“Fighting a Russian sucks.”
MMA veteran Jimmy Smith famously deadpanned those words in the introduction to the documentary “Unrivaled: The Russian Invasion,” which profiles three Russian MMA standouts.
“It always sucks,” he continued. “If you’ve been in a gym and you have to spar a Russian fighter, it’s always horrible.”
Even just in the role of observer, I’d struggle to disagree with Smith. How many tough-as-nails fighters has Russia produced now? It’s one badass legacy.
Sure, plenty of places are known for their toughness. You’ve got the gritty, come-forward style of the Mexico’s all-time-greats, represented in MMA by the likes of Cain Velasquez. You’ve got the Japanese fighter who invokes the spirit of the samurai. There are the Brazilians who recall their great fighting tradition, proudly recalling Rodrigo Nogueira and Renzo Gracie refusing to tap out. And on and on…
But man. There’s something about Russia and their fighting greats. And, it seems it’s always been there.
There was something scary in the eyes of Igor Zinoviev and Oleg Taktarov back in the 90’s, and Emelianenko Fedor in the 2000’s.
And… there’s something special about Alexander Shlemenko, who enters the Bellator cage on Saturday in the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut to defend his Bellator Middleweight Championship.
For one, he’s a striker, and a nasty one at that — perhaps most memorably, hitting some of the nastiest body shots in MMA history in a one-sided victory over Bryan Baker in 2010. At 29 years of age, Shlemenko has recorded 47 MMA wins, and 28 by knockout. Maybe he reminds more of his fellow residents of the former Soviet Union, Ukrainian Igor Vovchanchyn, or Belorussian Andrei Arlovski in that way, rather than the Russian greats mentioned above. But…
He’s a disciplined athlete, for another. While Vovchanchyn was known to swing for the fences in a style I’d wager an athlete wouldn’t get away with today, and Arlovski famously was knocked cold by Fedor after trying a reckless flying knee — Shlamenko is different. Watch his bout against jiu-jitsu standout Vitor Vianna. He’s relentless in his pressure, but it is controlled. He starts slow, and then starts the beatdown.
In fact, Shlemenko isn’t just one of the top MMA fighters in the world, he may be on the way to laying claim to being one of the top coaches. (Sure, we haven’t seen successful coaches who are also active fighters in MMA in a while — but Pat Militech and Matt Hume did okay.) Shlemekno trains in Siberia where he captains “RusFighters,” a team which includes rising Bellator stars Andrey Koreshkov and Alexander Sarnavskiy.
“I have one advantage in the cage: Siberia,” Shlemenko boasts in his Spike TV promo video. “I train in the elements; in the wind and snow. When it’s 30 degrees below zero, I’m out there because it sharpens a man’s mind and body until he’s a razor in the cage. I hate the cold, but I love the heat of combat. I may not be the fastest or the strongest man, but I have one thing other men don’t: iron in my heart and soul.”
When Shlemenko takes the cage tomorrow against Brett Cooper, who is replacing an injured Doug Marshall tomorrow night, he’ll bring his devastating striking and always-improving grappling. But he’s bringing a spirit too — not just the frost of Siberia, but the legacy of Russia’s fighting men which seems to grow every year.
It’s a badass legacy. We’ll see how it evolves tomorrow night.