Alexander Sarnavskiy's coming out party will have to wait.
Salty veteran Rich Clementi proved he's still got plenty of fight left in him and utilized superior grappling to earn a split decision over the heavily hyped Russian.
Clementi joined Dave Jansen, Marcin Held and Ricardo Tirloni in the semifinals of Bellator's season 7 lightweight tournament, which kicked off on the main card of Friday's Bellator 77 event at Reading Eagle Theater in the Sovereign Center in Reading, Pa.
Sarnavskiy went right after Clementi with straight punches and leg kicks as Clementi bobbed and weaved. A spinning back kick from Sarnavskiy sent Clementi reeling back, prompting a smile from the vet. But a spinning backfist from the Russian was anything but funny, and Clementi drove the fight to the mat. He quickly climbed on Sarnavskiy's back, where the Russian looked to control his hands.
With gravity taking effect, Clementi unloaded punches as Sarnavskiy hung tight and occasionally threw a punch upward. Sarnavskiy eventually made a mistake and allowed Clementi to snake an arm around his neck, and the two went backward to the mat. A rear-naked choke looked cinched for Clementi as Sarnavskiy pushed bridged with his legs. But possibly before going unconscious, Sarnavskiy peeled off an arm and escaped.
"I was praying to God, please let me finish this quick," Clementi said afterward. "But he's a tough, tough dude."
Clementi caught a left hand getting lazy as the second started, and after a few more close calls took the fight to the mat with ease. Against the cage, he worked to smother Sarnavskiy, who attempted to scramble away. Again, Clementi took the back, and the two settled in for another battle of hands with three minutes remaining.
Sarnavskiy would repeatedly try to sit up, and Clementi would pull him back to contend with his arms. Locking in a body triangle, Clementi stayed patient as Sarnavskiy again winged punches backward. In a momentary lapse of control, Sarnavskiy spun out of back control and evaded a quick armbar. He attempted to work ground and pound but found himself tied up as the round closed. A questionable standup from referee Mario Yamasaki brought the two back to their feet, where Clementi caught a wild punch and kick to the face as the round expired.
Sarnavskiy let his hands go early and caught a right hand. But in a wild exchange, he caught a punch that momentarily dropped him. When he pursued for the finish, Clementi worked for a leglock, momentarily stalling the Russian. Sitting in Clementi's guard, Sarnavskiy looked to posture and land strikes as his opponent countered with a kimura. After eating a few short punches, Clementi locked up a rubber guard as Sarnavskiy continued to punch.
Yamasaki didn't see enough, though, and a standup saw a quick takedown attempt for Clementi, who wound up on bottom. Standing again, Sarnavskiy landed big shots and twice put Clementi on his back. The second saw Clementi scramble to top position, where Sarnavskiy threatened with a triangle as the final round ended.
Waiting for the decision, the previously stoic Sarnavskiy looked distinctly nervous.
In the end, two judges awarded Clementi's early lead with 29-28 scores while the third dissented for Sarnavskiy, 29-28.
"One thing about this ring, it does not lie," Clementi said of his win, which spoiled the American debut of the undefeated Sarnavskiy, whose signing to Bellator was announced with a massive press conference in his home country. "You can hype and do whatever, but it all comes out when the door shuts."
Clementi (45-21-1 MMA, 2-1 BFC) now enjoys a three-fight win streak and ticket to the semifinals of Bellator's current lightweight tourney. Sarnavskiy (20-1 MMA, 0-1 BFC) suffers the first loss of his career in 21 pro outings.