It’s hard to identify exactly what it is about East Coast fighters taking on international superstars, but they have yet to put on a boring performance. The most prominent of the East Coast fighters has been Chris Weidman. After going 9-0 in the first three years of his pro career, the Long Islander took 2013 by storm with back-to-back knockouts of the world’s greatest fighter of all time, Anderson Silva.

Last night, fellow New Yorker Gian Villante put on a tough, although seriously winded, performance against heavy-hitting knockout artist Fabio Maldonado in a three-round war. Villante may have lost, but he put on one hell of a tough showing.

On Friday night, headlining the Bellator 114 card at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah, another relatively new East Coast fighter will take a shot at another international superstar.

Connecticut’s Brennan “The Irish Bad Boy” Ward was a standout wrestler at Waterford High School before moving on to become a three-time NCAA Division III All-American at Johnson and Wales University. Since first entering the cage in 2008, he has gone 9-1, including six appearances in Bellator. In November 2013, Ward won the Bellator season-nine middleweight tournament, earning him a shot at the Bellator middleweight title. He won the tournament after coming back from a rough first round to beat Mikkel Parlo by second-round TKO. Ward’s next opponent will be his toughest fight in his short history.

Russian phenom and current Bellator middleweight champion Alexander “Storm” Shlemenko has a lot more than 10 fights under his belt. After making his MMA debut in 2002 at the age of 19, he has racked up a 49-7 record, including winning a half dozen pankration tournaments, two Bellator tournaments and his Bellator strap, which he has since defended twice. Shlemenko’s background is in Russian hand-to-hand combat, and his record speaks for itself. With 29 knockouts and seven submissions, he is dangerous anywhere the fight goes.

Bellator’s tournament system is designed to send deserving fighters into title shots, but this one could be a serious mismatch on paper. However, Ward is a tough-as-nails brawler, and, as Weidman proved twice last year, the East Coast fighters are not to be counted out.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up, and as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Shlemenko – 10, Ward – 9

Ward trains out of Whaling City Boxing in Connecticut and Jorge Rivera’s gym in Massachusetts, so he has a solid background in striking training, but he hasn’t been doing it nearly as long as Shlemenko. He has six knockouts on his record, but most have been battering TKO stoppages. His one full-on knockout was over a very poor striker in Sam McCoy, who just turtled up for most of the fight and got pummeled until he was out.

Shlemenko is an extremely talented striker. Outside of his 29 total knockouts, he finished two of his last three opponents by KO, including a crushing body blow to a steroid-laden Doug Marshall that finished his last fight in the first round.

Shlemenko is a dynamic striker with good lateral movement and several different angles. Ward is a strong brawler who replies on forward-pressing movement and heavy hands. Ward may have a puncher’s chance against anyone else, but Shlemenko has a solid chin that was on display in his five-round war with Hector Lombard. This poses a serious problem for the 25-year-old Connecticut native, because Shlemenko doesn’t just get knocked out.

If this fight stays in the striking realm, Shlemenko should either knockout or, at least, outpoint Ward.

Submission Grappling: Shlemenko – 10, Ward – 9

Neither Shlemenko nor Ward are really known for their submission expertise, but both possess solid grappling backgrounds. Ward has been conducting his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training at Tim Burrill BJJ in Rhode Island. Shlemenko’s RusFighters camp is a fully well-rounded camp in which fighters are trained to be opportunistic. First in mind for Shlemenko is to beat his opponents down, but when there’s an opening, he won’t hesitate to apply the sub.

Most notable is the fact that Shlemenko’s two submission losses came in his fourth fight, nearly 10 years ago, and against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, the most dangerous submission artist in all of MMA. Ward’s sole loss was by submission in a very quick tap to an armbar a little over a year ago.

Ward’s two submission wins were by guillotine and rear-naked chokes, which are the go-to finishes for wrestlers turned MMA fighters. Shlemenko has finished with those two chokes, but he has also ended fights with triangles and, in his last submission win, a standing guillotine. Shlemenko has demonstrated a better arsenal on the ground.

The gap in skills in the submission department may be smaller than in the realm of striking, but Shlemenko is still the superior fighter in this category.

Wrestling: Shlemenko – 10, Ward – 10

Before his fighting career, Shlemenko was a Greco-Roman wrestler in his teens. As a pro fighter, he has trained with some of the best Russian wrestlers. Shlemenko is very difficult to take down, but he rarely goes for takedowns himself. Once he is down, he is very difficult to keep there. His clinch is sick, and he has finished many opponents with his close-range knees and punching attacks.

As previously noted, Ward has a tremendous wrestling pedigree and his MMA game is very wrestling-oriented. He drives in with his hands to set up takedown attempts and is very powerful on the mat. Even though Ward has yet to face anyone as good at MMA-centric wrestling as Shlemenko, the Russian will need to be on his toes with this kid, because his takedowns are pretty effective, and once he gets there, he lays heavy leather.

More than any other category, the wrestling game is a toss-up, given that both men have serious wrestling skills.

Aggressiveness: Shlemenko – 10, Ward – 10

Both of these fighters are very aggressive, but in different ways. Ward is a quick, forward-pressing starter, whereas Shlemenko is a light-on-his-feet lateral mover with quick and powerful counterattacks. Both men are also very good at counters and follow-ups. This will be a don’t-blink fight where both men headhunt from the opening round.

Stamina: Shlemenko – 10, Ward – 9

Wrestlers are known for their stamina, but as Villante showed last night, striking takes a lot more out of them than they tend to think. Ward will need to be careful. He has only been to decision once, and that was two years ago. If Shlemenko, who has been to decision 17 times, including a five-round war with Brett Cooper in September, pushes this fight late into the third round or beyond, the American may be in big trouble. For Shlemenko, championship rounds are a “been there, done that” type of affair. For Ward, those rounds are new territory. The champ is not the guy Ward wants as his first test in these waters.

X-factor

The biggest x-factor in this battle, as in most of Shlemenko’s fights, is experience. In Shlemenko’s decade as a pro fighter, he has literally seen everything, and he has only been stopped three times. Ward may have that fire-in-the-belly attitude of a successful up-and-comer, but Shlemenko has already seen that. Ward may have a great wrestling pedigree, but Shlemenko has already seen that. Ward may hit hard, but not harder than Lombard, and Shlemenko went five rounds with that guy.

Everything Ward has to offer in this fight, Shlemenko has seen from someone else who’s been at least as good as Ward, if not better. Shlemenko’s experience is going to make this a very difficult fight for “The Irish Bad Boy.”

Total: Shlemenko – 50, Ward – 47

Verdict: It would be very easy to say that Shlemenko will easily knock out Ward early in the fight, but Ward has taken some hard shots early in a couple of his previous fights and demonstrated his ability to recover. What Ward has not been able to showcase is the ability to go deep into a fight with a man of the champ’s caliber.

Shlemenko will enter this fight knowing that he can drag it into the fourth round and easily stop a winded Ward, but that’s a big chance to take on a young guy who may end up having a deeper gas tank than previously thought. Shlemenko has been around long enough to know that Ward will take a couple hard shots, try to get it to the ground and finish him with heavy hands. Shlemenko will simply not let that happen. Look for the Russian to come out landing shots, stuffing takedown attempts and grinding on the East Coast fighter before ultimately catching him with a nasty counter to end this one by referee stoppage.

Shlemenko by second-round TKO.

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator