WHO: Shlemenko x Marshall, Brooks x Sarnavskiy, Hawn x Keslar
WHAT: Bellator 109
WHERE: Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, PA
WHEN: Tonight! November 22, 2013
Bellator 109 Main Card (Spike TV at 9:00 p.m. ET)
Russian striking sensation Alexander "Storm" Shlemenko (48-7) defends his middleweight title against the resurgent Doug "The Rhino" Marshall (18-6), who's left a trail of lifeless cadavers in his wake since joining Bellator. Barring a contentious split-decision win over Sultan Aliev in the tournament semifinals, Marshall has coldly clubbed all comers with devastating -- and I mean devastating -- 1st-round TKO's.
His last victim was the hard-nosed Brett Cooper, who rematched Shlemenko when Marshall was unable to compete after winning the tournament due to injury. Cooper, who was vanquished by Marshall in the first frame, took Shlemenko to the wire in a closely contested decision loss and, in what was the biggest surprise, went toe-to-toe with the champ for all five rounds.
This has many leaning towards "The Rhino" for obvious reasons. Between Cooper and Marshall, noteworthy differences include Cooper's more resilient chin and wrestling prowess. Shlemenko is a skilled striker but a decent wrestler as well, and I expect him to jettison the stand-up jousting and spinning shit in favor of a wrestling-centric game. Marshall is not incompetent nor incapable on the ground, but any conceivable position is more lucrative than being dead-center in his cross-hairs.
Make no mistake about it: on the feet, Doug Marshall is a top-level striker with an excellent balance of Muay Thai fundamentals, skull-fracturing power and untempered aggression. As much as we all want to see it, Shlemenko would be foolish not to impose his wrestling, if for nothing more than to quench Marshall's ultra-aggressive forward movement.
There's no question that Shlemenko deserves to be the favorite -- and there's no question I'm picking Marshall, though it's definitely from the heart.
27-year-old "Ill" Will Brooks (12-1) has earned himself somewhat of a rep as a future phenom and, after Saad Awad derailed him by 1st-round TKO in last season's tourney, he's now showing why he deserves those accolades. Brooks has complemented his strong wrestling background with a few unorthodox striking techniques and some creative, Judo-based trips and foot sweeps from the clinch, all of which intensify his relentless pressure. Confidence, Fight I.Q. and game-planning round out a long list of Brooks' subtle but effective improvements since suffering his first and only loss to Awad, who Brooks out-hustled in this season's semifinal round.
"Tiger" Sarnavskiy (25-1) has also been flirting with the future prospect role. Like Brooks, the once-beaten Russian rebounded from his first loss (Rich Clementi by decision) with furious vengeance. He's notched five-straight wins since, the last pair of which were electric 1st-round stoppages (Marcus Davis and Ricardo Tirloni by submission) en route to the finals.
Wrestling, Brooks' specialty, was the culprit in Sarnavskiy's loss to Clementi, and Brooks will undoubtedly look to exploit that angle. Brooks' striking and overall presence in MMA has reached a new level and, while "Tiger" probably has the edge in pure submission grappling, Brooks should be knowledgeable and adept enough to stifle most of it -- most of Tiger's momentous bounds on the mat came about during scrambles (he has a particular knack for taking back control) but Brooks is quick and explosive in transitions. I think Brooks' kickboxing, while not as polished nor accurate as Sarnavskiy's, will be formidable enough to hold his own until his wrestling takes over.
Regardless of the outcome, I expect both fighters to make a splash in the future.
AKA's Ron Keslar (11-3) has been the big surprise of the tourney. A late entry, Keslar proved his worth by dismantling the vivacious Luis Melo Jr. with a thunderous straight right and suffocating ground control. He drew the polarizing War Machine in the semis and shockingly dispatched the athletic gamer with a 1st-round rear-naked choke.
Olympic Judoka Rick Hawn (17-2) dropped a controversial split decision to Jay Hieron in a past Welterweight Tournament, then dropped to 155, carved his way through the tournament and lost to then-champ Michael Chandler. Those are his only flaws. Back up to welterweight for this soiree, Hawn's boxing looked noticeably sharper in his duo of tournament wins over Herman Terrado and the feisty Brent Weedman (both via decision).
The questions are how Hawn will account for his steep size disadvantage (5'9" vs. 6'0") and how Keslar will compensate for Hawn's speed and striking advantage. Hawn has conspicuously drifted away from his world-class clinch game to handle business with his hands, but re-establishing his Judo prowess would be a wise choice here. Keslar is a monstrous welterweight with asphyxiating wrestling who applies steady pressure with methodical stalking. He hasn't shown the distance weapons he'll need to exploit his size and frustrate Hawn from outside on the feet, which leads me to believe that Hawn will hinge a sprawl-and-brawl strategy on his speed, footwork and crisp boxing, and fall back on his rock-solid clinch game to neutralize Keslar's advances.
Patrick Cenoble vs. Terry Etim -- Lightweight feature
Former UFC lightweight Terry Etim (15-5) of Team Kaobon makes his Bellator premiere opposite Patrick "Lights Out" Cenoble (9-2), a 24-year-old cousin of boxer Andre Berto. The combination of Cenoble's scarcely available fight footage and relative inexperience has me leaning Etim by default.
Bellator 109 Preliminary Card (Bloody Elbow at 7:00 p.m. ET)