Photo of Andrey Koreshkov courtesy of Bellator.com.
For the past month or so, there's been a chubby, bald hole in everyone's hearts, one originally filled by a certain badass Russian cyborg with a tendency to turn faces into broken bags of cartilage and pain. After knocking out Pedro Rizzo in extremely short order, Fedor Emelianenko announced the end of his 12-year mixed martial arts (MMA) career, leaving the Russian combat sports scene without a true flagbearer.
Nowadays, while Khabib Nurmagomedov is doing well in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the most recognizable fighter from that nation is most likely Alexander Shlemenko, who came out of nowhere to win two consecutive Bellator tournaments and give champion Hector Lombard his toughest fight in years.
After a car wreck, however, Shlemenko has been forced to sit out for a while, but is returning soon against Anthony Ruiz (after which he will presumably face recent winner Maiquel Falcao). Still, while he's a fantastically-entertaining and very skilled fighter, he can't quite measure up to his legendary countryman and neither can the admittedly-impressive Vyacheslav Vasilevsky.
That's the reason Bellator found three more guys who just might.
Follow me after the jump for a look at three of the brightest MMA prospects out of the world's largest country:
Undefeated (2-0) in Bellator, Koreshkov has looked downright lethal in the cage, showcasing murderous hands and surprisingly-sound takedown defense. Like the aforementioned Shlemenko, Koreshkov fights out of RusFighters Sports Club. And while he doesn't share his teammate's borderline-obsession with spinning attacks, he's more than happy to bust them out if the situation arises.
Koreshkov won his division in Pankration at the 2010 World Combat Games and is widely regarded as the best upcoming prospect in the Welterweight division. He's got a boatload of talent, impressive skill despite his age and fights out of a great camp.
Keep an eye out for him in the next welterweight tourney -- you won't be disappointed.
Watch Koreshkov in Action:
After having his negotiating rights effectively held hostage by M-1 Global, Sarnavskiy finally managed to break away and sign with Bellator just a month ago. Before that, he had fought five times in 2011 alone.
Admittedly, Sarnavskiy hasn't fought the toughest opponents (a December showdown with TUF: "Brazil" veteran Francisco Drinaldo was unfortunately nixed when the latter got injured), but he's demonstrated very solid striking and a deadly submission game off his back. As he's a RusFighters member, he's fond of his spinning backfist, which he used to knockout Victor Kuku back in 2010.
Of the three fighters detailed here, Sarnavskiy has the biggest red flag in that his takedown defense is, well, meh. He's quite comfortable off his back and has historically had little trouble getting the submission once there, but it just seems too easy to get him there. Whether this is a product of him being supremely confident in his submission skills or simply inadequate skill in the wrestling department remains to be seen, but he's still plenty young enough to develop in time.
Watch Sarnavskiy in Action:
While Guram Gugenshvili was being pushed as the future of the heavyweight division, Minakov was quietly sitting in the back and absolutely wrecking fools. Aside from a three-round decision in his third pro fight, none of Minakov's fights have left the first round, with four ending inside of one minute.
Minakov is a four-time world Sambo champion and it shows. He's got fantastic throws and trips, sending the giant men of his division flying with impressive ease. Once he hits the mat, he's incredibly aggressive with his submissions, and while that's gotten him in trouble before, he's thus far managed to stay afloat.
His striking is a work-in-progress, but he's demonstrated a monstrous right hand, knocking out Juan Espino in nine seconds and sending Eddie Sanchez's central nervous system to Aruba.
Fun fact: He's also about the size of Fedor. He should be in Bellator's next Heavyweight tournament, and I see him getting all the way to Cole Konrad.
Watch Minakov in Action:
Bellator has done a fantastic job of picking up some of the brightest prospects in all of MMA, and it's no different with the Russians. If these guys develop into all they can be, we'll have some world-beaters on our hands.
Maybe even the next Fedor ... if that's even possible.