Former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko (53-9, 1 NC) makes his return to the promotion after 20 months away when he takes on Kendall Grove (23-15, 1 NC) in Friday's main event of Bellator 162 (Spike TV/ESPN Deportes, 9 p.m. ET).
After Shlemenko's most recent win with the promotion in February 2015, a highlight-reel KO of Melvin Manhoef that was later changed to a no contest, the California State Athletic Commission suspended the 32-year-old Russian for three years and fined him by $10,000 for testing positive for anabolic steroids.
He filed a lawsuit against the CSAC last fall, and the suspension was eventually lifted and fine cut in half in July via a California Superior Court decision. ESPN.com spoke with "Storm" about the ruling, the return bout with Grove, his student-teacher relationship with Bellator welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov and whom he'd prefer to fight between Chael Sonnen and Rory MacDonald.
In the statement you issued after your suspension was lifted, you maintained your innocence regarding the drug test after the Manhoef fight. Do you plan to continue battling the no-contest, or are you just moving on with your career?
I think it is hopeless. It is hopeless to fight the commission, so no. I decided this situation is behind me. And I have much better things to do. I think and I know that my win against Manhoef was 100 percent clear and honest victory.
During the suspension, you were able to fight twice in your home country of Russia. What was that experience like for you?
I am very glad the commission and Bellator gave me this opportunity, gave me permission to fight in Russia. During this period of time, when I couldn't compete in the U.S., I was able to stay active. It was a good test for me, because both times I fought Vyacheslav Vasilevsky, who's a very tough fighter, a good fighter, and the fact that I beat him, it brings joy to me.
It's been a while since the American market has seen you in action. Do you feel you need to make a statement against Grove?
Yes. Definitely I need to make a statement. Specially that during that period of time that I wasn't able to fight in the States, I put up a great amount of work in the gym. I changed all the things in my preparation, in my fighting style. I want to test it myself and want to show it to the public. I want to show it to the fans.
Grove will have a sizable height and reach advantage in this bout. Without giving away your game plan, do you feel comfortable that you'll be able to find your range to strike with him?
To be frank with you, I've never fought anybody who is as tall as Kendall, but I have a feeling that everything will work out really well for me.
When you and your team scout him on tape, what strengths and weaknesses do you see that you can plan to exploit?
It is really difficult to speak about his weak side because his strong side is obvious, his ground game and his boxing. He's a really well rounded guy, but I think that I will be able to find his weaknesses.
Since your last fight with Bellator, a new middleweight champion has been crowned in Rafael Carvalho. What are your thoughts on the division, is it tougher than it was when you first went away?
It's difficult to evaluate the division right now. What I can say, I think that Carvalho lost that fight to Manhoef and I think that Melvin is supposed to be the champion right now.
In your last fight in America, you delivered that highlight-reel knockout to Manhoef. With a victory over Grove, do you feel you should be in line for a title shot?
I don't know, it's up to Bellator actually. I can just tell you one thing, I want to fight often. I am ready to fight once every two months. It doesn't matter for me if it's going to be a title fight or not because I know that I am going to beat them all.
Bellator has made splashes in free agency by signing MacDonald and Sonnen. Would fights with either of them interest you in the future?
I would rather fight Rory MacDonald rather than Chael because with Chael we trained together and I know him personally. That's why I don't really want to fight him. Of course if Bellator put us against each other I would fight him, but it's not something that I want to. But with Rory I would really want to fight against him.
How long ago did you train with Sonnen?
It was two or three years ago at Reign [Training Center] in California. It was just a few practices but we bonded.
Your protégé Koreshkov has a title fight a few weeks after your bout. How much time have you spent with him to prepare for your own fight?
We always train together because he's my student so I prepare myself for the fight and I also prepare him for this fight. He came with me as one of my corners so he continues his preparations here so I can watch him training and I can make sure I coach him.
Do you get more out of winning a fight yourself or seeing your student do well inside the cage?
It's way easier to prepare and fight yourself rather than prepare, coach, and see your student fight. In this connection, the joy is actually much higher when your student wins. I am more than just a coach to him, more than just a friend. I actually feel, I am like a father to him. Also when he fights, his wins bring me more pleasure than my own.