How good is Hector Lombard?
Before you blurt out an answer, think through both sides of things. If you do, you'll see that arriving at a decision that cannot be debated is a difficult task. Such is the life of the Bellator middleweight champion, and a number of potentially elite fighters competing outside of the Zuffa family.
There is a case for the Cuban judoka being one of the top middleweights in the sport, a 10-15 guy in the rankings, even maybe making it as high as 8-9 on some lists.
Lombard hasn't lost since November 2006, a unanimous decision defeat to a then-unknown 21-year-old named Gegard Mousasi. Since then, the American Top Team product has won 22 of 23 fights, and 18-in-a-row with is victory Saturday night over Falaniko Vitale at Bellator 44. Of those 22 wins, Lombard has finished 17 of them, many in very impressive fashion.
In a sport where the best in the world lose from time-to-time, Lombard's string of victories and four-plus-year unbeaten streak stands as evidence that the former Olympic competitor has a case for being considered one of the best 185-pound competitors in the sport.
There is, of course, another side to the argument as well.
While you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who denies that Lombard has an impressive skill set, some would argue that beating the tar out of a bunch of journeyman and middle tier talent doesn't make you a top 10 fighter.
I count myself amongst that group.
The 23 men Lombard has faced since losing to Mousasi at Pride Bushido 13 are a collection of current and former UFC competitors, regional standouts and a former NFL running back. With names like Ron Verdadero, Virgil Lozano and Joey Gorzynski included, we're clearly not talking about a Murderer's Row of elite talent.
There have been some recognizable names standing opposite Lombard during his unbeaten streak, including battling to a draw with TUF 11 alum Kyle Noke. He's beaten current UFC fighters Brian Ebersole and James Te-Huna, as well as having beaten Vitale, Joe Doerkson, Jay Silva and Kalib Starnes, all of whom have made the trip inside the Octagon in the past.
What makes placing Lombard so difficult is that there is no concrete way to compare his accomplishments to those of his 185-pound counterparts in the UFC and Strikeforce. All we can do is ask questions and speculate about the answers.
As dominant as Lombard as been, would Mark Munoz put up the same string of victories if faced with the same crop of challengers?
While he may not deliver a six-second knockout of Silva the way Lombard did, the wins are what matter most, and Munoz would be the favorite against every one of the 23 men Lombard has faced over the past four-plus years.
In the same vein, does running through a series of opponents who are not good enough to compete on the biggest stages carry more value than facing the best and losing?
Take a fighter like Tim Kennedy.
The US Army Special Forces sniper holds victories over Melvin Manhoef, Trevor Prangley, Zak Cummings and Nick Thompson in recent years, as well as losing a five-round battle with Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza for the Strikeforce middleweight championship.
How does Kennedy measure up against Lombard?
While the only middleweight champion in Bellator history hasn't lost, is losing to a consensus top 10 fighter like Souza that detrimental to Kennedy?
For me, Kennedy's loss to Souza carries more weight than Lombard running through the likes of Art Santore or Herbert Goodman; he may have lost, but he lost to an elite fighter, and he too would dispatch Santore and Goodman if given the chance.
But that is just one opinion, and there are many more on both sides.
No matter how much debating we do, there is really only one way to gauge where the elite talents competing outside of the UFC and Strikeforce would stack up against their Zuffa contemporaries and I don't see those fights happening any time soon.
Let the debate continue.