Bellator 44 is this Saturday night and I'm surprised there's not more of a buzz.
Don't worry, I know exactly what you're thinking. Allow me to address your top two concerns: you're a tad put-off about the recent judging trend, and you think Hector Lombard can stomp Falaniko Vitale in his sleep.
That's right -- I can read your thoughts. It's just a little something I picked up from Master Steven Seagal when we were hunting Tibetan yak with nothing but our bare hands and our potent masculinity.
First of all, cast away your judging related woes. The show is being held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which means it falls under Nick Lembo's watch. Lembo runs a tight ship and the Jersey crew is as bulletproof as they come, as evinced at UFC 128 where they nailed 61 of 63 score cards. That doesn't guarantee you will agree with every score, but it does promise that ineptitude will not be a factor.
Now, is the main event really as predetermined as the -800 betting odds for Lombard would elicit? H-E-double-hockey-sticks no.
29-9 Falaniko Vitale is a former UFC, Strikeforce, IFL, and ICON fighter with a penchant for stoppages (16 wins by sub, 9 by TKO). He just acquired the Hawaii-based X-1 belt with three straight in the promotion, two by Ezekiel choke -- an uncommon finishing technique without the gi -- over Kala Hose and BJJ black belt Kalib Starnes. After his Octagon departure in 2003, "Niko" snared the SuperBrawl title with decisions over top UFC middleweight contender Yushin Okami and former UFC champ Dave Menne, along with a knockout of Masanori Suda (a former Shooto champ with wins over Brian Ebersole and Ryo Chonan).
Vitale's record took its worst hit when he lost the SuperBrawl belt to Robbie Lawler in 2005, which was the first in a disappointing sequence where he dropped four of five fights to Jason "Mayhem" Miller, Jeremy Horn, and Lawler in a rematch. "Niko" now rides an 8-2 stretch with only Trevor Prangley and Frank Trigg besting him in Strikeforce.
It's worth noting that his 2007 split-decision loss to Horn in the IFL was razor-thin and could have gone either way.
Against Prangley, Vitale could not continue after an eye poke in one of the first and only same-night tournaments to be sanctioned by the CSAC. The official result was a "Referee Decision" to advance Prangley in the brackets despite the score cards reflecting a Majority Draw.
Vitale was a standout wrestler in high school, but opted for a football scholarship at the University of Hawaii, and eventually tried out for the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys as a 240-pound linebacker. He's an enormous, agile, experienced and well rounded middleweight, and quite simply, he presents a set of skills that Lombard has not yet encountered.
Don't get me wrong -- of course Lombard deserves to be the favorite -- but the betting lines are insulting.
Hector Lombard (28-2-1) is an ATT-based Judoka who competed in the 2000 Olympics; a BJJ black belt; a former Pride fighter; and the 185-pound monarch in Bellator and Cage Fighting Championships. He is currently stationed at #11 in the world middleweight rankings, and presumed to be the best 185er outside of the UFC now that they've lassoed Strikeforce.
Excluding a draw with Kyle Noke and an 0-2 stint in Pride FC versus Akihiro Gono and Gegard Mousasi, Lombard has been flawless and frightening, registering 15 wins by TKO and 6 by submission. He's a physically imposing specimen who enjoys nothing more than tossing people around with NASA-level Judo and clobbering them with cleaving hooks standing or hellacious hammerfists on the mat.
After the jump, we'll run through the phase-by-phase breakdown of the fight.
29-9 Falaniko Vitale vs. 28-2 Hector Lombard
Records: I think it's fair to say that both have fallen short against elite fighters, but Niko has fought more of them. This is not a knock on Lombard, but his record is prettier because he hasn't been tested as much. I place more value in losing to A-level competition than not facing much of it.
Styles Make Fights: Lombard has fought solid submissionists (Doerksen), strikers (Silva and Shlemenko), and even a former NFL player with serious strength and speed (Goodman), but he's never fought anyone with all those traits wrapped into one, along with thick experience to boot.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
In a way, Lombard's standup reminds me a little of Wanderlei Silva in his prime. It's very violent. I absolutely love the right uppercut-elbow he throws in the animation to the left, which I think is a criminally under-utilized technique.
Even though, from the comfort of our couches, it may seem like his hooks are a little wide, his approach is fairly primitive, and that a technical striker could pinpoint his chin with straight punches, that simple solution is like poking a screwdriver through the tiny gaps in the whirling blades of a running lawnmower.
