US athletes declining fights in Russia for fear of arrest, MMA fighter claims 

Former Bellator MMA fighter Alexander Shlemenko has not been able to find an American opponent since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

By: Karim Zidan | 2 months ago
US athletes declining fights in Russia for fear of arrest, MMA fighter claims 
Russia: MMA event RCC 13 in Yekaterinburg, Russia (Credit: IMAGO / Sipa USA)

Alexander Shlemenko—the veteran Russian MMA fighter and former middleweight champion for the U.S. based Bellator MMA—has claimed that American fighters are “afraid” to accept fights in Russia due to the perceived risk of arbitrary arrest.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Shlemenko revealed that he has been unable to secure a fight with a U.S. based competitor over the past year and that his options for opposition has decreased significantly since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

“My fight is planned in just a week,” Shlemenko said during the press conference. “There were negotiations with American fighters but many simply did not want to come. They are afraid that they will be caught here and be put in prison.”

Shlemenko, who began his professional career in 2004, was Bellator middleweight champion between 2013-14 until he lost the title to Brandon Halsey at Bellator 126. He has since fought at various Russian promotions, including M-1 Global and Russian Cage-fighting Championship (RCC). He won the M-1 Global Middleweight Grand Prix in 2016 and spent another brief stint in Bellator before returning to compete in his homeland. He has since been completing on the local circuit since 2018 and is 3-2-1 in his last six fights. 

The 38-year-old is scheduled to face Swiss fighter Yasubey Enomoto in a kickboxing bout on April 21, 2023. He is also expected to compete against Brazil’s Alex Oliveira in July, 2023. 

Last week, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested by Russian authorities on charges of espionage. He has since been declared “wrongfully detained” by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Gershkovich was reportedly arrested in Yekaterinburg, where he was investigating the Wagner private mercenary group. 

Gershkovich’s arrest was the first time that a U.S. journalist was arrested in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War. The arrest was reportedly approved by President Vladimir Putin himself. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it wasn’t Putin’s decision but was “the total prerogative of the special services. They were doing their job.” 

Gershkovich’s arrest was the latest example of a U.S. citizen being detained in the Russian Federation since the start of the war in Ukraine. Last year, basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested on smuggling charges when Russian customs authorities allegedly found cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison but was eventually released on Dec. 8, 2022 in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. 

Meanwhile, Shlemenko is also included in a list of of 56 athletes that Ukraine’s parliament approved for economic sanctions in December 2022. The list was comprised of athletes who “systematically and actively support the war against Ukraine, legitimize the military invasion and genocide of Ukrainians by the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”

Shlemenko’s inclusion in the list is likely due to his staunch support for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, as well as the pro-war propaganda videos he has published from his gym in Omsk. 

One such video was titled: “I am Russian. We are Russian. We are one nation. We are invincible.”

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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