Alexander "Tiger" Sarnavskiy of Russia came into Bellator's lightweight tournament with a 20-0 record with 17 finishes. But veteran Rich "No Love" Clementi told people beforehand that he would be more impressed if he was 20-4, because he felt at 20-0, somebody has been protecting him.
As it turned out, the 36-year-old Clementi (45-21-1) was able to outgrapple Sarnavskiy for the first two rounds, and mostly stay alive for the third to garner a split-decision win to advance to the semifinals of the Bellator tournament at Bellator 77 on Friday night.
Clementi, who was bleeding from getting the worst of the standup, got Sarnavskiy's back in the first round and was continually working for a choke. He seemed to have it locked on with 20 seconds left in the round, but Sarnavskiy was able to slip out and save himself for round two.
He spent the early part of that round with back position after a takedown, but Sarnavskiy managed to turn to the top late and ref Mario Yamasaki called for a standup late even though the action on the ground was continual. Sarnavskiy landed a head kick and spinning back first which was enough to win the round on one card.
The third round consisted of Clementi, feeling he had the fight in the bag, just trying to keep it on the ground and away from the Russian's strength. He would feign getting knocked down, and then just not even feign, and just continually drop to his back. He was giving up the round since he appeared to have the first two in the bag. Clementi did sweep to the top at one point. Sarnavskiy got up and waved Clementi up late, knowing he likely needed a finish. But Clementi continued to drop to his back . Sarnavskiy did try for a triangle in the waning seconds, but didn't come close, and his unbeaten strike ended on scores of 29-28, 28-29 and 29-28.
"I was praying to God, let me finish this quick," said Clementi about the choke at the end of round one. "But (he's) a tough, tough dude. There's a reason he's 20-0. One thing about this ring is it does not lie. You can hype. You can do whatever but it all comes out when the door shuts."
Clementi, a UFC veteran with past wins over the likes of Anthony Johnson, Sam Stout and Melvin Guillard, will be joined in the semifinals by American Dave Jansen, Marcin Held of Poland and Ricardo Tirloni of Brazil after first round wins at the Sovereign Center in Reading, Pa.
The winner of the tournament will get a shot at the Bellator lightweight championship, currently held by Michael Chandler. Chandler must first defend against former U.S. Olympic judoka Rick Hawn, which will take place in January after Bellator moves to Spike TV.
Tirloni (15-2) scored a surprising D'Arce choke victory over multi-time world Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champion Rene Nazare (10-3) at 1:14 of the second round. The second round was back-and-forth. Nazare landed a hard left hook and several more punches coming out, and Tirloni was back with punches of his own and went for a guillotine, and then moved to the D'Arce choke.
Held (14-2) stopped Murad Machaev (9-1) via straight 29-28 scores in a match that came down to a close third round. Machaev before the match had said Held was a bad striker, but the third round, the difference-maker, was all standing with Held more than holding his own.
"Murad was a very tough opponent," said Held, a 20-year-old mostly known for his aggressive and entertaining ground work. "I went tonight to fight standing. I want to see if I'm ready to fight in the best organization in the world standing, and I did it. My message is if I can't submit, I can fight standing and I can win."
Jansen (18-2) finished Russian Magomed Saadulaev (14-2) with a guillotine at :41 of the third round in another fight even after two rounds.
"It's a little slow start, it took me a while to wake up," said Jansen, who scored the 11th win of his career via choke. "I don't know why, but am glad I got to get it together ther at the end."