Bellator rolls into '14 on high note
Expectations early next year will be as high as they've ever been for Bellator when the promotion starts its 10th season in the mixed martial arts business.
The Viacom-owned production deserves to have that sort of weight on its shoulders as it exits a successful 2013, especially off a season that featured notable winners across six weight classes, as well as a big shift in the look of its title picture.
Say what you will about Cheick Kongo's viability, he's a name. People know him. And he fought with some life throughout the single-elimination event. He'll challenge for the belt next against new titleholder Vitaly Minakov, who at a minimum looks like a solid heavyweight. A win over Kongo will help validate Minakov (at least somewhat).
Will Brooks fully recovered from his only loss, making good on his talent at 155 pounds. He'll have to wait a bit for a title shot, as there's a logjam here with Michael Chandler and the injured Dave Jansen.
The season delivered a ratings boost for Bellator and Spike TV, which picked up momentum during a crazy November stretch that began with the pay-per-view that never was.
Bellator 109 Grades
Russian middleweight Alexander Shlemenko scored his 12th consecutive win late in Round 1, hammering home lefts to the liver that crippled Doug Marshall. Shlemenko takes what he does very seriously, and it shows in his performances. The Bellator champion did a solid job of mixing grappling with striking, but taking down Marshall doesn't say much about how he'd fare against elite middleweights.
Rick Hawn picked up his activity and showed patience leading to his late stoppage of Ron Keslar. As always at 170, Hawn was the smaller man. But his distance control, particularly with the jab, proved to be key in his ability to slow Keslar and land effective punches, especially a debilitating right hand that sealed the tournament win. Hawn's a competent fighter and a strong competitor. It's good news for him that finishing power appeared at welterweight. But he wouldn't have defeated Ben Askren, and will likely have a tough time against Douglas Lima.
Will Brooks earned this third straight unanimous decision to capture Bellator's latest lightweight tournament. He's got all the talent he needs; he just required more seasoning. Three wins in three months should give Brooks a boost as he gets ready to take another step up in competition. Stifling the potent offense of Russian Alexander Sarnavskiy was no small feat.
Liverpool's Terry Etim, a UFC washout at the age of 27, played a comfortable game against Patrick Cenoble, making use of a significant grappling advantage to walk away with a decision. Cenoble appeared to have limited ground defense. This was a mostly safe effort by Etim. There are far tougher opponents out there, and he should meet them soon.
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