Mike Richman vs. Akop Stepanyan -- Featherweight feature fight
The opening bout on the Bellator 106 main card promises to unveil a dastardly amalgam of a "U.S. vs. Russia" theme (and the predictable chorus of "U-S-A!" chants), ill-intended striking, remorseless head-hunting and some degree of egregious bodily harm.
Featherweight bangers Mike "The Marine" Richman (15-3) and Akop "The Sniper" Stepanyan (13-6) have both earned reputations as fan-friendly fighters who flat-out throw down. Richman has seemingly attracted the ire of Mother Russia herself, as her battle-hardened offspring account for his only defeats in the promotion: Shahbulat Shamhalaev in the semifinals of the Season 7 Featherweight Tournament and Magomedrasul Khasbulaev, aka "Frodo", in the finals of the Season 8 tourney.
Richman came out of the gate in MMA with nine-straight wins and finishes, dusting eight opponents handily in the 1st round and closing out the lone remainder just 42-seconds into the 2nd round. He met former IFL and WEC standout Chris Horodecki in their mutual Bellator debuts and trounced the Canadian by 1st-round KO in less than a minute-and-a-half. The 28-year-old wrestle-boxer continued the trend with more 1st-round brutality, this time in the form of a head-kick KO over Jeremy Spoon. Richman has split his four turns since with wins over Mitch Jackson (1st-round KO by way of another head-kick) and a split-decision over Alexandre Bezerra, which were offset by the aforementioned losses to "Frodo" and Shamhalaev.
Stepanyan was last seen booting debutante Justin Wilcox around the cage with a whirlwind of devastating spinning and low kicks. "The Sniper" low-kicked Wilcox off his feet on more than one occasion and rendered his lead leg almost useless. Wilcox hobbled gingerly out of his corner after a one-sided 1st-round and, in MMA's most legitimate example of divine intervention, finagled a single-leg takedown whilst airborne and mounted an inspirational comeback via rear-naked choke. Preceding that drama, Stepanyan had just snapped a two-fight losing streak (Wagnney Fabiano by armbar, Marlon Sandro by decision) with a body-kick TKO over Chris Saunders.
Richman is the more diverse fighter here, as his classic wrestle-boxing style is augmented by surprising submission savvy (7 subs, 6 TKO's). However, being mostly a hands-guy, Stepanyan's uncanny footwork and whirlwind of highlight-reel kicks will give him the advantage in range and movement. Richman is typically an ultra-assertive brawler but has tempered his aggression after getting a little too eager against Shamhalaev, who sliced in a picture-perfect counter punch despite being buried under a hail of leather.
Stepanyan has a decent wrestling and submission game, but generally handles his business on the feet with an unending sequence of clever angles and precise marksmanship. The RusFighters Sport Club rep is a skilled boxer but his dynamic kicking onslaught is his true bread and butter.
Considering Stepanyan's active lateral motion and command of range, I expect Richman to rely more on his wrestling acumen to contain him. Since Richman will be burdened with knifing into toe-to-toe range to work his hands and jam Stepanyan's kicks, a dual-pronged attack consisting of takedowns and boxing combinations should be a suitable answer to the Russian's distance-based havoc.
My Prediction: Mike Richman by TKO.