Bellator moved one step closer to determining a lightweight challenger and crowned a light heavyweight champion in Rio Rancho, N.M., at Bellator 91.

The night’s action included a preliminary card featuring local favorite Holly Holm and a main card lineup of lightweight tournament semifinal bouts pitting David Rickels against late replacement Jason Fischer and Will Brooks against Saad Awad, plus a light heavyweight title tilt in which Christian M’Pumbu put his title on the line for the first time, against challenger Attila Vegh.

Vegh edges M’Pumbu, claims light heavyweight belt

Christian M’Pumbu may be the long-reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion, but he had yet to defend his belt. However, he had his first chance in the headlining bout of the card. Standing on the opposite side of the cage from him was challenger Attila Vegh.

Both men were reluctant to throw strikes in the opening moments of the first round, thus drawing jeers from the crowd. Vegh then connected with a punch that sent M’Pumbu to the mat, but Vegh came in carelessly and ended up on his back with M’Pumbu in his guard. They eventually worked their way back to standing, where they continued to throw strikes sparingly. They clinched and Vegh used a judo throw to put M’Pumbu on the mat as the round came to a close.

The crowd greeted the fighters with more booing to open the second stanza. Vegh chased M’Pumbu around the cage, but failed to land any significant strikes. The two again stood and stared at each other before Vegh rushed forward and the two ended up in a clinch against the cage. They separated and continued to look at each other with little effort to throw strikes. Vegh rushed forward again, stuffed a takedown, threw a haymaker and stuffed another takedown, ending up on top of the champion. M’Pumbu tied up Vegh’s hands. Vegh backed off, then came back in and attacked M’Pumbu’s leg with a kneebar attempt. M’Pumbu fended it off and ended up in mount, then attacked Vegh’s arm as the round ended.

After almost a full minute of failing to engage, Vegh rushed in and scored a takedown of M’Pumbu in the third period. The champ attacked Vegh’s arm, but Vegh easily escaped. M’Pumbu contined to look for submissions with no success as Vegh threw the occasional strike from the top. Vegh threw some elbows that opened up a cut on M’Pumbu’s head. Vegh ended the round in top position.

The fourth round started as a repeat of the third, with Vegh rushing in and getting a takedown after some early stalling by both men. The two quickly returned to their feet, but Vegh rushed forward with a flurry of strikes that forced M’Pumbu to cover up. M’Pumbu looked for a takedown and the action stalled again. The referee separated them and they clinched to end the round, with Vegh landing an elbow.

The final stanza was another slow round, contested exclusively standing. M’Pumbu landed some of his best strikes of the fight, but Vegh flurried late, but his strikes had little effect.

The judges awarded Vegh with the decision, with scores of 48-47, 49-46 and 50-45. Vegh is the new Bellator light heavyweight champion.

Awad demolishes Brooks

The second lightweight tournament semifinal of the night featured Will Brooks against Saad Awad.

Awad wasted little time in putting Brooks away with a quick knockout finish. Brooks clinched with Awad. Awad immediately started throwing punches, rocking Brooks and sending him reeling backwards. Awad pounced and continued to throw strikes while chasing Brooks around the cage until Brooks was unable to continue. The referee stepped in and called a halt to the contest at 43 seconds of the first round.

Rickels earns decision over Fischer

In the first lightweight tournament semifinal bout of the evening, late replacement Jason Fischer locked horns with David Rickels.

Rickels and Fischer engaged in a stand-up battle through the first frame of action. Rickels connected with several combinations with approximately a minute left in the round, but neither man did significant damage to their opponent.

Rickels came out more aggressive in the second stanza, tying Fischer up in the clinch and eventually scoring a takedown. Fischer looked for an armbar from the bottom to no avail. Rickels went for mount, but Fischer reversed and worked from inside Rickels’ guard. Rickels escaped to his feet and locked Fischer up in the clinch. After a failed takedown attempt, “Caveman” went for a kimura but Fischer defended, leading to the two men finishing the round in an awkward position on the mat.

Rickels walked down Fischer to open the third and landed a stiff right hand that prompted Fischer to hunt for a takedown. The two struggled on the mat, with Rickels looking for submissions. He attacked Fischer’s arm, but Fischer defended and put Rickels in his guard. A now bloodied Rickels worked some light ground-and-pound before using a submission attempt to transition to mount. He moved to Fischer’s back and threatened with a rear-naked choke. After more ground-and-pound, Rickels again took Fischer’s back and attacked with an armbar. Fischer successfully defended against the submission and finished the round in Rickels’ guard.

One judge scored the fight 29-28, while the other two scored it 30-27, all in favor of Rickels, who advances to the lightweight tournament finals with the victory.

Preliminary Card Summary

The world’s No. 1-ranked female boxer, Albuquerque native Holly Holm continued her venture into the world of MMA. Despite a game opponent in Katie Merrill, Holm eventually showcased the striking that made her a champion in the boxing ring. As Merrill continually failed to complete takedowns in the second frame, Holm landed a blow to Merrill’s body that caused the Bostonian to drop to the mat, where Holm finished her via strikes.

Welterweight Blas Avena dropped Lenny Lovato in the first round to earn the TKO stoppage victory. The crowd was not pleased with the outcome, feeling the referee stopped the contest while Lovato was still intelligently defending himself.

Likely sensing he was down on the scorecards, featherweight Andres Quintana upped the aggression in the third round of his contest with Russell Wilson. Quintana opened Wilson up with a knee as Wilson looked for a takedown, then followed up with strikes to force the referee to step in and end the fight.

Ed West returned to the Bellator cage and displayed a flashy arsenal of kicks against fellow bantamweight Josh Montoya. One of those head kicks landed flush in the second round, separating Montoya from consciousness and giving West the knockout victory.

Bantamweight Adrian Cruz delivered a highlight-reel submission finish, snagging Nick Gonzalez in a scarf hold armlock in the second stanza of their bout.

In heavyweight action, Josh Appelt finished Josh Lanier via strikes just 16 seconds into the second round.

In the night’s opening bout, Brennan Ward’s wrestling was too much for Yair Moguel. Ward took Moguel down, transitioned to his back and forced a tapout via rear-naked choke in just under a minute.

Attila Vegh def. Christian M’Pumbu by unanimous decision (48-47, 49-46, 50-45) – for light heavyweight title
Saad Awad def. Will Brooks by knockout (strikes). Round 1, 0:43 – lightweight tournament semifinals
David Rickels def. Jason Fischer by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27) – lightweight tournament semifinals
Holly Holm def. Katie Merrill by TKO (strikes). Round 2, 3:02
Blas Avena def. Lenny Lovato by TKO (strikes). Round 1, 1:40
Andres Quintana def. Russell Wilson by TKO (strikes). Round 3, 0:32
Ed West def. Josh Montoya by KO (head kick). Round 2, 2:51
Adrian Cruz def. Nick Gonzalez by submission (scarf hold armlock). Round 2, 3:00
Josh Appelt def. Josh Lanier by TKO (strikes). Round 2, 0:16
Brennan Ward def. Yair Moguel by submission (rear-naked choke). Round 1, 0:57

Photo: Attila Vegh (Sherdog)