UFC veteran Ben Saunders will look to take another step towards a title shot. | Photo: Dave Mandel
As Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight titleholder Ben Askren prepares to defend his crown against Jay Hieron in a matter of weeks, the four men remaining in the promotion’s Season 5 welterweight tournament will again jockey for the right to be next in line.
The tournament semifinals will serve as the centerpiece of Bellator 53 on Saturday at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Okla., where American Top Team’s Ben Saunders will meet Luis Santos and the surging Douglas Lima will collide with Chris Lozano. The event -- which airs live on MTV2 at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT -- will also feature a featherweight tournament qualifier pitting British import Ronnie Mann against Kenny Foster.
Deep in talent and salted with compelling storylines, here is what to watch for at Bellator 53:
A Threat Beyond Hieron
Undefeated in eight professional outings, Askren has overwhelmed opponents with takedowns and crushing top control. The 27-year-old Olympian faces a legitimate test in Hieron, a former International Fight League champion with a wealth of experience and an amateur wrestling pedigree of his own. Should Askren deny “The Thoroughbred” at Bellator 56 on Oct. 29, the talk then turns to what type of threat level the tournament winner supplies. All four semifinalists have proven vulnerable to takedowns in their respective careers. Lima, a talented 23-year-old Brazilian, has come into his own and may pose the most intriguing challenges for a post-Hieron Askren. If he wins his next two fights and, with them, the Season 5 tournament, Lima would find himself entering a title fight on a streak of nine consecutive wins.
Collecting Arms, Necks
Known as “The Arm Collector,” EliteXC survivor Giva Santana won his first 11 fights, a staggering 10 of them by first-round armbar. It seems the moniker was deserved. A third-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Santana suffered his only career defeat in a split decision to four-division MMA champion Jaime Jara three years ago. The Team Oyama representative will make his promotional debut at Bellator 53 against Strikeforce veteran Darryl Cobb.
Santana has won his last five fights but only two of them by armbar. Cobb has proven vulnerable to submissions, having succumbed to rear-naked chokes in each of his past two outings, and if he finds himself on the mat with the Brazilian at any point, consider the curtain closed.
Mann in the Mirror
A little less than two months have passed since the stunning death of respected trainer Shawn Tompkins at the age of 37. He left behind a stable of loyal young fighters, including Mann, who must now regain his professional and emotional footing without the man who had been cracking the whip behind him. Mann even lived with Tompkins for a time in order to cut down on the constant travel between his home in England and the Canadian striking guru’s Las Vegas gym. Still only 24, Mann has considerable physical tools with which to work and plenty of room to grow. Can he finish the work Tompkins started in him? A winner in nine of his last 11 outings, Mann undoubtedly wants another shot at tournament glory after being eliminated by Pat Curran in semifinals of the 2011 Bellator Summer Series featherweight draw. His journey back begins with Team Bombsquad’s Kenny Foster.
Sink-or-Swim Time for Prospects
The talents of two undefeated prospects -- light heavyweight Myron Dennis and welterweight David Rickels -- will be on display. A former college football player, Dennis cut his teeth inside the Oklahoma-based Xtreme Fighting League. He has put away his last four foes inside the first round, three of them in less than a minute. Dennis draws the twice-beaten Raphael Davis in his Bellator debut. Meanwhile, Rickels owns a 2-0 mark inside the Bellator cage and has finished five of his first seven opponents by submission, four of them via triangle choke. “The Caveman” will look to keep his perfect professional record intact against Strikeforce veteran Levi Avera, who has gone the distance only three times in 25 career appearances.
Ratings Competition Stiff for Bellator
Bellator could have a difficult time making a dent in the ratings, as its show will compete directly with UFC 136 and a number of high-profile college football games: Auburn at Arkansas at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, Georgia at Tennesse at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and Ohio State at Nebraska at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Moreover, the American League Championship Series in Major League Baseball is also tentatively scheduled to begin on Saturday.