Bellator's four Thursday night fights on Fox Sports Net this week will constitute the first round of its Season 2 middleweight tournament, so now's a good time to take a look at those four fights and which middleweight we can expect to emerge from the tournament to fight champion Hector Lombard in Season 3.
Thursday night's four fights break down like this:
Bryan Baker vs. Sean Loeffler: I think most MMA fans agree that Baker is the favorite to win this tournament. Baker is 11-1, the only loss was a decision to Chael Sonnen, and at age 24 he's continuing to get better. Loeffler is 18-4 and on a six-fight winning streak, so he's not exactly a pushover, but I'd be awfully surprised if Baker doesn't win this one.
Jared Hess vs. Ryan McGivern: McGivern is 13-6 and is more experienced than Hess, but he hasn't fought in a year and a half, and it's tough to know what kind of shape he'll be in. Hess is 10-1-1 and his only loss was to Lombard in last season's tournament final.
Alexander Shlemenko vs. Matt Major: Schlemenko, a Russian brawler with a 27-4 record, is by far the most experienced fighter in this tournament, and he shouldn't have too much trouble beating Major, who's 6-1 but has only fought one opponent most fans would recognize -- former Ultimate Fighter bad boy Jesse Taylor -- and lost that fight.
Luke Zachrich vs. Eric Schambari: I consider this the most competitive of the four first-round fights. Schambari is 11-1 and Zachrich is 9-1, so they both have good records, though neither has faced much high-quality competition. Both guys prefer to take the fight to the ground, but I'll go with Zachrich to win this one on his feet.
When you're trying to get a rough estimate of how good a fighter is, I like to use the FightMatrix.com power ratings. They're a bit complex, and I'm not sure I totally understand them myself, but they generally give you a good indication of approximately how much a fighter has accomplished in his career. Here's how many ratings points each of these eight Bellator fighters has in the FightMatrix.com system:
Bryan Baker: 99
Alexander Shlemenko: 94
Jared Hess: 82
Eric Schambari: 57
Matt Major: 48
Sean Loeffler: 35
Luke Zachrich: 33
Ryan McGivern: Not rated
To put this in perspective, FightMatrix.com gives Anderson Silva a score of 852, so obviously none of these guys are in that class, but then again no one is in Silva's class. But there are several recognizable UFC middleweights who are ranked lower than some of their lesser-known Bellator counterparts: Kendall Grove gets a 97, Chris Leben gets a 93, C.B. Dollaway gets a 91 and James Irvin gets a 61.
Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard gets a 154, so if you believe the FightMatrix.com system you'd have to believe that whoever wins this tournament is going to be an underdog in the middleweight title fight. That's what I believe: I think Lombard is going to beat whoever emerges from this tournament. But I'm looking forward to seeing who that will be, and my money is on Baker.