Saturday, November 23, 2013

Bellator celebrates Thanksgiving in the Christmas City

With less than one week to Thanksgiving, the toughest tournament in sports celebrated the holiday in the Christmas City as Bellator MMA came to the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, PA. With a 10 bout card that included the middleweight championship of the world, electricity was in the air and fists were flying as the Lehigh Valley came out strong and represented with a sold out arena.

As stated, the 185 lbs. title was up for grabs as champion Alexander 'Storm' Shlemenko (48-7, 29 KO's 7 subs) was defending his title against this season's middleweight tournament winner Doug 'Rhino' Marshall (18-7, 12 KO's 4 subs). It was expected that this one wouldn't last long and it held true to form as it ended within the first five minutes.

A spirited Marshall, the former World Extreme Cagefighting titleholder, took it right to Shlemenko and the champ was all too willing to oblige. As the two traded shots back and forth, Shlemenko secured two takedowns; however, Marshall was able to get back to his feet with relative ease. Rhino expected to get the better of the two standing, however to his surprise a Shlemenko liver shot wobbled the challenger.

Though Marshall fought back valiantly and appeared to briefly recover, it was the beginning of the end. A left hook from the champion to the challenger's mid-section appeared to pick up where the liver shot left off as it dropped Marshall immediately. The pain etched across his face, was enough to tell the referee that was it. The time was 4:28 of the first round.

The co-main event was the final of this season's welterweight (170 lbs.) tournament and it featured Ron Keslar (11-4, 1 KO, 5 subs) taking on former tournament finalist, title challenger and Olympian Rick Hawn (18-2, 11 KO's). In a high energy battle that was anybody's fight going into the third, Hawn finally cemented the tournament victory by finishing Keslar with a brutal right hand to the jaw.

Early on you would have never expected it to finish that way, or even get to that point, as Keslar started fast and furious, taking the fight to Hawn and knocking him to the ground within the first minute with a knee strike to the mid-section. However, he appeared to have punched himself out as Hawn rebounded in the second round with crisp combinations, which were connecting as Keslar was clearly tiring.

In the third, it was more of the same only this time Hawn finished what he started by landing at will until the finishing blow that caused referee Dan Miragliotta to step in and wave his hands. I asked Keslar at the post-fight press conference if he had expended himself trying to finish it in the first. He told me, "No; the truth is I didn't listen to my corner and execute our game plan going into that last round. In the end, he was just too fast for me tonight." Up next for Hawn is Douglas Lima as they will battle it out for the vacant welterweight title.

The featured bout on the main card was the season's lightweight (155 lbs.) tourney final between American Top Team's 'Ill' Will Brooks (13-1, 4 KO's 4 subs) and Shlemenko protégé Tiger Sarnavsky (25-2, 6 KO's 15 subs). In what was expected to be a competitive match up between two of Bellator's rising stars, was pretty much a one-sided affair as Brooks surprisingly dominated Sarnavasky from the opening bell. Using a nice combination of stand-up strikes to set up his takedowns, Brooks tamed the Tiger over three rounds controlling him with an effective ground and pound attack.

In his post fight interview inside the cage, Brooks said, "Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez can keep beating each other up if they want to, they're just holding onto my belt." I asked Bjorn Rebney in the post fight presser, what happens if he does the Chandler/Alvarez rematch; where does that leave Brooks and is Dave Jansen, last season's tournament winner who is on the mend from an ACL tear, still in the mix?

Bjorn's response was, "Chandler/Alvarez 3 is definitely the next lightweight championship; that one is a no-brainer. I spoke with Jansen last week and he's far from ready; he hasn't even gotten into the rehab phase yet. Thus, most likely, Brooks will get the winner of Chandler and Alvarez." Brooks meanwhile made life easy for Rebney by grabbing the microphone and saying, "I'll fight Jansen; I said it before, I don't care how I get to that belt, I'll do whatever I have to."

Getting things started on Spike TV was a lightweight tilt between Patrick Cenoble (9-3-1, 8 KO's) and UFC veteran Terry Etim (16-5, 2 KO's 12 subs). Etim, making his debut inside the Bellator cage, showed there was an obvious difference in class of opposition faced as he manhandled Cenoble on the ground throughout. Other than the start of each round, and a few seconds here and there in between, the fight was pretty much contested on the mat with Etim controlling his opponent throughout; he ended up winning a lackluster unanimous decision much to the dismay of the sellout crowd.

One of the featured fighters on the preliminary card was highly touted prospect Bubba Jenkins (5-1, 2 KO's 3 subs) who took on veteran Ian Rammel (5-6, 1 KO, 2 subs). A former All-American wrestler, Jenkins used his superior grappling to take down and control Rammel every round, until the third where he finally unleashed some ground and pound, which ended in a TKO finish. Jenkins obviously has potential, but is clearly a work in progress.

Highlight of the undercard was provided by Brazil's highly touted Goiti Yamauchi (16-1, 1 KO, 13 subs) as it took him all of (2:04) to knockout Saul Almeida (13-5, 3 subs) The fight was supposed to be contested in the featherweight (145 lbs.) class, but was moved to a catchweight of (153 lbs.) after Yamauchi came in seven pounds overweight. As they stood toe to toe in the center of the cage trading blows, it was obvious that extra seven pounds didn't hurt Yamauchi's cause.

In the post fight scrum, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said of The Sands and Bethlehem, "This was great; we have everything we need under one roof here. We had a sellout tonight and the crowd was electric. We'll definitely be back as soon as they can have us." For a writer who is based in Bethlehem, that's just fine by me.

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