On Saturday July 21 2012, the wait was finally over.
A middleweight of enormous potential finally joined MMA’s top table after years of beating all comers under the Bellator banner.
Considered the only real challenger to Anderson Silva’s reign at the top of the bracket and for some at the top of the sport, unfortunately, when the time came, the man who met Tim Boetsch in the center of the Octagon at UFC 149 barely resembled Hector Lombard.
There were flashes of brilliance early in the first round – the quick hands, the unstoppable takedowns – but as perennial underdog Boetsch had his hand raised for the split decision win, no one could deny him the spoils. Gone were Lombard’s unbeaten streak that dated back to November 2006 and his 70 per cent finish rate to boot in what was an unspectacular, plodding debut.
In fact, such was the anti-climax of Lombard’s debut that almost immediately Dana White was calling for his star signing to drop down a weight division.
Something that had always been on the cards for Lombard, word from his camp suggested that ‘Showeather’ knew that he had the capacity to go down to welterweight, but due to the dominance he had showcased at 185, he just never felt the need.
“It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” said White after Lombard’s debut. “Whether it was Boetsch or Lombard winning, I was expecting a real war. I thought this thing was going to be a war. You can’t be angry with (Lombard), but it just shows you guys, ranking guys who don’t fight in the UFC, it’s two different worlds.
“Guys that fight in other organizations that end up in top 10 rankings, it’s a whole other world over here. Lombard maybe should fight at 170. He made 185 easily. He’s short and wide, but I think he could make 170.”
In his next UFC test, when ‘Lightning’ met a tree stomp, ‘Toquinho’, the latter expectedly crumbled in December 2012 in front of the adoptive Australian’s home crowd and faith was somewhat restored in the Olympic judoka.
A far more aggressive version of the former Bellator champion marched forward and dropped Palhares with a combination halfway through the first round. The Brazilian rose only to meet the canvas again a minute later as Lombard finally announced himself to UFC fans.
Yushin Okami looked likely to become a stepping-stone for Lombard when the top ten middleweight pairing was matched for UFC’s Saitama card in March 2013. However, the Japanese veteran managed to jab and wrestle his way to victory with a late barrage from the Cuban in round three being the only time he looked likely to win the bout.
The loss to Okami saw Lombard disintegrate from the middleweight title conversation and back came the talk of a move down to 170. Six months later when Lombard emerged in the new weight class, UFC fans finally got what they were waiting for.
The ATT fighter finally began to look like the same person who sent opponents packing in six seconds when he met Nate Marquardt at UFC 166. In less than two minutes, an even more chiseled version of the Lombard we were used to at 185 dispatched the former middleweight championship contender in under two minutes.
Meeting Jake Shields in March 2014, Lombard’s dominance over the former Strikeforce champion and UFC title contender was evident as he hurt the Cesar Gracie proponent no less than four times in the first round of their bout.
The fact that the bout wasn’t finished is a testament to the toughness of Shields and apart from a late guillotine that certainly got the attention of the former Bellator champ, Lombard looked utterly untouchable. He threw Shields around the Octagon like a toddler, he exploded into his combinations and when his wrestling defense was called into action he sprawled as if his life depended on it.
At 170, Lombard looks like the nightmare we were all anticipating back in July 2012, and finally the performances match the stories of his bullish sparring tactics and general intimidatory demeanor.
He has openly courted bouts with his teammates, he has commented on knocking out fellow ranked welterweights in sparring sessions and former UFC fighter Jacob Volkmann even discussed how in 2011 Lombard cracked him bareknuckle halfway through a grappling session in an interview with Sherdog.
Sure, you might not agree with some of his methods, but goddammit that’s the man we were dying to see under the UFC banner. This is the fight game and a genuinely scary guy outside of competition always gets the attention of the fan base, especially when he can back it up.
Currently sitting in 6th place in the promotional rankings, this weekend Lombard welcomes Josh Burkman back to UFC, over six years since he last graced the Octagon. Burkman gained a lot of notoriety on the back of his upset win over Jon Fitch in June 2013, but for my money, Lombard is considerably tougher match-up for ‘The People’s Champ.'
Lombard is so close to being in contention for the divisional gold that he can smell it. Already calling out Rory MacDonald, the division’s number one contender, on Saturday night Lombard will be thrust into the conversation with a win and should he avoid the patented guillotine of Burkman and win the striking exchanges, matchups at the top of the division will absolutely be bolstered by his presence.
One thing is certain, without Lombard’s move down to welterweight we would have been deprived of the athlete that we had longed to see compete with the best opponents available to him. A clear favorite this weekend, Lombard should do the business on Saturday night but to really underline his title aspirations, a finish would gain him a lot momentum early in 2015.
Until Lombard meets a top five opponent from the welterweight division, we won’t know whether the hype surrounding him prior to his UFC days was justified or hyperbole. Saturday night could be the beginning of a very interesting year for him, and I for one cannot wait.
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