Alexander Shlemenko enjoys a good fight. It's a trite thing to say considering his chosen occupation, but even in a sport rife with brawlers and bruisers, Shlemenko's love extends far beyond the norm. By the end of his first year of professional competition, the steely Russian owned a 12-2 record. He had 50 fights to his name before the age of 28.
For better or worse, Shlemenko is just wired differently than most. It's what makes him so unpredictable inside the cage. Though it's also what causes him to consider the last two years of his life -- a period when Shlemenko fought just three times, ultimately capturing the vacant Bellator middleweight title -- as not the crowning moment of his career, but a struggle.
"It was a very, very difficult time for me," Shlemenko told MMAFighting.com through a translator. "It was extremely hard for me not to fight as often as I can. It was very disappointing for me. It was not my fault that I didn't fight for so long, so I hope in the future this will change and I will be able to fight more often and Bellator will provide me with such opportunities."
Circumstance played a big role in Shlemenko's inactivity. The Russian netted his second Bellator middleweight tourney title in November 2011. The victory meant a second chance at Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard, the only man to defeat Shlemenko this decade. It was the fight he wanted, but it never came to pass. First the date changed, then Lombard bolted for an ultra-lucrative contract with the UFC.
"I had to wait for the next tournament winner," Shlemenko said. "All this time I was sitting without a fight. It was [hard] for me. When I couldn't fight in Bellator, my manager, Alexei Zhernakov, he could arrange fights for me in Russia or some other country. But since I was a title contender, Bellator didn't allow me to do that.
"Of course I tried to do stuff to feed myself and my family. I did some seminars, I did some train work. However I can say that the situation was very difficult for me and I didn't like it at all. I really hope that Bellator will do everything to improve the situation so that it will never occur again."
Last month Bellator unveiled what it termed its Tournament Champion Replacement Clause. The provision, which essentially breaks the rigidity of the tournament format and allows Bellator officials to choose a replacement title challenger in the event injuries delay a champion's activity, was employed almost immediately to give Shlemenko his second opponent of 2013, Brett Cooper.
Shlemenko fought and defeated Cooper two years ago at Bellator 44, then trained alongside him off-and-on since. Though he admits it'd be more interesting for him to face someone he hadn't beaten before, Shlemenko isn't complaining. He just wants to fight. In a perfect world, that means a quick victory over Cooper on Saturday, then two more fights before the end of the year.
"I represent Bellator now. I can say that I am one of the top faces of Bellator. And I, for myself, would like to fight as often as possible," Shlemenko said. "Fighting in the (November 2nd) pay-per-view, of course it would be great, because it would the first. A historical event, the first pay-per-view by Bellator, and a lot of exciting fights are going to there.
"I see myself as one of the most exciting fighters that Bellator has."
Shlemenko isn't wrong. He prides himself on not just his desire to throw down every two months, but also the style in which he performs. Because in all honesty, that's what this is -- a performance. His contests often become a ballet of spinning strikes and flying knees. Violence at its most reckless, and violence at its finest.
To Shlemenko, there's simply no place for the wrestling-centric point-fighting prevalent in modern MMA.
"This type of ‘fighting,' if you wish, is sport. I can call it that: ‘sport.' It's not fighting," he said with a deadpan that would make Ivan Drago proud.
"A fight should be brutal; it should be a fight, a war. This is not fighting.
"This type of fighter, they're slowly killing MMA," Shlemenko continued. "They just kill the interest of people to mixed martial arts. People in the audience pay money to watch battles, to watch wars. Not to watch this type of 'sport' thing. I don't like this style at all and if I'm doing my best for my fights, they will be remembered, even if it's a spectacular loss."
When Shlemenko was a child, ushered inside due to the cold Russian snow, he remembers watching his first MMA matches on videotape. He always found himself rooting for the men who fought with reckless abandon and treated every moment like it was life or death. Now, the 29-year-old champion personifies the philosophy he grew up idolizing.
Shlemenko is a fighter who simply wants to fight. For some strange reason, lately it's a thirst that seems harder to quench. Perhaps Saturday's battle with Cooper will mark the beginning of a new flurry of activity for Shlemenko. But even if it doesn't, Shlemenko plans to make the most of it.
"It's going to be a very brutal and entertaining fight," he vowed. "Nobody in the audience will have the desire to fall asleep during this fight. People who'll be watching this fight, they shouldn't blink, because it'll be over in any second and they don't want to miss it."