For a man with more than 60 pro fights and multiple world titles to his credit, Alexander Shlemenko sure has a chip on his shoulder.
The former Bellator MMA middleweight champion has been unable to compete in the United States since early 2015 due to a steroid suspension enacted by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). He'll make his return to the Bellator cage Friday night against Kendall Grove in the main event of Bellator 162 in Memphis.
"Psychologically, it was a very difficult moment for me," Shlemenko told MMA Fighting. "So now I have to overcome it and I have to come back and I have to prove once and for all for everyone who's ever doubted me and I have to take back everything that was taken from me, everything that was mine."
Shlemenko failed an in-competition drug test in relation to his Bellator 133 main event bout with Melvin Manhoef in February 2015. "Storm" tested positive for the steroid oxandrolone and had an astronomic testosterone-to-epitestosterone level of 50:1, one of the largest in MMA history. Shlemenko's second-round knockout victory was overturned into a no contest.
CSAC initially suspended Shlemenko three years and fined him $10,000, but the Russian fighter fought the sanctions in Los Angeles Superior Court and won. A judge determined that because Shlemenko was initially told he was only facing a year suspension, he was able to get licensed again beginning back in February. The fine was also bumped down to $5,000.
Shlemenko, 32, maintains that he never took performance-enhancing drugs and called the CSAC hearing "a joke."
"The most difficult part for me was that I was suspended, I was punished for something that I've never done," he said. "Something I didn't do."
Shlemenko (53-9, 1 NC) did fight twice since February 2015, defeating Vyacheslav Vasilevsky twice for the M-1 promotion in Russia. International events typically don't have commission sanctioning and are not required to honor a suspension by a U.S. governing body.
But Shlemenko said where he really wants to be in Bellator and his aim is to get back the middleweight title he lost to Brandon Halsey by submission in just 35 seconds back in 2014.
"Right now, my No. 1 priority is to have a very exciting comeback," Shlemenko said. "I want to remind everyone about myself. I want to remind everyone what type of fighter I am.
"After that, of course. I want my belt back."
The current Bellator middleweight champion is Rafael Carvalho, who defeated Halsey for the belt last year and defended the title against Manhoef via controversial split decision in May. Shlemenko watched that fight and, like many, thought Manhoef won.
"I can beat him," Shlemenko said of Carvalho. "Stylistically, he's very comfortable for me, because he's a striker. I'm a better striker than he is. Also, when he fought Melvin Manhoef, I think it was a terrible decision. Manhoef was supposed to win the fight and Manhoef was supposed to be the champion. It was up to the judges, so [Carvalho is] the champ."
Shlemenko could get a title shot relatively soon in a thin Bellator 185-pound division, but he won't undersell Grove, a crafty veteran with UFC experience. More than anything, though, Shlemenko feels like he must make a statement, give everyone a reminder that he was once considered one of Bellator's best — and most exciting — fighters.
"Storm" has something to prove.
"Not just for the audience," Shlemenko said. "Not just for the fans. But for myself as well."