It's never easy being the unbeaten and much-hyped prospect.
That feeling multiplies when the greatest mixed martial artist in your proud country's history, Fedor Emelianenko, has just hung up his gloves for good. Someone has to try to pick up the mantle where he left off.
That's the type of pressure 20-0 Russian lightweight phenom Alexander "Tiger" Sarnavskiy faces every time he steps into the cage against a new opponent, but he's handling it extremely well thus far.
"Tiger" is aware of the expectations, but he's got lofty goals of his own. In fact, he plans on being known as the greatest lightweight fighter in the world.
His journey to that goal begins tomorrow night (Oct. 19, 2012) when the RusFighter steps into the cage against UFC veteran Rich Clementi in the main event of Bellator 77 in Reading, Pennsylvania for the quarterfinals of the Bellator season seven lightweight tournament.
Sarnavskiy spoke with MMAmania.com (translated) about his impending Bellator debut, his desire to be the best in the world and the pressure to carry Fedor Emelianenko's torch in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Are you here to teach America how to be manly again?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: (laughs) I think for American MMA fighters, I can say they are all very manly. Most of them have no fear when they fight so I think there is no problem of this type in the US with MMA fighters.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You always walk out to "Eye of the Tiger." Are you a Rocky fan or is that more in reference to your nickname?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: Of course I like the movie but mostly I use that as my walkout music because of my nickname.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You have a twin sister. Do you have a connection where she feels it if you get hit really hard?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: (laughs) Well first of all, a small correction. There are two Russian terms. Twins means two kids born on the same day and they look very similar, look alike. We were born on the same date but we don't look similar so there is another term for that.
Yes, we have a connection. I can't say that she feels something when I get hit but she feels when I'm nervous before my fight. She cannot sleep even when I'm in the United States and she's back in Russia. A few days before the fight when I try to concentrate and I'm nervous and trying to think about the fight and stuff like that, I know that she also can't sleep at this moment and can tell I'm nervous. She feels that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Now when you get nervous before your fights, what calms you down or do you use that nervous energy for your fights?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: I think it's very hard to explain. For a person who never fought professionally in the ring or cage it would be very difficult to understand. However, I can say that of course, I'm a human. I'm a normal person and I feel the pressure before each of my fights but when I step in the cage and the doors of the cage are locked and I feel that it is only myself and my opponent in the cage, at this moment I feel that I don't have any nerves. I calm down and I just do my best to win. Up until that moment when I step into the cage, of course I am nervous about fighting and everything but once those doors are locked, the sound of the cage doors when they are locked calms me down immediately and I just fight my best.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Did you do any training in America heading into fight or did you do everything with your RusFighter team over in Omsk, Russia?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: Well, for the most part, the preparation for this bout was done in my hometown of Omsk, Russia but then I came to the US on September 22nd and so did Andrey Koreshkov so I could acclimate for my first fight in Bellator. I've been training there with my teammates and my coach Alexander Shlemenko arrived about a week and a half ago. He joined our camp and we've had great preparation because all my teammates and coaches are here.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you plan on staying in the United States for the duration of the tournament or are you going to be going back and forth?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: If I perform to my capabilities on Friday night, I plan to stay here in the US until the end of the tournament. because the time between Russia is like a 14 hours time difference and it's different weather, food and everything. For this, I prefer to stay here.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): With so many Russians in the tournaments this season, what do you think about Bellator having the deal with the R2 network in Russia which allows so many people back home to be able to watch you fight?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: First of all, I'd like to say that R2 is the biggest sport channel in Russia. It's really big and I'm very thankful to my manager who helped Bellator and R2 to make this deal. Thanks to the other Russian fighters who are able to compete in Bellator and being able to have Russian fans be able to watch Bellator events live. It adds a huge amount of responsibility to all the Russian fighters because literally millions of people in Russia are watching us live and we cannot let them down. We will do our best. We do everything to win our fights and not let down our Russian fans who are watching.