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Lashley’s promising window quickly coming to a close in MMA

(Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

Bobby Lashely returns to action Friday night at Bellator 162, and how the hulking heavyweight fares will likely dictate the remainder of his MMA career. With a win, he may finally earn a step up in competition, something long overdue. A loss, and he’ll be relegated to crushing cans — albeit very big ones — for as long as he can draw ratings.

When you think of Lashley, you probably think of his pro wrestling connection: his time in TNA, his WWE stint, the WrestleMania moment where he fought “on behalf” of Donald Trump, which resulted in Vince McMahon having his head shaved. You probably think of his physique. Then there’s the inevitable comparisons to former UFC champion and WWE star Brock Lesnar.

Those comparisons have been around for ages, mostly because the two are both big, jacked heavyweights who made the jump to MMA from the pro wrestling world. Yet the comparisons stop with the scripted realm of the WWE. While Lesnar went straight for the limelight, joining the UFC after a single pro fight in Japan, Lashley built a solid 14-2 pro record the old fashioned way: slugging it out in smaller promotions, fighting around the world, flirting with the limelight in Strikeforce, and for the last couple of years, getting back in business with Bellator chief Scott Coker. On the flipside, he also failed to hit the pinnacle of the sport the way Lesnar, still the longest defending heavyweight champ in UFC history, did.

Still, Lashley’s Bellator run has been a success story: he’s one of the promotion’s top ratings draws, and his fights have at times eclipsed viewership numbers of the headliners on the cards he’s appearing on. He’s 4-0 in the promotion, and faces a game Josh Appelt at Bellator 162 Friday night. Appelt’s not a household name, but the heavyweight went 3-1 during his first run in the promotion, and is returning on a two-fight win streak.

While there’s no such thing as a sure bet, this is a winnable fight for Lashley, as much as Appelt would like to play spoiler. Yet in his early 40s, Lashley’s window is quickly coming to a close. Aside from an early career test against Chad Griggs in Strikeforce (he lost), Lashley’s biggest win might be evening the score against James Thompson at Bellator 145 last November. The two first met in India’s SFL back in 2012, when Thompson took a decision in a fight many thought Lashley had won. That resulted in some bad blood between the two, settled when Lashley easily blew through him (and his knee) to score a TKO finish in their rematch.

The big man hasn’t fought since, focusing, it seemed, on his role as a member of Total Nonstop Action wrestling. With TNA on the verge of collapse, however, it seems the time is right for Lashley to go on a run in Bellator.

The timing couldn’t be better. Not only is TNA a massive question mark at the moment, and not only is Lashley no longer their champ, but Bellator’s heavyweight kingpin Vitaly Minakov, who has been holding out in a contract dispute for two years, was stripped of the title back in May. With the heavyweight waters of Bellator relatively shallow, only a handful of names can easily be booked into a title fight or tournament: Lashley would be one. Cheick Kongo, Matt Mitrione, and Sergei Kharitonov would likely be the others, and that’s a four man tournament many would turn in to watch.

At the very least, Lashley needs a test it he comes out of Bellator 162 victorious. It would be a shame to have him go through his career, and never really know if he could have succeeded against top heavyweights. Early on, there were hopes that Lashley would be another Lesnar-sized success, but for whatever reason, the UFC never seemed interested, and Lashley appeared comfortable juggling both his pro wrestling and MMA careers, which excluded him from the big show. As a big fish in a smaller pond, he has done quite well for himself — but it’s time to see just where Bobby Lashley sits in Bellator’s heavyweight food chain.

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