Christian M’Pumbu will fight for the first time since capturing Bellator’s 205-pound crown. | Photo: Keith Mills
Christian M'Pumbu was just another face in an eight-man crowd when he entered the Bellator Fighting Championships Season 4 light heavyweight tournament. Three technical knockout wins later, the 34-year-old Congolese fighter has promotional gold strapped around his waist, and his world looks quite a bit different.
M’Pumbu will take the first step towards consolidating his tournament run when he locks horns with journeyman Travis Wiuff in a non-title tilt at Bellator 55 on Saturday at the Cocopah Casino in Yuma, Ariz. The newly minted champion has posted seven wins in eight outings, last appearing in May, when he stopped Richard Hale on third-round punches to capture the light heavyweight crown at Bellator 45.
One of MMA’s more prolific fighters, Wiuff has nearly 80 professional bouts -- almost four times as many as M’Pumbu -- on his resume and has competed within the UFC, Pride Fighting Championships, Sengoku Raiden Championship and International Fight League. The 33-year-old Minnesotan has secured 44 of his 64 wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
M’Pumbu’s championship may not be on the line, but the validation he received in winning it will be when he walks into the cage. Deep in talent and seasoned with compelling storylines and tournament drama, here is what to watch for at Bellator 55:
A Star is Born -- At 40
Alexis Vila became an instant sensation in the opening round of the Season 5 bantamweight tournament, as he wiped out mouthy reigning Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren in destructive fashion. After his ill-fated encounter with the Cuban’s fists, Warren crumpled, went stiff and lay motionless for several unsettling moments. Few could have envisioned such a grand Bellator entrance for Vila, an undefeated by relatively unknown 40-year-old who won Olympic bronze in freestyle wrestling in 1996. His lethal blend of world-class wrestling and wicked punching power have made him the favorite in the tournament, even as an undersized 135-pounder. Vila faces an interesting test in the semifinals, as he draws Marcos Galvao, a WEC veteran and two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion.
Some within the Bellator ranks have to be pining for a Vila-Eduardo Dantas matchup in the bantamweight tournament final. The 22-year-old Dantas dazzled in his first outing with the company, as he leveled the durable and well-respected Wilson Reis with a second-round knee strike and follow-up punches in the opening round of the 135-pound draw. Dantas hones his craft alongside UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo at the revered Nova Uniao camp in Brazil and has pieced together a streak of four straight wins, all of them finishes. The gifted Shooto South America champion has suffered only one legitimate defeat -- a close unanimous decision to Japanese ace Masakatsu Ueda two years ago -- and many view him as the sport’s top prospect at 135 pounds. Dantas has no easy task in front of him, however, as he tackles Ed West, a finalist in the Bellator Season 3 bantamweight tournament who has not been finished in almost eight years.
In August, blue-chip Brazilian lightweight prospect Ricardo Tirloni signed on Bellator’s dotted line. Two months after the promotion acquired his services, the 28-year-old will debut. An aggressive Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Tirloni has rattled off 10 consecutive victories, including his 2009 rear-naked choke submission on UFC veteran Brian Cobb. Having spent considerable time at American Top Team, he now trains out of the same Ataque Duplo camp that Thiago Tavares calls home. Dangerous off his back and on his feet, Tirloni has secured 11 of his 13 professional victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission and more than half of them inside one round. He suffered his only career defeat to former WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson, a man against whom he more than held his own until he wound up locked inside the arms of the man with perhaps the game’s most devastating guillotine choke. In his first appearance under the Bellator banner, Tirloni will lock horns with the once-beaten Steve Gable, an EliteXC veteran on a two-fight winning streak.
Bellator has mostly steered clear of signing higher-profile UFC washouts, but its latest undercard will provide valuable opportunities for Edgar Garcia and Steve Steinbeiss -- two men who went a combined 0-4 in their respective stints inside the Octagon -- to re-establish themselves. Garcia, 27, was purged from the UFC roster following his submission defeat to “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 9 finalist DaMarques Johnson at UFC 107. He will carry a three-fight winning streak into his matchup with Jacob Ortiz. The 30-year-old Steinbeiss was released after his unanimous decision loss to Rob Kimmons at UFC Live 2. He will enter his promotional debut against Dano Moore on a career-best four-fight winning streak.