Tonight from a city just outside Atlanta, Georgia, Bellator and Spike TV kick off the season 8 featherweight tournament. The 145-pound division is one of Bellator's stronger weight classes and this tournament features the return of notable names like Marlon Sandro, Alexndre Bezerra, Mike Richman and many others.
Headlining the card, however, is a middleweight title fight between a man billed by Bellator as the best Russian fighter in MMA in Alexander Shlemenko against UFC veteran and sometime head case Maiquel Falcao. Can Shlemenko live up to promotion as one of Russia's top MMA talents? Will the Brazilian surprise oddsmakers by claiming the belt? I answer these questions and more in my predictions for tonight's event.
What: Bellator 88
When: Thursday, the Spike TV-televised card begins at 10 p.m. Eastern. However, Spike.com will carry the entire fight card beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Where: The Arena at Gwinnett Center, Duluth,GA
I'll keep this honest: Shlemenko makes it hard for you to do anything to him. Sure, you can punch him in the face, but it doesn't seem to hurt or slow him. You can take him down and his guard is nothing overly potent, but he doesn't get subbed out or abused underneath very often. Shlemenko's also got a great gas tank. The fact is Shlemenko might be known for his spinning punches, which is all good and well, but he gets most of his work done by pressuring and outlasting his opposition. Falcao is a decent starter, but can't hold his offense for very long. I suspect he's going to wilt as Shlemenko pours it on and on.
I'm not that high on Sandro and I'm not sure how anyone can be. He's a good fighter, but not a great one. His 'name' outpaces his ability. But he's still got more than enough for Stepanyan, who showed us very little in his Bellator debut to Wagnney Fabiano last year.
This one is a tough call. Jackson is something like a T.J. Waldburger where he's an early and active submission threat (I'm not saying Jackson and Waldburger are equally talented, just that they share similar styles). Richman, by contrast, is a bit more inclined to go for an early standing finish. He's not exactly a combination puncher, but someone who presses forward looking to overwhelm by landing first, with authority and often. Who wins? Frankly, it's whoever makes the first critical mistake. Or maybe it's a question of whether Richman can avoid an early attack. I'll lean Jackson, ever so reluctantly.
Is there an organization that matches up Brazilians against Russians more than Bellator? Anyway, I'll take the Brazilian in this battle. Guerreiro has cut his teeth on the regional scene in Brazil and has turned out to be one hell of a prospect. There isn't much he can't do well. That isn't to say Khasbulaev can't strike or wrestle, he can. But skills win fights and it's going to be hard to argue Guerreiro isn't the more skilled of the two.
I'm tempted to pick the upset here, but I won't. Bezerra (pronounced Buh-zay-ha) is a very respectable MMA wrestler, good grappler and talented athlete. Da Silva is a decent athlete with good offensive wrestling, but is something more of a wild man. That's the real critical difference between the two. Over time, the takedowns and top control of Bezarra should do the trick to move him along in the featherweight tournament, but I also look to Da Silva to shake things up along the way.