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After 60 pro fights, Alexander Shlemenko gives reincarnation a try

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Bellator

One of the better fights of 2013 was the darkly lit basher’s ball that Alexander Shlemenko and Brett Cooper put on at Bellator 98 at the Mohegan Sun. Both guys stood in the pocket chin-checking for five magnificent rounds, with no detectable regard for self-preservation, each turning the tables on the other ever so often.

That’s why Shlemenko’s main event against the notorious headhunter Melvin Manhoef on Friday night at Bellator 133 feels like a guilty temptation. If both guys decide to stand in front of each other -- which they will, you know they will -- heads will roll. 

The fight with Cooper was Shlemenko’s 55th pro fight, and his first middleweight title defense in Bellator, having knocked out Maiquel Falcao exactly seven months earlier. The Russian would defend the title twice more against Doug Marshall -- who Cooper was a late replacement for that night in Uncasville -- and Brennan Ward, before he stepped in the cage against Tito Ortiz last May.

That fight, which was contested at light heavyweight under carnival-like conditions, didn’t go his way. It was his next fight, though, the one against Brandon Halsey in September where he lost his belt, that the Russian fighter figuratively left his body.

"The only thing those two losses have in common is that, when I lost to Ortiz, I didn’t correct my mistakes after that fight," he tells MMA Fighting through an interpreter. "I thought, that’s not my weight class, that’s all. So when I entered the next fight with Halsey, basically I came to the fight with the same attitude as I did to the Tito Ortiz fight.

"But my loss to Halsey, man -- I can say that I died in that fight. And now I feel reborn as a fighter. I corrected all my mistakes, I worked hard after that, I changed my diet and everything. I can’t wait to show the world."

Being 30 years old and having 60 professional fights is a hell of a place to start over from. But with Shlemenko, who brings his young daughter to the fights, nothing has ever been altogether conventional.

And part of what there is to love about Shlemenko (51-9) is his willingness to fight at the drop of a hat. Yes he lost his title to Halsey in September, but he eased the memory of it by beating Yasubey Enomoto in a side gig at Fight Nights: The Battle of Moscow 18 in December. Less than two months later, Shlemenko will mix it up with Manhoef, who himself has been busy between fighting in Glory and Bellator.

This one is for fight lovers. And it’s for fighters who just can’t fight enough for their own liking.

"I love to compete as often as possible," Shlemenko says. "And I’m capable. I’m always in shape, and I’m always training. For me, if you take a look at my career, I used to fight very often. Before getting my Bellator title I used to fight like six times per year. And I love it, and would like to keep this pace. I really hope to keep this pace in the future. I hope Bellator will give me the chance to fight that often."

It’s doubtful (and impossible) the new Scott Coker era of Bellator will afford Shlemenko six fights a year, but that sort of enthusiasm is hard to come by for a fighter of his caliber. Even when he was the champion, Shlemenko wanted to stay busier than he was. And now as a contender making his way back to Halsey, he talks as if he’s bursting at the seams to accelerate things.

Part of that comes from the sting of coughing up his title in a fight that he never truly competed in. He was submitted via rear-naked choke just 35 seconds into the fight at Bellator 126.

"I was very upset that I lost the belt, but the thing that upsets me the most isn’t that I lost it, but how I did it," he says. "It wasn’t even a struggle. It wasn’t even a fight. I lost without showing anything. I didn’t have time to show anything, and that’s what makes me feel so bad about things."

In the wake of that loss, Shlemenko found himself turning to his idol, Fedor Emelianenko. Not so much for a pep talk, but to re-observe his stoical demeanor in defeat.

"I can say that Fedor, he always kind of helps me, because he’s an example not only in how he wins, but in how he dealt with his losses as well," he says. "After my loss, what I did was look at his old interviews after his losses. And when I did, I looked at them with a completely different set of eyes, and I understood him completely different. Because now I was in the same position as Fedor was in, and I didn’t understand that before. But after my loss, I understood it. I understand what he meant with his words. And that really helped me. I am very thankful for that."

And thankful, too, that he was dealt Manhoef next, a fighter tailor-made for his brand of fighting. Manhoef knows that Shlemenko has only been stopped once via knockout in his entire career. Of course, Shlemenko knows that Manhoef knows, and -- in this new incarnation, same as the old -- it excites him to think of his own head as a rare collectible. 

"I think that my fight with Melvin, I think it’s a great idea by Bellator and the Bellator matchmakers," he says. "I think this fight won’t leave anybody, any fan uninterested. Everybody will look forward to this fight, because you won’t see a stalemate. You won’t see two guys trying to win on points. You will see two guys who will literally try to kill each other in this fight. That’s what makes it a great fight."