On Saturday night, Alexander Shlemenko defended his middleweight title against Brett Cooper at Bellator 98. That’s one way of saying it. Another is: Alexander Shlemenko survived a bloody back-and-forth war against Brett Cooper in what was a heathen’s classic, fraught with blood and guts and impossible determination, where bearings were scrambled and games plans were fleeting and white towels were never thrown.
Depends on how you look at it.
The battle between Shlemenko and the fill-in Cooper was a lot of things. If you have a bias against Bellator, it probably was a sloppy out-and-out bar brawl with zero technique and even less consequence. Most likely you didn’t even bother to watch it if you’re in this camp. In this case, you have an alibi: Michigan/Notre Dame was going on at the same time.
Yet if you’re somebody who enjoys a fight based on mettle, ability, chin, heart, Adam’s apple and a zombie’s ability to keep moving forward with limbs dangling, this one was for you. There was nothing not to like about its violent plot, in which both men where buckled and left for dead on several glorious occasions, and the Russian’s spinning backfists kept coming. Cooper, who had lost to Shlemenko back in his "wild" early days in 2011 when, as Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney says, he fought "exacerbated bar fights," was going to "go out on his shield."
That’s what we want from "gladiators." We want "nothing to lose."
Gladiators swing for the fences even as they are falling. Turns out gladiators exist in other promotions other than the UFC, too. They lay it on the line under other banners. The bearded Cooper (who nobody cared wasn’t Doug Marshall) brought Shlemenko (shark-eyed and ruthless) all he could handle, and lost a narrow (perhaps even controversial) unanimous decision in a five-round fight: 48-47, 48-47, 48-47.
There was so much to admire.
Every now and again Cooper would take a punch that would (re)activate the singlet that Mark Munoz put him in, and shoot for a takedown. Sometimes he’d get it. Meantime there was thwarting and uppercuts and dirty boxing and counter-bombs. After getting dinged, Shlemenko would literally dig his heels in and lunge forward with a sally of punches (some of which would land to places like the temple, also known as the "black spot," yet Cooper wouldn’t fall). In the interstices, the pale Omsk creature would throw up his hands as if to say "I’m still here." It was existential. Cooper would respond.
He, too, was alive.
If Shlemenko/Cooper had happened as a UFC main event, nobody would have cared that defense was scarce, or that technique was barely in evidence (even though both those accusations would be imaginative). Today, we’d be putting Greek laurel wreaths on both Shlemenko and Cooper’s swollen, bruised up heads in a Monday morning warrior coronation. But that it happened in the dimmer lit Bellator cage means, somehow, this battle of attrition came at discount prices. Which is a shame. Sitting cageside, and hearing the exchanges as they landed -- the leather audibly decompressing with every blow and yet each man absorbing them and carrying on -- was really something.
If for no other reason than it had no reason to be so good. It was meant to be a patchwork main event on a card that had so ridiculously fallen apart. But just as Matt Grice and Dennis Bermudez crawled out of the woodwork to give us a classic fight, so did Cooper and Shlemenko.
Or they didn’t. Depends on how you look at it. Or if you did at all.