From the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bellator 54 marks the semifinal round of the middleweight tournament and the return of the bantamweight champion. As usual, Spike.com will stream the undercard at 7 p.m. ET and the main will be televised on MTV2 and the EPIX network (in HD) at 9 p.m. ET.
The middleweight semifinals shake out with Brian Rogers (8-2) vs. Alexander Shlemenko (41-7) and Bryan Baker (16-2) vs. Vitor Vianna (11-1-1). Zach Makovsky (13-2), the Bellator bantamweight champion who has only seen action once this year, faces Ryan Roberts (16-9). Undefeated Rene Nazare (10-0) holds the fourth and final main card slot in a battle with Jacob Kirwan (8-3).
After losing two of his first three MMA fights, Brian "The Predator" Rogers has scorched through his remaining seven opponents, all by violent first round knockout. In the opening round of the tournament, Rogers overwhelmed Victor O'Donnell in under two minutes, clipping him with a high kick and then pouncing with heavy blows.
With only ten total fights under his belt, Rogers takes a steep jump in competition against the well traveled Alexander "Storm" Shlemenko, who has almost fifty fights with a beaming twenty-one knockouts. Though the gist of the Russian's lengthy career has taken place in smaller promotions, his recent strides in the states are extremely respectable.
Starting out losing two of his first six, the striker turned it on with a nineteen-fight stretch with only one loss to Vale Tudo legend Jose Landi-Jons. Shlemenko would then suffer consecutive defeats in bouts with former Strikeforce middleweight champ and submission whiz Ronaldo Souza and a rematch with "Pele", but again cement an impressive sequence by winning nineteen of his next twenty-one, falling to Olympic wrestler Jordan Radev and Bellator middleweight monarch Hector Lombard.
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The betting lines have this a landslide for Shlemenko, elevating him as high as a -500 favorite. I would not only consider that assessment ludicrous, as the match is much more evenly contested than those numbers reflect, but give Rogers a legitimate chance to beat Shlemenko.
"Storm" is an apt nickname for the whirling dervish of spinning back fists and aggressive kickboxing that Shlemenko wields. Rogers, however, is diverse standing but much more simple and direct: his boxing is tight and crisp with huge power in both hands, his high kicks are snapped off in a devastating arc with no set up, his flying knees are well timed and deadly, his clinch game is tenacious and unforgiving, and he's strong as a bull with exceptional athleticism.
His balance is rock-solid on every strike he throws and his poise and composure are eerily unsettling. Rogers is like a coiled spring waiting to unload. He will undoubtedly have the strength and wrestling advantage, so as long as he's wary of Shlemenko's avid submission game, he'll have more weapons in his arsenal and many physical advantages. I like him for the upset here.
Another page in the Bryan Baker fairy tale turns in the second set of middleweight semifinals. The inspirational leukemia survivor tackles Vitor Vianna to move one step closer to challenging Lombard for his title. The only two fighters to top Baker are Chael Sonnen and Shlemenko; the latter when Baker was in the deepest clutches of his battle with cancer. Though a bit loose and wide with his punches, Baker has eight TKO wins and, not unlike Rogers, has a tremendous level of power and agility in his long and sturdy frame.
Vianna, a high level BJJ black belt, trains with the Wand Fight Team and boasts a diverse finishing ratio with four wins apiece by submission and TKO. He eked out a split decision over the wily Sam Alvey to advance to the semifinals where his diverse onslaught of strikes, takedowns and clever grappling earned him the nod.
Though Baker will have a height (6'3" vs. 5'11") and reach advantage, Vianna is a tough customer who might be able to wreak havoc on the mat with his aggressive submission acumen. The dictating factor for Vianna will be how he closes the distance and whether he can contain Baker on the ground; for Baker, using his striking length as a shield while keeping his feet moving to avoid tie ups.
Baker's somewhat unorthodox style of looping punches with his chin exposed could offer pathways for Vianna to dodge punches and lock him up in the clinch. I don't like Baker's chances on the mat or if it lasts to a decision but, while I have nothing against Vianna, I'm hoping "The Beast" can rely on his scrappy durability to keep Vianna at bay and find his chin.
Bellator's bantamweight division has been abuzz even though the champ has been fairly absent. With all the fuss about featherweight champion Joe Warren dropping down and the influx of reputable newcomers like Alexis Vila and Marcos Galvao, Zach Makovsky has turned in one performance this year. "Fun Size" scored a third round TKO over Chad Robichaux at Bellator 41 in April, which was the first win via strikes of his career.
Makovsky trains out of the Philadelphia Fight Factory with Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. He shared his thoughts on the talented new additions to the bantamweight roster and how he matches up with them in an interview with BloodyElbow.com's Matt Roth earlier this week.
I think I match up pretty well with them, Villa would probably be an interesting fight for me. I'm really interested to fight other wrestlers because I come from that background. So for someone on paper who is a much better wrestler than me, an Olympic bronze medalist, it would be a real test for me to see how well rounded I've become and a good way to challenge myself."
In a non-title affair, Ryan Roberts makes his promotional debut against Makovsky. Roberts had a single stint in the Octagon UFC Fight Night 13 in 2008; an armbar loss to lightweight Marcus Aurelio. The defeat would be the first of six in a row for Roberts, though plummeting down to 135-pounds may make all the difference.
The final match on the televised broadcast features New Jersey's Team Bombsquad lightweight Rene Nazare. Nazare is flawless after ten fights with four wins by TKO and submission. Nazare's upset win (TKO via arm injury) over former Pride fighter and Chute Boxe madman Luis Azeredo in both fighter's Bellator debut was the biggest of his career.
Nazare draws what could be an intriguing newcomer in Jacob Kirwan, whose last two losses were to UFC lightweight Jim Hettes and crafty bantamweight Marcos Galvao. Kirwan will have his hands full with Nazare's pressure on the feet and overwhelming BJJ skills on the mat.
The following is the line up for the prelims and main card:
Main Card on MTV2 and EPIX -- 9 p.m. ET
Preliminary Card on Spike.com -- 7 p.m. ET
Zach Makovsky vs. Ryan Roberts
Jacob Kirwan vs. Rene Nazare
Duane Bastress vs. Daniel Gracie
Karl Amoussou vs. Joey Kirwan
Tim Carpenter vs. Ryan Contaldi
Andria Caplan vs. Adrienne Seiber
Brian Kelleher vs. Claudio Ledesma
Who will be the Middleweight Tournament finalists?
Shlemenko and Baker (174 votes)
Rogers and Baker (45 votes)
Shlemenko and Vianna (100 votes)
Rogers and Vianna (21 votes)
340 total votes