"Where title shots are earned, not given" is the slogan of Bellator Fighting Championships. On Saturday night in Newkirk, Oklahoma, two fighters stepped into the cage to prove that motto in the Welterweight Tournament finals. The winner of Bellator 43's main event would be crowned the tournament's champion, receive a six-figure payday and get a shot at the BFC's Welterweight boss Ben Askren. The night also featured the triumphant return of a Bellator veteran from a medical illness and the debut of a new shark in the already ultracompetitive waters of the Bantamweight division. Lastly, in a Bellator first, a fighter proposed to his girlfriend in the cage during his post-fight celebration--seriously. Let's get a recap of these action-packed altercations:
Vince Lucero vs. Ron Sparks
What happens when you throw two shaved gorillas into a cage? They pound each other until they're swollen to twice their original size, right? Not tonight. The evening's first fight of Bellator 43 was a battle of two heavyweights--Vince Lucero and Ron Sparks--and both men were anticipated to throw enough bombs to sink the opponent's battleship. But after a couple minutes of heavy strikes, it was ground work and a submission that ended it all. Lucero and Sparks exchanged punches early and often in this war of two monsters, but Sparks' leg kicks were the most effective blows landed. A few leg kicks by "The Monster" and Lucero came tumbling down. That's when Sparks pounced and secured a keylock on Lucero, forcing him to tap. It was the first win by submission in Sparks' 7-0 career.
Ron Sparks wins by submission (keylock) at 2:18 in round 1.
Chase Beebe vs. Jose Vega
Win and you're in. On the line in this tussle was a spot in the next Bellator Bantamweight tournament, which is already stacked with fierce competitors Marcos Galvao, Luis Nogueira, Ed West, Eduardo Dantas and Bellator Featherweight Champion Joe Warren. Vega and Beebe know how important a place in this tournament is for their careers. Vega lost in a close split-decision in the semifinals of a previous 135 pound tourney, and Beebe, a former WEC Bantamweight Champion, is looking to reclaim some gold for his waist.
There has been a lot of talk of the renewed focus of Chase Beebe. He trains at a new camp--Greg Jackson's in New Mexico--and is living in the RV of UFC Lightweight Clay Guida. Beebe wants to be back on top of the Bantamweight hill and is making the strides to get there. In the opening round of this battle, Beebe and Vega went back forth with Vega pushing much of the pace. But the key to the fight was Beebe consistently working for a guillotine choke, both while standing and on the ground. Vega landed some strikes of his own while standing and got in a few good positions on the ground, but Beebe kept working for the choke and he finally secured it with less than a minute remaining in the first round. A great debut in Bellator for Beebe, and we'll look for him to make waves in next season's Bantamweight tournament.
Chase Beebe wins by submission (guillotine choke) at 4:06 in round 1.
Bryan Baker vs. Joe Riggs
This was already the heartwarming fight of the night before it even began. Last year, Bryan "The Beast" Baker's promising MMA was stalled when he announced that he had been fighting an even tougher opponent outside of the cage: chronic myelogenous leukemia. Baker continues to take medication, but the 25-year-old stated just before Bellator 30 that the cancer is now in remission. One would think beating leukemia was enough, but Baker was looking to take out UFC and Strikeforce veteran Joe "Diesel" Riggs as well.
The first round was all stand-up, with Riggs and Baker trying to tee off on each other's faces. The most consequential blows of the round were delivered by Baker in the form of a low blow and some flying knees. "The Beast" caught "Diesel" with a kick to the crotch, which stopped the fight momentarily while Riggs recovered. The flying knees were abundant as Baker threw several and landed a pair that did damage. The second round was similar to the first, with the fighters squaring off on their feet. Baker muscled Riggs around, and much of the round was spent with Riggs' back against the cage. The end came with Baker pouring on punches and a left hook finding Riggs' chin. Riggs hit the floor after the punch connected and the ref scrambled in before Baker could land any more.
Bryan Baker wins by knockout (punch) at 3:53 in round 2.
Bryan Baker's night wasn't done yet. Throughout the fight, a very audible screaming of support was emitting from the audience from Baker's girlfriend, Megan Vargas. During his post-fight interview, Bryan brought Megan into the cage and proposed. She said yes. Can you say BELLATOR WEDDING?!
Rick Hawn vs. Jay Hieron
In the main event of the night, Jay Hieron and Rick Hawn fought to a split decision for the Welterweight Tournament finals. As with most split decisions, it was controversial. Hawn's road to the finals involved two gritty decision victories against Jim Wallhead and Lyman Good. Hieron's road to the finals took him through a rear naked choke win over Anthony Lapsley and a tough decision win over Brent Weedman. Both men earned this spot to vie for the Welterweight Tournament crown and in the end, both deserved to win, but only one could.
There were two very different styles at play in this fight. It was clear that Hieron wanted to keep his distance and use precision with his strikes, while Hawn wanted to get inside and trade power punches. The first round favored Hieron's game plan. He backed up and picked his shots as Hawn came forward throwing heavy leather. Much of the same took place in the second and third, but Hawn got better at cutting off the cage from Hieron's retreat. By the end of the fight, Hieron's face showed more damage than Hawn's. But for two of the three judges that was not the tale of the fight. Hieron took down the split decision.
I thought Hawn won all three rounds by pushing forward and landing just as much as he took while exhibiting more power. I could see Hieron taking the first round, but the remaining two rounds were purely dictated by Hawn. Still, it was a great tournament for both fighters, and the eventual title fight between Jay Hieron and BFC Champion Ben Askren is going to be a war.
The judges scored this, 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 in favor of Jay Hieron by split decision.
Next week, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Lightweight Tournament finals will take place between Michael Chandler vs. Patricky "Pitbull" Freire. Also, a nontitle bout between Bellator Middleweight Champion Hector Lombard vs. Falaniko Vitale is on the card.