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Bellator 44 Preview: The Rundown

Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard in action, and Patricky "Pitbull" Freire vs. Michael Chandler in the finals of the lightweight tournament, are the anchors for this Saturday's Bellator 44 in Atlantic City.

With two episodes remaining, the season four tournaments are winding down while other bouts are potential qualifiers for next season's tournaments in September.

After the jump, let's take a look at five of the storylines heading into Bellator 44.

The Best Middleweight Outside of Zuffa?
Hector Lombard (28-2-1) could very well be the best 185-pounder not under contract with the UFC or Strikeforce, which means Lombard, along with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, will continue to be talked about as "what ifs" as they stand as Bellator champions outside of the UFC looking in.

Especially with Lombard, we don't know how he stacks up since his biggest wins in recent years have been against UFC castaways and there's no change here as he heads into a non-title showdown against the past-his-prime Falaniko Vitale.

All we know for the most part is that he's blowing past lesser competition in convincing fashion. The American Top Team fighter clearly possesses the tools, but once again, we're back to enjoying Lombard's performances for what they are, exciting showings, and not necessarily indicators of where he rests in the world middleweight standings.

Hawaiian Connection
If there's ever a Hall of Fame for Hawaiian MMA, Falaniko Vitale (29-9) is a candidate, if not a shoe-in. Vitale is approaching his eleventh year in MMA competition and has been a major face in the local scene, headlining the old SuperBrawl events and later IconSport. He's had stints with UFC and Strikeforce and holds wins over Yushin Okami, Dave Menne and Matt Lindland (though the win over Lindland was from Lindland knocking himself out). On Saturday, Vitale is looking at what could be his last moment in the national spotlight in this nothing to lose and everything to gain fight against Lombard.

Winner Gets Eddie
Bellator's third lightweight tournament will come to an end with Patricky "Pitbull" Freire (9-1) meeting Michael Chandler (7-0) for a chance to challenge Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title at a later date and the $100,000 grand prize. Currently out of Xtreme Couture, Chandler, a former collegiate wrestling teammate of Strikeforce up-and-comer Tyron Woodley, has two wins with Strikeforce and four under the Bellator banner. Freire joined Bellator this season, quickly elevating himself within the promotion with (T)KO wins over "Razor" Rob McCullough and Toby Imada.

Season Five Tournament Spots
Besides being the selling point of the promotion, tournaments have been great for fighters trying to put their name on the map and a fighter's stock can be raised even in elimination (as Toby Imada has done with a string of submissions). Next season's bantamweight and welterweight tournaments in particular are shaping up to be ones to watch.

Already slotted for the 135-lb. tournament are Bellator 145-lb. champ Joe Warren, former WEC champ Chase Beebe, Brazilian prospect Luis Alberto Nogueira, Shooto South American champ Eduardo Dantas and for a spot Saturday is WEC vet Anthony Morrison vs. risk-taker Bryan Goldsby.

Though non-televised, Eddie Alvarez's training partner Sam Oropeza faces a Giedrius Karavackas in a welterweight duel for a potential spot in next season's tournament, expected to feature the newly signed prospect, Douglas Lima.

Meanwhile on the main card, the winner of Alexander Shlemenko vs. Brett Cooper will join next season's middleweight tournament.

Two More to Go
Season four of Bellator saw the promotion begin its three-year deal with MTV2. While ratings haven't been exactly stellar, averaging 184,000 viewers per event, the promotion finally went live and at a consistent time.

After Saturday's event, the season finale of Bellator will take place the following week on May 21 in Lake Charles, La., closing out with Patricio "Freire" vs. Daniel Straus in the featherweight final and Richard Hale vs. Christian M'Pumbu in the light heavyweight final.

Bellator 44 Fight Card:

MTV 2 Bouts
Hector Lombard (28-2-1) vs. Falaniko Vitale (29-9)
Michael Chandler (7-0) vs. Patricky Pitbull (9-1)
Alexander Shlemenko (38-7) vs. Brett Cooper (12-5)
Anthony Morrison (17-10) vs. Bryan Goldsby (15-13)

Preliminary Bouts
Sam Oropeza (4-1) vs. Giedrius Karavackas (4-1)
Jamall Johnson (2-1) vs. Randy Smith (11-8-1)
Jay Silva (6-4) vs. Gemiyale Adkins (6-1)
Jeff Lentz (6-3) vs. Anthony Leone (8-2)

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