Bjorn Rebney says only one man stands a chance against his middleweight champ. | File photo: Dave Mandel
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Since winning Bellator Fighting Championships’ inaugural middleweight tournament 28 months ago, Hector Lombard has stood alone atop the promotion’s 185-pound division.
The former Olympic judoka is a perfect 7-0 under the Bellator banner, having gone the distance only once in a five-round defense of his title. Some MMA fans and pundits have made it their jobs to try and find a hole in the impenetrable; Lombard has been so dominant that critiques have stretched to simply not knocking out opponents fast enough.
Next to try and dethrone the hard-hitting Cuban will be Alexander Shlemenko or Vitor Vianna, both of whom notched impressive finishes at Saturday’s Bellator 54 to advance to the finals of the fifth-season middleweight tournament.
Vianna, 31, was hailed as a “freak” upon his signing by Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, a competitor who “resembled an attack dog in the cage.” But the Brazilian’s promotional debut in the middleweight quarterfinals saw him take a tough split decision over Sam Alvey, a result which left Rebney scratching his head. What Vianna never mentioned to anyone prior to the fight was that he could barely use his right hand.
“He’s just such a soft-spoken, sweetheart kind of a guy that he never brought up to us that his hand was bothering him, that his wife had gone into surgery and spent 11 days sleeping in the hospital,” Rebney told Sherdog.com on Saturday. “She had some thyroid situation they thought could conceptually be cancerous. He didn’t bother to tell us any of that. He was just a disheveled mess who couldn’t use his right hand when he came into the fight.”
With the personal and physical issues behind him, Vianna impressed thoroughly on Saturday, scoring a decisive stoppage victory over Bryan Baker in just 54 seconds. A spot in the middleweight final now booked for Bellator 58, the Wand Fight Team representative put any concerns Rebney had at ease.
“He looked like the guy we wanted to sign,” the CEO said of Vianna’s performance. “A lot of people had him listed as the top 185-pound unsigned prospect in the world. That’s why we signed him and that guy showed up tonight. It was beautiful ... I said, ‘Whatever it is you did over the last 30 days to prep for this fight, do it again.’ Hope against hope that’s the guy we’ll see.”
During Saturday’s postfight press conference at the Boardwalk Hall Ballroom, Vianna was reserved but confident as he looked forward to his next bout.
“Now I am focused for fighting the final next month,” Vianna said. “I want to train very hard to be ready, because it’s going to be a great war. I have a plan, but wait for next month.”
Shlemenko, meanwhile, has been down this road before. The 27-year-old Russian is the only man to take Lombard to that final bell, falling on the wrong end of an October 2010 unanimous decision. He’s been nearly as impressive as the champ, going 6-1 inside Bellator’s circular cage with four stoppages. With back-to-back wins over Brian Rogers and Zelg Galesic now under his belt, Shlemenko is one bout away from his rematch.
“After the quarterfinals, I said that my goal is to fight Hector again,” Shlemenko said. “I do my best and I’ll do everything possible in the finals to get the chance to fight Hector again. If I were to fight again with Hector, it would be a completely different fight, because I would be much more ready and I’d have a good chance of beating him.”
Asked why he chose to bring Shlemenko back for the fifth-season tournament, Rebney praised the flashy striker as “dominant and exciting.”
“[He’s] a great personality, this dour, aggressive Russian fighter that just comes to fight,” Rebney added. “He looked better against Hector Lombard, our champion, than anyone has looked. No one has put on the kind of fight [Shlemenko did]. There was no question about bringing him back.”
Shlemenko and Vianna will lock horns Nov. 19 in Hollywood, Fla., the same night on which Lombard will meet Trevor Prangley in a non-title affair. The season’s tournament winner, Rebney believes, will have earned a title shot and a challenge nearly unmatched in all of MMA.
“We have an incredibly dominant champion,” Rebney stated when asked about finding opponents for Lombard. “It’s not easy. I think, right now, when you look at Vitor Vianna and Alexander Shlemenko, we could provide a good test for Hector Lombard. I think he’s one of the best two middleweights on earth. I think Hector is an absolute monster.
“I think there’s one guy on earth right now that I would look at and say to myself, ‘He could beat Hector.’ His name is Anderson Silva. I don’t know that I would pick Anderson to beat Hector, but it would be one heck of a fight. We’ll see what happens with Alexander and Vitor, and one of those guys is going to come out with a big win.”