Can tourney crop push Lombard?
If Hector Lombard chooses to re-sign with Bellator, which is no sure thing, his first fight under a new deal would likely take place against the winner of the promotion's current middleweight tournament.
"One of the things that I promised Hector I would do is dramatically enhance the qualitative level of the fighters that were competing to challenge him for the title," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told me last week.
Since Lombard won the belt in 2009, only Alexander Shlemenko has challenged the Cuban. Otherwise, Trevor Prangley, Falaniko Vitale, Herbert Goodman and Jay Silva stood opposite Lombard (31-2-1) in non-title or catch-weight fights.
Has Rebney lived up to his word? Can he considering the realities at play?
Last week in this space I wrote that the biggest challenge Bellator faces is elevating fighters' relevance and prominence as compared to their counterparts in the UFC. There are forces working against that, not the least of which is the difficult task of selling Bellator as a place where fighters are continually tested by top-class competition.
Recognizing he's vested in Lombard's status, Rebeny believes he has under his promotional control the top middleweight in MMA -- placing him among a tiny contingent who'd dare to say such a thing with Anderson Silva still walking the earth.
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Until Bellator provides promotional opportunities that call for that level of respect, however, Lombard can't get to the top no matter how many in a row he wins. Due mostly to a string of victories that date to 2007, the 34-year-old fighter is ranked No. 10 by ESPN.com at 185 pounds, but I have no problem saying based on the caliber of his opposition there's an argument against his inclusion on the list in the first place.
It's impossible to say know how good he is until he fights someone.
While Bruno Santos, Brian Rogers, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky and Maiquel Falcao appear, in one fashion or another, capable of providing the explosive champion with competitive matches, chances are high that regardless of who emerges, fans won't care much and media will continue to gloss over Lombard's place in the division.
I tend to doubt the current crop of potential challengers, which was whittled to four Friday, represent appreciable or perceptual improvements over Shlemenko. We'll have a better idea pending results of April 20's semifinals in Cleveland. But, again, the remaining fighters aren't ranked. None are known (expect perhaps for Falcao, and only because he fought once in the UFC and won). And, as I see it, none can totally deliver on Rebney's promise.
Bellator 61 grades
Brian Rogers, i.e. not a man to be hit by, scored a KO-of-the-year caliber knockout against Vitor Vianna (12-3) on Friday. His quarterfinal victory marked eight first-round stoppages in nine career wins. "The Predator" (9-3), hailing from Independence, Ohio, hammered Vianna with a right cross and ended the bout with a perfectly timed and well-placed knee to the chin. The 28-year-old middleweight's performance was all the more impressive because it came during his first fight since a technical knockout loss in October.
Fighting away from European soil for the first time (and outside Russia for the second), Vyacheslav Vasilevsky took it to Victor O'Donnell (11-4). Judges registered scores of 29-28 across the board, but many pundits, including yours truly, saw the three-round affair as lopsided as 29-26 or even 30-25. Vasilevsky (16-1) battered O'Donnell throughout the final two rounds, though for all the ground-and-pound he unleashed, he failed to put away the American. I liked what I saw from the young Russian. Will he prove to be a carbon copy of Shlemenko? He's bigger and better versed on the floor. That's a positive sign.
The best action the quarterfinals came when Bruno Santos, 24, battled 40-year-old armbar king Giva Santana (17-2). Built similarly to the UFC's stout Rousimar Palhares, Santos did well to avoid Santana's submission game. He played it close to the vest on the ground, and muscled Santana around on the feet. The older fighter didn't go away easily, though, and tested Santos in the striking department. If Rogers hits Santos with the same sort of shots Santana landed against him, it could quite easily be the final time Santos enters a fight unbeaten.
Maiquel Falcao (29-4) got off to a solid (albeit confusing) start. While he was clearly better than Frenchman Norman Paraisy (10-2), the 31-year-old Brazilian declined to press for a finish even when it was his for the taking in Round 2. There will be a price to pay if he steps off the gas against better competition, and Vasilevsky shouldn't be dismissed in that regard. Falcao did what he needed to do, which in a tournament situation is all that matters. He must do better moving forward, though.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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