Ben Askren has yet to defend the title he won in October 2010. | Photo: Keith Mills
Jay Hieron signed on the dotted line with Bellator Fighting Championships with one goal in mind: the welterweight crown. The 35-year-old Freeport, N.Y., native now finds himself one step away from achieving it.
Nearly six months after completing his march through Bellator’s Season 4 welterweight tournament, Hieron will challenge the unbeaten Ben Askren for his welterweight championship at Bellator 56 on Saturday in Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. Hieron (22-4, 3-0 BFC) will carry a career-best 10-fight winning streak into the five-round matchup, having ousted Anthony Lapsley, Brent Weedman and 2004 Olympian Rick Hawn en route to Askren.
With Hieron in his middle 30s, the fight may represent his last legitimate chance at capturing a major MMA title. Anchored at Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts in Las Vegas, he once held gold inside the International Fight League and has competed inside the UFC, Affliction and Strikeforce promotions. Wins over the world-ranked Jake Ellenberger, former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Delson Heleno, 2009 Dream welterweight grand prix finalist Jason High and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 7 alum Jesse Taylor bolster the Hieron resume. He won a junior college national wrestling championship at Nassau Community College.
Few mixed martial artists can match Askren’s wrestling pedigree. A four-time NCAA All-American and two-time national champion at the University of Missouri, he competed at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Askren holds the rank of brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has won each of his first eight professional bouts, the last four by decision. A victory over the seasoned, respected and well-rounded Hieron could usher in Askren’s time as a perennial Top 10 welterweight.
Rich with talent and deepened by tournament drama, here is what to watch for at Bellator 56:
An unspecified injury to the oft-injured Blagoi Ivanov robbed the Season 5 heavyweight tournament of perhaps its most promising entrant. Ivanov made a global splash in 2008, when he captured gold at the Sambo World Championships and, in the process, ousted MMA icon Fedor Emelianenko. He was immediately labeled as a can’t-miss prospect. Three years later, the 25-year-old Bulgarian remains undefeated in six professional outings, but his MMA appearances have proven sporadic at best. In fact, he has yet to compete more than twice in a calendar year. Ivanov advanced to the Season 5 semifinals after he choked Zak Jensen unconscious with a second-round guillotine at Bellator 52. His withdrawal opens the door for UFC veteran Neil Grove.
Eric Prindle, 35, and Ron Sparks, 36, personify the late bloomer. Perfect in eight professional appearances, Sparks has ripped through three Bellator foes -- Gregory Maynard, Vince Lucero and Mark Holata -- in less than five combined minutes. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Louisville, Ky., native left Holata in ruin on the end of a beautiful series of power punches and follow-up hammerfists in just 84 seconds at Bellator 52, securing his seat in the Season 5 heavyweight tournament semifinals. Prindle’s route to the Final Four was far more taxing, as he defeated “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 10 alum Abe Wagner by unanimous decision on Oct. 1. The massive 6-foot-5, 265-pound Team Death Clutch representative has rattled off six consecutive wins, four of them finishes.
Big Monster, Bigger Opportunity
When Mike Hayes had to bow out of the heavyweight tournament due to a fractured orbital bone, Bellator officials picked up the phone and dialed Thiago Santos. Nicknamed “Big Monster,” the once-beaten 24-year-old will carry a three-fight winning streak into his semifinal showdown with UFC veteran Grove. Santos made his promotional debut at Bellator 53 three weeks ago, as he submitted Josh Burns with a first-round rear-naked choke at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Okla. A jiu-jitsu practitioner by trade, Santos cut his teeth brawling in Rio de Janeiro’s underground Rio Heroes league, winning the vale tudo promotion’s one-night heavyweight tournament in 2007 with a trio of finishes.
A Man Named Spoon
Prospects have been a staple of the Bellator promotion since its inception. In that spirit enters King of the Cage champion Jeremy Spoon. The 26-year-old Oklahoman will put his unblemished 11-0 record on the line in his second appearance under the Bellator banner, as he collides with Adam Schindler in a preliminary featherweight duel. Spoon has secured eight of his 11 career victories by submission but may have raised his stock even further with consecutive five-round decision wins over Ramiro Hernandez and Shooto veteran Donald Sanchez. Schindler, who has competed in Strikeforce, has posted six wins in seven outings.