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Japan serves as Hector Lombard’s proving grounds at UFC on Fuel TV 8

Wanderlei Silva, Brian Stann headline Saturday’s free-television card

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters Hector Lombard, right, from Australia, and Tim Boetsch, from the United States, do battle during UFC 149 in Calgary, Alberta., Saturday, July 21, 2012.

UFC on FUEL TV 8 complete card and betting odds

  • Light heavyeight bout: Wanderlei Silva (+225) vs. Brian Stann (-265)
  • Featherweight bout: Mark Hunt (+155) vs. No. 9 Stefan Struve (-175)
  • Lightweight bout: Takanori Gomi (+250) vs. Diego Sanchez (-300)
  • Middleweight bout: No. 4 Yushin Okami (+170) vs. No. 8 Hector Lombard (-190)
  • Featherweight bout: Mizuto Hirota (-110) vs. Rani Yahya (-110)
  • Welterweight bout: Dong Hyun Kim (-300) vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (+250)
  • Middleweight bout: Riki Fukuda (-110) vs. Brad Tavares (-110)
  • Bantamweight bout: Takeya Mizugaki (-220) vs. Bryan Caraway (+190)
  • Lightweight bout: Cristiano Marcello (-155) vs. Kazuki Tokudome (+135)
  • Bantamweight bout: Alex Caceres (-150) vs. Kyung Ho Kang (+130)
  • Welterweight bout: Marcelo Guimaraes (+260) vs. Hyun Gyu Lim (-320)
  • How to watch: Main card on FUEL TV at 7 p.m.; preliminary card streamed on facebook.com/UFC at 4 p.m.
  • Odds subject to change and courtesy of William Hill sports books.

Out of everything that could have happened in Hector Lombard’s first nine months with the UFC, his current situation was perhaps among the most improbable.

The 35-year old middleweight has managed to keep his borderline mythical appeal intact while continuing to polarize opinions on his level as a fighter. No one quite knows what to make of the reticent muscleman through two fights in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, one win and one loss.

Lombard's worth should receive some clarity Saturday in Tokyo, where he meets Yushin Okami in a main-card bout at UFC on Fuel TV 8.

Three fights are billed ahead of Okami (29-7 MMA, 12-4 UFC) vs. Lombard (32-3-1 MMA, 1-1 UFC) — including the light heavyweight main event between veteran middleweights Wanderlei Silva (34-12-1 MMA, 4-7 UFC) and Brian Stann (12-5 MMA, 6-4 UFC) — but none of them boast implications as significant. With Okami at No. 4 and Lombard at No. 8, it’s the only bout at the event between two fighters ranked in the UFC’s media poll.

UFC President Dana White said Lombard could position himself well in the title picture with a victory. White talked of a potential matchup against middleweight champion Anderson Silva ever since he signed Lombard away from Bellator in April of last year with a contract reportedly worth more than seven figures.

Back then, there were two predominant perspectives on Lombard that conflicted. Some felt Lombard, who had gone unbeaten in 25 straight fights, was poised to make an immediate impact and rise to the top of the UFC. Others questioned his quality of opposition and predicted UFC-caliber fighters would expose the veteran who spent his career elsewhere.

No one’s likely changed their minds yet. Lombard inadvertently strengthened both schools of thought in separate performances.

His UFC debut drew more boos than a basketball referee making a call against the home team in the final seconds of a game. The result was divisive, too.

Tim Boetsch earned a split-decision victory (29-28, 29-28, 28-29) against Lombard at UFC 149 last July, though media and fan scores were all over the place. Lombard’s detractors pointed towards the disappointing performance as proof that he was overrated.

His defenders argued it was an erroneous decision and blamed the close nature of the fight on the overwhelming sensation of fighting in the UFC for the first time, what White refers to as “octagon jitters.”

“My first performance wasn’t that bad,” Lombard said at a press conference this week in Tokyo, “but people are used to seeing me demolish people so it was sort of a disappointment.”

Lombard had the perfect response in his second bout, a UFC on FX 6 matchup with Rousimar Palhares last December. He knocked out the Brazilian grappler less than four minutes into the fight.

Those behind Lombard rejoiced, making note of the fact that Palhares was seen as a top-10 middleweight earlier in the year. Those against him remained skeptical, looking at Palhares’ two first-round knockout losses in his last five fights more suspiciously.

Click to enlarge photo

Yushin Okami, top, of Japan takes an elbow from Alan Belcher of Biloxi, Miss. during a middleweight bout UFC155 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012.

“My last fight felt great,” Lombard said. “I didn’t have any issues.”

“I feel great for this fight and I’m going to do the same thing I did in my first fight.”

That would carry more weight against Okami, a former top contender who’s only been stopped twice in a seven-year UFC career. The 31-year-old has a way of exploiting lesser opponents by mixing pressure up against the fence with takedowns.

He’s the type of fighter a promotion would want to avoid matching their most promising prospects against. “Thunder,” however, is a perfect bridge between the elite and the middle for a relatively unknown entity like Lombard.

Okami even hinted that he understood the gatekeeper role he was playing against Lombard this week.

“Even if I win against Hector Lombard, I still feel Anderson Silva is quite far away time-wise,” Okami said through a translator. “A lot of good fighters are in the middleweight division so I have to win against them too before I reach the middleweight title match.”

Okami politely asked “all the Japanese fans” to tune in for the fight. He’s out to make amends for losing in front of his home country last year in a stunning come-from-behind knockout by Boetsch at UFC 144.

But more eyes will closely follow Lombard in this fight. It’s time to find out where he stands.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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