – since it is yet to consistently in his Bellator career – and if he doesn’t, Rogers will be the more effective striker and may potentially even stop Vianna. A Rogers/Falcao semifinal would produce an absolutely dynamite fight, especially if you’re into some serious hostility.
The third opening round bout pits Russian prospect Vyacheslav Vasilevsky against Victor O’Donnell. Many people are expecting big things from the combat Sambo champion, perhaps thinking all Sambo champions are created equally. While Vasilevsky is not a reincarnation of Fedor Emelianenko, he is a highly skilled, well-rounded fighter splitting his 15 career victories evenly between T/KOs, submissions, and decisions. Up to this point he has been cutting his teeth on the M-1 circuit where he has received some favorable matchmaking being one of the promotion’s poster boys. His opponent, O’Donnell, has been unsuccessful in both a previous Bellator tournament and an attempt to get on the Ultimate Fighter. O’Donnell is normally looking for the takedown in his fights but struggles when he is unable to garner them as evidenced by his loss to Rogers in the last tournament. I see a similar fate befalling O’Donnell this time around, although the fact that Vasilevsky is taking a step up in competition and has previously been faced with opponents who are simply willing to retreat and get beaten up by him. I still see Vasilevsky having the skills to take a decision in this one, but don’t see him being able to deal with the consistent increase in competition throughout the tournament.
The last quarterfinal bout pits fighters of opposing philosophies against one another. Giva Santana is an aggressive submission-grappler who has finished 94% of his MMA victories (fourteen Submissions and two T/KOs), while Bruno Santos, despite being undefeated in his twelve professional bout, has gone to decision in ten of them. Santana’s go-to submission throughout his career has been the Armbar, but he is versatile as a grappler. Santos reminds me of a less skilled, less effective Ricardo Arona. He throws decent leg kicks at times, but they are too few and too far in between. Against a grappler the quality of Santana, I don’t see Santos’ style being overly effective, and I see his first career loss coming in this bout. Moving forward, Santana could be a dark horse in the tournament, because given match-ups against guys who are primarily strikers like Rogers or Falcao he could find great success. At the same time, if he were to fight Vianna, I would venture to say that he’s outmatched in every aspect of the bout. These are the types of dynamics that make this tournament both interesting and difficult to prognosticate.
If I had to pick a favorite to take the tournament at this point it would be Falcao because while he relies primarily on his striking, plus we have also seen an effective grappling game from him. More importantly, ignoring the third round of the Harris fight, he fights to his strengths unlike the other fighter I pointed to with the most well-rounded skill set in the bracket, Vianna. At the same time, the dynamic nature of a fighter like Rogers could easily result in him scoring three knockouts and winning the tournament, or Vasilevsky could prove himself to be not just a prospect but a top fighter at 185 pounds. Proverbial gun to my head, the only official UFC veteran in the tournament would be my pick to get next in line for Lombard, and of the fighters in the field, I believe he provides the best foil for the current champion, as uninteresting as that bout may be.
Maiquel Falcao def. Norman Paraisy
Brian Rogers def. Vitor Vianna
Vyacheslav Vasilevsky def. Victor O’Donnell
Giva Santana def. Bruno Santos
Fans can watch Bellator unfold tomorrow night on MTV2 starting at 8:00 PM EST with prelims streaming through Spike.com prior to the main broadcast.
PHOTO CREDIT – BELLATOR