Bellator Fighting Championships returned for round 11 on Spike TV last night (April 4, 2013) in Atlantic City with a the season eight finale featuring a featherweight title fight and two tournament finals in the featherweight and middleweight divisions.
The main event of the evening featured a 145 pound title defense from Bellator champion Pat Curran as he took on seasons even featherweight tournament winner Shahbulat Shamhalaev in what many expected to be a thrilling showdown.
Shamhalaev had made quick work of everyone he'd faced during his run through the season seven tournament, but the top-ranked Curran made it look easy.
Both men showed a tremendous amount of respect for each other in the early goings of the fight and with both talented strikers being heavy counter punchers, it was interesting to see who was going to make the first significant move.
Instead of winging punches and creating counterstrike opportunities, both fighters threw several kicks, whether they were leg kicks, body kicks, push kicks or front kicks as they worked to find their range.
At the midway point of the first round, Curran had Shamhalaev thinking kick and instead he exploded for a takedown. Shamhalaev tried to do an emergency sprawl but left his defenses completely exposed. Curran initially thought about diving on his back but instead latched on a unique version of the guillotine choke, trapping one of Shamhalaev's arms inside the hold and dropping to his back to squeeze it tightly.
The Russian refused to tap and within seconds was put to sleep as the referee jumped in and awarded "Paddy Mike" the victory via brilliant technical submission.
This was perhaps Curran's most impressive performance yet and proved he belongs among the best featherweights in the world. Next up for the champion will be a title defense against either Daniel Straus or the season eight featherweight tournament winner (result posted below).
Khasbulaev burst out to an early lead in the fight, being the more aggressive of the two and throwing all of his strikes in combination with each other to get "The Marine" bleeding and putting the American on the defensive.
His striking wasn't nearly as effective in round two as Richman started to work a clean jab and land some heavy counter shots, opening up a big cut along "Frodo's" right eye to even up the fight.
In the third frame, both men had their moments as Richman was the more aggressive of the two, but Khasbulaev was just as active in his striking attempts and he managed to score two takedowns, dropping a bit of ground and pound before the American was able to escape to his feet.
In the end, while the fight was a nailbiter, the judges surprisingly awarded every single round to Khasbulaev, which earned him $100,000 and a shot at the featherweight champion down the road.
In middleweight tournament final action, Brett Cooper battled Doug Marshall in an intriguing clash of styles. On paper, Cooper was the more well-rounded of the two as he'd utilized both his wrestling and his striking to nearly earn his shot. Marshall, on the other hand, was all about that one-hitter quitter, trying to knock his opponent's head off with every big strike he threw.
At first, it looked like the fight would be a barnburner as both men connected with heavy blows in opening exchanges but Cooper made his gameplan known by instead changing levels and dumping "The Rhino" on his back inside the first minute.
Marshall tried to get back to his feet but every attempt resulted in another takedown and it looked like Cooper was going to slowly and surely be trying to grind out a decision with his wrestling advantage.
That was, until Marshall worked his way back to his feet along the fence and cracked Cooper with an elbow. His bearded foe backed off, giving Marshall all the separation he needed to step forward and blast him with one of the nastiest right hands thrown in all of season eight.
Cooper dropped like a sack of potatoes and one last heavy shot was more than enough for the referee to intervene and award Marshall the victory. Next up for Marshall will be a title shot against Alexander Shlemenko which just goes to show how much things can change for a fighter in one tournament.
Last but not least, the opening bout of the evening featured a grudge match in the welterweight division as recent 155 pound title challenger Rick Hawn bumped up in weight to take on judo rival Karo Parisyan.
Parisyan used to be known as one of MMA's most entertaining and talented fighters, and while he held his own for much of the first round, a head kick from Hawn in the final 10 seconds put him in rough shape heading into the second frame.
Parisyan's physique left something to be desired and it was no surprise that he slowed down in round two. Hawn picked up on this by repeatedly punishing him with a lead left hand and once Parisyan started thinking left, Hawn instead used that lead hand to knock his opponent's defense to the side and then blasted him with a heavy right.
After the shot connected, Parisyan was on roller skates and Hawn quickly closed the distance with some nasty short uppercuts which sent the former UFC standout to the cage floor where the ref jumped in to put a stop to the contest.
In the post-fight press conference, Hawn announced his intentions to drop back down to lightweight and compete in the next Bellator 155-pound tournament with the hope that he'll redeem himself against the current champion Michael Chandler.
Bellator also announced that it's upcoming Summer Series tournament would feature not one but three weight classes in the heavyweight, light heavyweight and bantamweight divisions.