Can tourney crop push Lombard?

If Hector Lombard chooses to re-sign with Bellator, which is no sure thing, his first fight under a new deal would likely take place against the winner of the promotion's current middleweight tournament.

"One of the things that I promised Hector I would do is dramatically enhance the qualitative level of the fighters that were competing to challenge him for the title," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney told me last week.

Since Lombard won the belt in 2009, only Alexander Shlemenko has challenged the Cuban. Otherwise, Trevor Prangley, Falaniko Vitale, Herbert Goodman and Jay Silva stood opposite Lombard (31-2-1) in non-title or catch-weight fights.

Has Rebney lived up to his word? Can he considering the realities at play?

Last week in this space I wrote that the biggest challenge Bellator faces is elevating fighters' relevance and prominence as compared to their counterparts in the UFC. There are forces working against that, not the least of which is the difficult task of selling Bellator as a place where fighters are continually tested by top-class competition.

Recognizing he's vested in Lombard's status, Rebeny believes he has under his promotional control the top middleweight in MMA -- placing him among a tiny contingent who'd dare to say such a thing with Anderson Silva still walking the earth.

Until Bellator provides promotional opportunities that call for that level of respect, however, Lombard can't get to the top no matter how many in a row he wins. Due mostly to a string of victories that date to 2007, the 34-year-old fighter is ranked No. 10 by ESPN.com at 185 pounds, but I have no problem saying based on the caliber of his opposition there's an argument against his inclusion on the list in the first place.

It's impossible to say know how good he is until he fights someone.

While Bruno Santos, Brian Rogers, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky and Maiquel Falcao appear, in one fashion or another, capable of providing the explosive champion with competitive matches, chances are high that regardless of who emerges, fans won't care much and media will continue to gloss over Lombard's place in the division.

I tend to doubt the current crop of potential challengers, which was whittled to four Friday, represent appreciable or perceptual improvements over Shlemenko. We'll have a better idea pending results of April 20's semifinals in Cleveland. But, again, the remaining fighters aren't ranked. None are known (expect perhaps for Falcao, and only because he fought once in the UFC and won). And, as I see it, none can totally deliver on Rebney's promise.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.