By Ryan Young
Bellator MMA is in the full swing of things on Spike TV as the promotion puts on their fourth show for the cable network channel.
Bellator 88 takes place live from The Arena at Gwinnet Center in Duluth, Ga., this Thursday at 10 p.m. ET with a headlining fight for the vacant middleweight championship between explosive Brazilian Maiquel (Big Rig) Falcao and the face of Russian mixed martial arts Alexander (Storm) Shlemenko.
Also, the Season 8 featherweight tournament gets started as all four quarter-final fights will go down.
Here’s a look at how the show’s main card should play out.
Vacant Middleweight Championship bout (185-pounds)
Maiquel “Big Rig” Falcao (31-4 1nc, 3-0 Bellator) vs. Alexander “Storm” Shlemenko (46-7, 7-1 Bellator)
Season 2 and 5 middleweight tourney winner Alexander Shlemenko hasn’t fought inside the Bellator cage since November 2011, but his fingerprints have still been all over the promotion. The 28-year-old Russian trains and has introduced fellow countrymen like welterweight No. 1 contender Andrey Koreshkov and top lightweight prospect Alexander Sarnavskiy into the Bellator cage recently, but on Thursday it’s once again his time to shine. “Storm” has rattled off nine straight wins since losing his original Bellator middleweight title opportunity against current UFC fighter Hector Lombard back in October 2010, the only bout in Lombard’s eight Bellator appearances that required judges. In Shlemenko’s last fight this August, he defeated Strikeforce and Tachi Palace veteran Anthony Ruiz via unanimous decision over in Russia.
We know that Falcao has blistering speed and will swarm opponents with powerful flurries, but that’s about all that can be expected from the erratic behaving fighter. The 31-year-old has been in fights where’s he failed to stop fighting when the referee has stepped in or the bell has clearly gone to signify the end of a round. Fights where he appeared to have his opponent finished but choose instead just toy with them. And who could forget when a live in-cage stare down between him and fellow Season 6 middleweight tournament finalist Andreas Spang turned into a shoving match that came a Jimmy Smith bear-hug short of a brawl? “Big Rig” beat Spang via unanimous decision, as he did all three of his opponents in the Bellator tourney, giving him four straight victories and 13 of his last 14.
These two fighters like to stand and bang so expect to see the majority of this bout play out on the feet. Falcao has shown in the past that he can get stuck in a lull and, for one reason or another, stop throwing strikes for lengthy periods at a time. I wouldn’t suggest doing that in what should be an extremely close, competitive bout that could likely come down to points.
Winner: Shlemenko via unanimous decision.
Season 8 Featherweight Quarter-Final bout (145-pounds)
Marlon “The Gladiator” Sandro (23-4, 6-2 Bellator) vs. Akop “Sniper” Stepanyan (12-4, 0-1 Bellator)
After losing the first three fights of his professional career, Akop Stepanyan went on a 12-0 tear which was good enough to earn him a spot in the Bellator Season 7 featherweight tournament. The 26-year-old’s North American debut didn’t go as planned as he was forced to submit in the first round due to an armbar by submission whiz Wagnney Fabiano.
He’ll try to get back to his winning ways against a well-rounded veteran.
Sandro, 35, made it to the finals of that same featherweight tourney, dropping a unanimous decision to Daniel Straus. It was the second time the Brazilian has come up short in the finals of a Bellator featherweight tourney as Pat Curran knocked him out in the 2011 Summer Series finale. The former Sengoku featherweight champ has to think this third attempt may be his last crack at Bellator glory.
And I don’t see him faltering, at least not this early in the tournament. Stepanyan is game fighter with some tremendous upside, but I feel like his experience disadvantage will be noticeable as the bout progresses. He may find some success early but look for Sandro to eventually to take him down, work for a submission, then finish.
Winner: Sandro via third round submission.
Season 8 Featherweight Tournament Quarter-Final (145-pounds)
Mitch Jackson (19-2, 0-0 Bellator) vs. Mike “The Marine” Richman (13-2, 2-1 Bellator)
Richman, 27, wasted little time introducing himself to the Bellator audience upsetting Canadian favourite Chris Horodecki with an emphatic first round knockout during his promotional debut in April. He actually one-upped the performance in his next outing taking just 23-seconds to dispose of Jeremy Spoon in the opening round of the Season 7 featherweight tourney. With four-straight wins he entered his semifinal matchup against Shahbulat Shamhalaev a favourite but was knocked out with a lightning quick counter-right then sent him to the mat and later the hospital. “The Marine”, who has finishes in eight of his nine victories, needs to show the Shamhalaev loss is firmly supplanted in the past.
One of the more unknown commodities in this tournament is Jackson. He enters on a seven-fight winning streak, all of them coming by way of submission. In fact, he’s forced his opponents to cry uncle in 13 of his 19 total victories. He’s never fought at this high of a level, however, so it’ll be interesting to see how he acclimates.
The obvious point to make here is that the majority of Jackson’s wins have come via tapout, something Richman has never been forced to do. Will that change? Sure it could, this is MMA and anything can happen (“Bigfoot” shoutout!), but the safe money is on Richman welcoming the newcomer in the form of a knockout.
Winner: Richman via second round knockout.
Fabricio Guerreiro (17-1 1nc, 0-0 Bellator) vs. Magomedrasul “Frodo” Khasbulaev (18-5, 2-0 Bellator)
With 18 fights and just one loss under his belt, 22-year-old Fabricio Guerreiro is an exciting prospect. The Brazilian has finished in all but two of his 17 victories, and he’s responded from a TKO loss in July 2011 by producing five straight stoppage wins.
Khasbulaev, 26, has also shown a knack for finishing taking out his opponents in 16 of his 18 wins, including all six on his current winning streak. If there’s one easily identifiable weakness in the Russian’s game it’s his submission defence as four of his five losses have come in that fashion.
Will he be able to avoid the submissions of Guerreiro and use his striking to score another finish? I say yes to the former and no to the latter. In other words, Khasbulaev ground and pounds his way to a decision victory.
Winner: Khasbulaev via unanimous decision.
Preliminary Card Prediction:
Alexandre Bezerra def. Genair da Silva via split decision.
Bellator 87 Results: Last week we went 3-for-4 with two of the finishes called correctly. That makes us 13-2 overall in 2013.
Ryan Young is a regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s MMA section. Follow him on Twitter @YoungRyan4.