Conspicuous by his absence at the UFC 149 post-fight press conference was Hector Lombard, a man who entered the Octagon with the hoopla befitting a mixed martial artist riding a 25-fight unbeaten streak.
Lombard seemed to have the right blend of “it” to make him a viable challenger for reigning middleweight champion Anderson Silva: an impressive collection of YouTube highlights, an imposing physique, an Olympic pedigree and, finally, just a touch of craziness to make things interesting.
As Saturday’s disappointing main card dragged on at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, UFC President Dana White found himself holding out hope that the man known as “Lightning” would salvage the pay-per-view and give him potential material for a big announcement regarding the 185-pound division at the end of the evening.
Instead, the furious flurries of offense that came to define the Cuban judoka’s winning streak were nowhere to be found, as Lombard dropped a split decision to Tim Boetsch in a bout that did not seem to portend future No. 1 contender status for either man. Sure, Lombard had his moments -- a body kick in round two, a couple successful takedowns and stout defensive wrestling, but this was a guy who could have vaulted to a showdown with arguably the greatest champion in the sport with a dominant effort. Most fighters are not considered for such an opportunity so early in their UFC careers.
“It wasn’t the fight I expected at all,” White said at the press conference. “I don’t know if I was sickened by it; it just wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be. Whether it was Boetsch or Lombard winning, I thought it was gonna be a real war. As the card was going on, I was thinking, ‘Thank God, Boetsch and Lombard are coming up, because this is gonna save the show.’”
It was fitting then that Lombard did not make an appearance at the traditional post-fight question-and-answer session. While his sometimes combative attitude toward media could have made for some potentially entertaining sound bites, he would have taken attention away from more deserving -- and less heralded -- fighters in attendance, such as Matt Riddle, Ryan Jimmo and Bryan Caraway. Lombard had his chance to be a star by taking out Boetsch, an opponent who has risen to Top 10 status since leaving the light heavyweight division last year. Lombard failed to take advantage of that opportunity.
Remember the excitement that Chris Weidman generated a little more than a week ago when he finished Mark Munoz inside of two rounds? It felt like a new contender had emerged, and it was fun to ponder the direction the talented Serra-Longo Fight Team representative’s career might take. It was a reaction akin to the buzz generated by Jon Jones’ breezing past Vladimir Matyushenko or Renan Barao subbing Brad Pickett or Silva kneeing Chris Leben into oblivion.
There is just something special about the moment when a legitimate star emerges, and many hoped Lombard’s coming out party would occur at UFC 149. Instead, we got the exact opposite -- it felt like a potential championship candidate had been taken away from us, thanks to his own passivity and a steady diet of Boetsch leg kicks.
“It’s the unfortunate thing about hype,” White said. “When there’s a lot of hype behind you and you don’t live up to it, it goes away really quick.”
To understand where that hype came from, one must take a look at whom Lombard defeated to establish his reputation as one of the best middleweights outside the UFC. Notable victories for the American Top Team product since 2006 came against the likes of James Te Huna, Brian Ebersole, Kalib Starnes, Jay Silva, Alexander Shlemenko, Joe Doerksen, Jesse Taylor and Trevor Prangley.
Te Huna is certainly a solid win, but it is reasonable to assume that he has progressed considerably since his 2007 meeting with Lombard; Ebersole is a welterweight with designs on moving to 155 pounds, while Starnes, Silva, Doerksen, Taylor and Prangley were Octagon journeymen at best with a combined 6-15 record in the promotion. Shlemenko was Lombard’s most significant test in recent years, but that win alone hardly justifies a title shot in the world’s preeminent MMA organization.
Most of the aforementioned names represent the types of fighters that Lombard would have faced in a UFC preliminary matchup. Jumping straight to a co-headliner -- and this was after Lombard was originally scheduled to have been a main event attraction against Brian Stann at UFC on Fox 4 -- is a serious step up, no matter how much anyone tries to trumpet the quality of talent that exists outside the Zuffa realm.
That is why Mark Munoz took exception to Lombard’s fast-track path, making it clear he thought the Cuban had been fighting “cans” outside of the UFC. Prior to his loss to Weidman, Munoz had won seven of his last eight fights in the Octagon, so perhaps he had reason to be upset. Lombard has since called out “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” for his comments. Since both men are coming off losses, the pairing would align with the promotion’s usual matchmaking patterns. However, Lombard has not done anything to warrant another marquee fight, and Munoz is still a top-flight 185-pounder and one who is conceivably better than Boetsch.
Where Lombard belongs for now is on the FX network against an Andrew Craig, Francis Carmont or the like. See how he does there, and then gradually move him up the divisional ladder. Realistically, the contract that it took to lure Lombard away from Bellator Fighting Championships dictates he will do no such thing. A bout against Munoz or someone of a similar standing is much more likely.
However, in a perfect world, with a middleweight division that is suddenly vibrant with life, “Lightning” would have some serious work to do -- gaudy record or not -- because, after Saturday, Lombard does not appear to be who we thought he was.