Even if you see a slight opening, his hands are also quick enough that there are mere milliseconds between the connection of one flying meathook and another.
Lombard's general strategy is to stand southpaw and advance aggressively, leading with a thunderous right hook and left overhand. He basically repeats this combination until his opponent falls down. If they hold their ground and cover up to defend the barrage, Lombard loves to change pace and heave an uppercut or hit a hip throw and then hammer from the top.
Niko is a solid boxer with nice low kicks. He likes to counter-punch, and in the past, he's relied on two combinations that might be key against Lombard: he throws a beautiful straight one-two, which is a nice weapon for a wild southpaw; and a right uppercut-left hook to opponents that charge straight forward while winging hooks.
The crucial factors in striking will be how well Vitale can weather Lombard's absolutely berserk pace to start the fight. The tough part with Lombard is that you almost have to run away from the guy. He's such a madman right out of the gate with giant flurries, and if you stand still to defend, he'll throw you on your head.
Niko must survive the initial onslaught and counterstrike to keep Lombard at bay while stuffing underhooks to avoid being thrown if the Judoka clinches. As time ticks on, Lombard's pace slowly delineates, and Niko's experience will come alive in the later rounds.
The one danger zone for Vitale is committing to combinations in the pocket, where Lawler was able to catch him twice. In a straight striking match, I would give the solid edge to Vitale here, but Lombard's huge power and clinch-threat balance the scales. In the first round, watch out for Lombard, but Vitale's chances drastically increase in the later frames.
Advantage: Vitale (slight)
As with fellow Bellator fighter Rick Hawn and his Olympic Judo background, you would be hard-pressed to reason they don't deserve the advantage in the clinch.
I always like to point out that range is critical for Judokas in MMA, as it's their hips and base that trigger most of the techniques without the gi. While arm position, footwork and balance are all critical when fending off this level of Judo, the general concept is to avoid being trapped against the cage and to maintain space from their lower body.
The reason Lombard's striking is so effective is because of his Judo foundation. When things that can cause great bodily damage are flying at your head with high velocity, the natural human reaction is to protect yourself. Against Lombard, one must keep the composure to defend but keep moving, as he preys upon stationary fighters.
Vitale must always retreat in angles and sprawl to stay afoot without engaging in a clinch war, because it's the one area where he can't compete with Lombard for long.
Lombard is also a BJJ black belt, but one that thrives on position more than submission threats. He uses his positional strength to create ideal openings for his devastating ground-and-pound. He's not what I'd call a passing machine, but his strikes are so formidable on the ground that it often results in his opponent giving up position, which he gladly takes.
So, rather than look for technical guard passes, Lombard advances through his striking, and does it well. His idea of passing guard is shellacking his adversary into the turtle position with hammerfists.
Vitale is much more of a traditional BJJ player with slick guard skills. I was unable to confirm his actual belt rank, but only know that he was a purple many years ago, and feel comfortable estimating him at the black belt level in MMA. Besides submission losses to Yasuhito Namekawa (16 of 25 wins by sub) in his fifth fight and a "Mayhem" Miller mata leao, Niko has been phenomenal from his back.
Beating Okami and pulling off the Ezekiel against guys like Kala Hose and Kalib Starnes (again, a BJJ black belt who'd never been traditionally submitted before Niko) is a good testament to his ground wit.
The issue is that Lombard has comparable skill and strength and will likely be raining shots from the top, which is never an ideal scenario, but Niko still has a highly volatile guard game. However, in a short three rounder with Lombard's crushing top game, strong base and BJJ knowledge, it might be too tough to catch him.
Advantage: Lombard (slight)
There is no way I'm going to deny the massive threat that Lombard's monstrous punches -- both standing and on the ground -- present to anyone. Now, throw in some Olympic Judo and his recent 21-0-1 record, and that explains why he's the exorbitant favorite.
The limb I'm going out on here is extra precarious, because if Vitale loses, it will likely be by a highlight reel knockout in the first round ... but I think he can register the upset here. I can't remember the last time I thought a +500 bet looked so good.
It's quite conceivable that Vitale can persevere through Lombard's advantages in all aspects, holding his own on the feet and defending well enough to sweep, survive, or escape on the ground, while steering clear of the clinch.
Niko's one-two and uppercut-hook combinations could very well find a home on Lombard's chin in the first, or his overall strength, counterpunching and grappling savvy could carry him through the latter rounds on the cards. It's daring, it's provocative, it's risky, it's a little crazy, but ...
My Prediction: Vitale by decision