When an athlete stands out from his or her peers as a kind of “rare breed,” the whole world takes notice. Possessing raw talent and putting together a streak of success helps elevate their career to often unforeseen heights. When it happens before the athlete tests his talents against an elite level of competition, though, some might ask if that athlete is operating as a big fish inside of a small pond. The athlete might appear dominant, but could they achieve the same level of success on the biggest stage of all?

To this day, Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko serves as an example of a “rare breed.” After former Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard, who defeated Shlemenko in the Russian’s first Bellator title bid, departed for the UFC, many thought that it was only a matter of time before “Storm” entered that stage in his Bellator career where he finally proved to be leagues above the rest of the talent in Bellator.

Now, at first, it seems understandable to question who in their right mind would peg Shlemenko as a fighter who could challenge himself in the UFC, based on Lombard’s UFC track record alone. Lombard suffered losses in fights against Tim Boetsch and Yushin Okami at middleweight, with a knockout win over Rousimar Palhares sandwiched in between. Dominance in “the toughest tournament in sports” does not necessarily guarantee success inside the Octagon.

Still, has Shlemenko reached the point where we can now consider him another Lombard or Eddie Alvarez of the Bellator roster? In other words, is Shlemenko finally fitting the mold of a fighter who has proven all he can under the Bellator banner and deserves the chance to challenge himself in the UFC?

Let’s face reality for just a moment: Shlemenko lost to Lombard almost a full four years ago, but he’s demolished 12 men since that defeat, with seven of those wins coming inside the Bellator MMA cage. Of those seven victories, four ended in stoppages.

Consider how Shlemenko performed to earn the brunt of his current winning streak. By design, he mixes his strikes up very well, often leaving his foes unable to predict what attack will come next. But we know he can also break them down against the cage en route to a submission or a decision win.

Against Doug Marshall, Shlemenko forced the former WEC champion to work hard in defending takedowns and then drove “The Rhino” against the cage before executing his game plan of going to the body. Some guys don’t even try to attack the body, but Shlemenko targeted it as if Marshall had hidden something of value in there. Marshall held name value, arguably standing as one of the most well-known names Shlemenko has faced since the Lombard loss. Outside of 9-1 prospect Brennan Ward, who faces Shlemenko this weekend at Bellator 114, how many more legitimate threats can Bellator provide as opponents for Shlemenko before his contract runs out?

Sure, the promotion could tempt Shlemenko with the winner of Bellator’s season-10 middleweight tournament, which begins when Brett Cooper faces The Ultimate Fighter 3 middleweight winner Kendall Grove on the Bellator 114 undercard, but there comes a time when even “the toughest tournament in sports” cannot do enough to keep Shlemenko in the promotion. Unfortunately for Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, that time has arrived. Shlemenko proved himself ready to join the UFC’s “Russian invasion” long ago.

At the end of the day, however, it all goes back to three important questions. First, will Rebney begin to see that Shlemenko truly does hold the talent needed to compete with the consensus-best middleweights in the world before it’s too late? Second, when Shlemenko’s contract expires—and if he still holds the title at that time—will the UFC make a move towards “Storm,” knowing that he can and will prove himself as a problem for any UFC middleweight? Most importantly of all, when it comes time to announce that all-important career decision, will Shlemenko opt to accept the challenge that will come from working his way up to the top of the UFC middleweight division? Only time will provide us with the answers to those questions.

Shlemenko may like how things have played out for him up to this point in Bellator, but he would not argue his way out of a UFC contract. People still see him as a guy that can make waves if he signs with the world’s premier MMA league. With how Shlemenko dominated his foes in the Bellator middleweight division to the point where he eventually stood in a league all of his own, what would stop the man from creating the same outcome as part of the UFC middleweight division?

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.