By far the least "sexy" of the Bellator cards to have been shown so far this season we will get to watch the entire first round of the middleweight bracket tonight at 8:00pm EDT. As is the case every week we'll be here to bring you live results as the action goes down. But for now let's break the fights down.
Sean Loeffler vs. Bryan Baker
Baker is considered by many to be the favorite to emerge from the middleweight bracket and challenge last year's champion Hector Lombard. Of course, the notion that anyone in the tournament can challenge Lombard is somewhat laughable, but let's set that aside for now.
A former highly regarded WEC prospect, Baker possesses heavy hands and works especially well from the top by letting those hands do damage. He is a bit more comfortable than he should be in his stand-up given that he does have exploitable defensive holes. His fight with Rory Singer showed off some of these holes as Singer was able to avoid damage on the feet and land a lot of crisp combinations. Still, when he is on Baker has a wide array of kicks and punches that he can use effectively. Also, Baker is a black belt in Judo and was a high school wrestler.
The biggest knock on Baker is probably his choice of camp. With Thomas Denny as his head trainer it's possible that he's maxed out what he can get from Team Wildman. A move to a more accomplished camp would likely help him make the next step in his development.
Loeffler is a very experienced 18-4 but there is a lot to question in the level of competition he has faced. Sean has the ability to use explosive (but very wild) striking to force opponents to make bad decisions but he is by far at his best getting the fight to the ground, being on top and working to pound guys out or find submissions. He's absolutely a finisher with only one of his 18 wins coming by decision.
It's an interesting fight but it's hard to see Loeffler being able to put Baker on his back, and while Baker has holes in his stand-up he is the better man there as well. I'll take Baker to pull off a TKO victory here.
Jared Hess vs. Ryan McGivern
Hess was the runner-up in last season's tournament, getting decisively beaten by Hector Lombard in the finals. Still, he is a talented enough fighter who uses effective wrestling to put himself in good position to work submissions or ground and pound. With a career record of 10-1-1 and having finished in all of his victories he certainly has the ability to make a little bit of noise in his second crack at the Bellator tourney.
McGivern has faced some very good competition in his career with fights against Matt Horwich, Tim Kennedy, Dan Miller, Benji Radach, Dennis Hallman. Ryan is fairly well rounded but as with many fighters in the 185 pound bracket relies a lot on using wrestling to work from top position. He's not afraid to mix it up a little on the feet and possesses the well-rounded-but-not-great-at-anything style that exists for most Milletich fighters.
This is a fight that stands out to me as being a little closer than the oddsmakers have it with McGivern being around +300, but it still is a fight that I think Hess can win by taking down and imposing his will.
Matt Major vs. Alexander Shlemenko
Shlemenko is a dangerous striker who has one of the better highlight reels in the sport. When it's not a head kick KO it's a spinning backfist or perfectly placed knee. He's also a guy who can be exploited on the ground or by guys with better wrestling (like most everyone in the tournament). Major's claim to fame is probably his spectacular freak-out on the Tapout TV show. This is a fight between two explosive guys who both lack the completeness to really compete at the absolute top end of the division.
Major comes from the better camp and is more well rounded but Shlemenko is better standing up. I'd like to think that AKA will be able to craft a good strategy for Major, but the short notice on who his opponent would be may come back to bite him.
Still, I'll pick one upset for tonight and go with Major by decision. Even though the more likely outcome is that Major tries to play around standing and gets slept.
Eric Schambari vs. Luke Zachrich
Schambari is yet another of Bellator's "injury/illness almost made him retire" stories this year. He was a highly touted fighter coming into the WEC before dropping a very close decision to fellow tourney participant Bryan Baker at WEC 31. Since the loss Eric has gone 4-0 with three of those wins coming by submission. Zachrich was a contestant on the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter where he lost to Dan Cramer. In non TUF action he sports a 9-1 record with none of his fights making it to the judges.
Luke probably has the better stand-up but Schambari is by far the better fighter (hence being a -400 favorite) and it is very likely that Zachrich becomes his next submission victim.
As with all of these previews there is plenty of homework for you after the jump. We'll see you on the live results at 8:00pm EDT tonight!
Bryan Baker vs. Rory Singer
Sean Loeffler vs. Ruben Tagle
Sean Loeffler vs. Sam Salas
Jared Hess' Pro Debut vs. Richard Harris
Ryan McGivern vs. Matt Horwich
Alexander Shlemenko vs. Diego Vitosky
Alexander Shlemenko vs. Sean Salmon (Shlemenko's most recent fight)