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I've heard that you were in the military for several years in the combat program. Was that what helped you make the transition to MMA?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: I would like to make myself clear here. I actually didn't have military training. I fought in the combat sport called arm combat fighting but it doesn't mean I served in the military. It was like amateur MMA. Fighters wore headgear and basic MMA gloves and shin guards but at the same time elbows were allowed so it was a tough sport. I was glad that I was able to compete in it for a couple years before I started my professional MMA career. I think it just helped me to become a better striker and kickboxer and adapt both physically and mentally for my future fights in MMA. Also, while in the arm combat fighting, that's where I met my coach Alexander Shlemenko and he helped me make the transition from arm combat fighting to traditional MMA because he made the same transition about 6-7 years earlier than myself.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What motivates you?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: Well, I devote most of my time and a big part of my life to my training. I want to be the best at what I'm doing. I want to be the best lightweight fighter in the world. That's what motivates me. That's what motivates me to go to the gym at the start of the day and that's what makes me fight to the end. I don't just want to be competitive in this sport. I want to be the best.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): With the retirement of Fedor Emelianenko, do you feel any pressure at all to pick up where he left off and carry the mantle of the great Russian fighters into the future?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: I think that I'm not speaking just for myself but for all the Russian fighters that all of them feel this pressure that we have to keep things up, have to keep it going and we cannot drop the ball. We have to keep winning especially fighting here in America representing our country, representing Russia in one of the most elite MMA markets of the world. To answer your question, yes. All the Russian fighters feel this pressure and we will try to keep it up with our fans from our country much further for many years.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Your upcoming opponent Rich Clementi is very experienced. He just said that he's made a career out of handing prospects their first loss. What do you think about that?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: He can say anything he wants. That's his right. After our fight, we shall see if he put his money where his mouth was. He can say whatever he wants to but we can only judge his words after the fight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Some of your critics have said that your striking is too flashy or even sloppy and reckless at times. What do you think about that and have you put in work to be more technical?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: Maybe it is true. Maybe sometimes I used to start my fight like right away and I tried to finish my opponents way too fast but maybe it was because I didn't have enough experience and I just too aggressive wanting to finish my opponents too fast.
Speaking on my upcoming fight against Rich Clementi, usually he fights as a counter-puncher type of striker and I want him to fight my fight. I want to get in his face in the fight and I want to be aggressive enough because if I let him set the pace of the fight that could give him an advantage. What I want to do is I want to be aggressive in the fight and I don't want him to breathe. I don't want to give him even a split second to think, to evaluate the situations, to take a breath. I want to pressure him all the time so he will never feel himself safe.
I know he's an experienced and tough opponent but I know if you put the pressure on him, he tends to either break mentally or he starts making mistakes. That's what's on my mind.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): If everything you just said works and you fight your fight the way you want, how would you like it to finish?
Alexander Sarnavskiy: Well, of course I want to finish him in the first round in spectacular fashion by knockout but I am sure and confident that Rich has watched tapes of my fights. He's studied me and he's a smart, intelligent and skilled fighter and I think he prepared for me and he will try not to make mistakes and find weak marks in my game. I don't think it will be an easy fight, not an easy fight at all. I cannot get into my opponents head and see what he's thinking so I'm going to do what I'm going to do. I have my gameplan and I'm going to put the pressure on him and try to knock him out.
Alexander Sarnavskiy: I think Michael Chandler is one of the 10 best fighters. He's very tough. He's very good on the ground, good at taking down and has great hands. He's very entertaining to watch. I really look forward to his next fight against Rick Hawn who won the previous tournament. I think it's gonna be a very exciting fight. I think he's a great fighter.
Alexander would like to thank his manager Alexei Zhernakov for making this possible, his coach Alexander Shlemenko for preparing him and his fans for supporting him and he will try not to let you down.
So what do you think, Maniacs?
Are you impressed with Sarnavskiy's attitude about his upcoming tournament? Do you feel he has what it takes to reach his goal of being the best in the world?
Special thanks to Leland Roling for contributing some questions to this interview