Bellator 88 preview and predictions for 'Falcao vs Shlemenko' in Duluth

Poster via Bellator

MMAmania.com has complete previews and predictions for Thursday night's Bellator 88 event, which features a middleweight title fight and the season eight Bellator featherweight tournament quarterfinals.

Bellator Fighting Championships will head to "The Peach State" this Thursday night (Feb. 7, 2013) at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia.

The main card will air live on Spike TV on fight night, beginning at 10 p.m. ET.

Headlining the main event will be a Bellator middleweight title fight between season five tournament winner Alexander Shlemenko and seasno six tournament winner Maiquel Falcao. Both men are vying to fill the huge gap that former champion Hector Lombard vacated when he left Bellator for the UFC.

Also on tap, top Brazilian veteran Marlon Sandro returns to the Bellator cage for his third tournament. The knockout artist has been a two-time finalist and is hoping to finally push himself over the top and win one to avenge his losses to Pat Curran and Daniel Straus.

The featherweight tournament will continue as Fabricio Guerreiro battles Russian prospect Magomedrasul Khasbulaev and top striker Mike Richman takes on Minnesota rival Mitch Jackson.

Our preview and predictions are posted below:

185 lb. title: Maiquel Falcão (31-4) vs. Alexander Shlemenko (46-7)

Maiquel Falcao was a standout Brazilian middleweight and despite being undersized, he scored some big wins which earned him an invite to the UFC. Once there, he defeated Gerald Harris in an uninspired bout and was released following issues back in his home country. He found a home in Bellator and advanced through the season six middleweight tournament, defeating Norman Paraisy, Slava Vasilevsky and Andreas Spang via unanimous decision to take home the tournametn title and earn a shot at the belt.

Alexander Shlemenko holds the distinction that only one other Bellator fighter (Pat Curran) has earned, that is winning two tournaments. "The Storm" slashed through the Bellator season two middleweight tournament but came up short in a five round battle against Hector Lombard. Undeterred, he returned with a vengeance in the season five middleweight tournament and defeated everyone in his path to earn another shot at Lombard. Unfortunately, "Lightning" vacated his title and left for the UFC last year which left Shlemenko without an opponent. Thus, the two tournament winners will battle it out for supremacy.

Falcao is dangerous with his submission game if he can gain a dominant position on the ground and he also possesses some pretty solid one punch power, although his technique is nowhere close to Shlemenko's. Shlemenko has a good gas tank and a wide array of strikes including just about every spinning attack known to mankind. Despite his penchant for wild blows, Shlemenko also has solid technique and a submission game when he wants to use it and he'll likely tone it down at times to try and pick Falcao apart. As "Big Rig" slows down, the Russian will likely turn it on and try to put him away.

Final Prediction: Alexander Shlemenko via TKO in round three

145 lbs.: Marlon Sandro (23-4) vs. Akop Stepanyan (12-4)

Marlon Sandro was a wrecking machine while competing in Sengoku overseas and while his reputation remains as a devastating striker, he hasn't quite been able to put it all together in the Bellator tournaments, twice making it to the finals before being upset by both Pat Curran and Daniel Straus. Sandro has looked sharp at times, and his gladiator outfit is always entertaining. At 35 years old, however, he's starting to run out of time if he really wants to become a champion or at least earn a title shot.

Akop Stepanyan was a standout striker winning 12 straight bouts in Russia to earn an invite to the Bellator season seven tournament. While he put forth a spirited effort in his quarterfinal bout against Wagnney Fabiano, he could not stop the Brazilian's ground game and after spending nearly a minute stuck in an armbar, he was forced to tap out when the hold was properly put in place. He's out to redeem himself this time around.

Sandro has some fantastic striking, but it would be wise not to get too fancy against Stepanyan, a very talented striker himself. Look for "The Gladiator" to take Stepanyan down quickly and work his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt skills to pass his guard and gain a dominant position. If he can do that, he could either pound out a victory on the ground or earn a submission. What matters is getting this fight over with fast because Sandro has a tendency to slow down drastically after the first round and that could leave an opening for Stepanyan to not only bounce back, but win the fight.

Final Prediction: Marlon Sandro via submission in round one

145 lbs.: Fabricio Guerreiro (17-1) 1 no contest vs. Magomedrasul Khasbulaev (18-5)

This is a bout between two fighters that haven't quite broken into the mainstream yet. Guerreiro trains out of the Ronildo Nobre Judo Club and has amassed a very high amount of submissions in just four years, fighting a ridiculous 19 times in that span and finishing 15 of his 17 victories. After fighting eight times in 2011, he took it easy last year with just two bouts, finishing them both inside the first round to earn an opportunity to compete under the Bellator banner.

Magomedrasul Khasbulaev has already fought for Bellator twice, competing twice on the undercard during the season seven tournament and crushing Nayeb Hazem via brutal first round knockout in the tournament alternate bout. He followed that up by submitting Josh Pulsifer in the first round this past November to punch his ticket to the main card. Khasbulaev possesses a very well rounded game and he's experienced, competing all over the world including a prominent run in M-1.

If Khasbulaev has any weaknesses, it's been to very talented grapplers who can take him down and dominate him with their submissions and guard passes. If Guerreiro has a shot, he needs to try and put the Russian in a bad position early or he's going to feel his wrath. Guerreiro was finished in his lone defeat, getting knocked out in just 48 seconds so he can't be too overzealous either.

Final Prediction: Magomedrasul Khasbulaev via TKO in round one

145 lbs.: Mitch Jackson (19-2) vs. Mike Richman (13-2)

Mitch Jackson has been a standout Minnesota fighter for a long time but hadn't broken through to the mainstream yet. While he hasn't been stepping in there against the best competition, he's still been very consistent and has utilized his grappling to dominate his opponents with a wrestling/submission-based attack that has resulted in 13 submission finishes in a four year career. He gladly stepped in to take the last spot in this tournament against Richman.

Mike Richman burst onto the Bellator scene with a thunderous knockout of Chris Horodecki back at Bellator 64. He returned to action by destroying Jeremy Spoon with a head kick in just 23 seconds for his tournament debut last season. Unfortunately, he walked right into a Shahbulat Shahmulaev counter punch in the semifinals and all of his momentum came crashing down. Now, Richman is looking to redeem himself against a Minnesota rival in Jackson.

Both men's philosophies are very different. Jackson wants to take his opponents down, wear them down, beat them up and submit them. Richman just wants to keep it standing and knock his opponents the hell out. Richman's competition strength is much higher and there's no way to fully prepare for having tournament experience but Jackson does have a style which could thwart his stand-up prowess. Whoever can impose their will is going to win this fight and it's tough not to side with a very motivated Richman.

Final Prediction: Mike Richman via knockout in round one

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