This Friday night (Nov. 22, 2013) will mark the final offering of Bellator MMA's ninth season.
Bellator 109 is set to go down LIVE on Spike TV and will emanate from Sands Bethlehem Event Center in none other than Bethlehem, PA. The card will be headlined by a middleweight title fight featuring the incumbent champion Alexander Shlemenko vs. Doug Marshall.
This fight was supposed to have happened by now, once at Bellator 98 and even more recently at Bellator 108. But an injury to Marshall's hand and a man by the name of Quinton Jackson changed the fate of their match-up.
I asked Marshall -- who hasn't fought since finishing Brett Cooper at Bellator 95 -- about the long road to this point:
"I got here by just believing … believing in myself and my team. A lot of people looked past me. Not even a lot of people – everybody looked past me. And now I'm standing right here at the highest point of my career, the pinnacle, the top, about to become the Bellator world champion. Everybody can just eat their words. No! Everybody can eat shit, as far as I'm concerned."
So where does this scorn come from? For a guy who has yet to lose inside Bellator's cage, "Rhino" seems pissed.
"I'm going to prove everybody wrong against Shlemenko. Everyone already thought I was the underdog before and now I'm still the underdog in this fight. Against who? Some fuckin' Russian that ain't got no power? That looked slow and gassed in his last fight? People are crazy, bro."
After the six month plus layoff, will he be able to hang with someone similar to Shlemenko, who isn't known to gas easily?
"As far as 'can Marshall hang'… I ran through that tournament like it was against a bunch of fucking sixth graders. I don't know what I've got to do to make people realize that I'm for real. I have power and I'm looking to put people down. I'm not looking to out-point people, I'm not looking to go five rounds and I'm not looking to go three rounds. Every time I fight, I'm trying to get in there and get it fucking done."
Will the result be similar to the one he laid on a scrappy Cooper back in April?
"Cooper took six punches from me. One was completely unnecessary, because he was already out. Alexander Shlemenko hit that dude 139 times and still went to a decision. If two plus two equals four? The Rhino is the champion. On paper, mathematically, or statistically … any way you look at it, I'm coming out on top."
Where does the punching power that has contributed to 12 of his 16 mixed martial arts (MMA) victories come from?
"My punching power carried down through the ranks. I started fighting at heavyweight at 265 pounds for my first fight. I became the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) heavyweight champion, I came down to light heavyweight, and now here I am and all my power came with me. It's all about getting your hips into it and committing to your punches. That's where your power comes from."
"Rhino" continued by trashing the other fighters on Bellator's roster, claiming that no one can match the punching power he possesses.
"I watch all these guys and I don't think there's anyone in the 185-pound division – as far as I'm concerned, in all of Bellator – with as much power in their hands as I've got. I watch these guys arm-punch all day long and I'm like, 'Why are you even doing that?' That's not getting it done. These guys are a little light in the ass or something. They must not want it as badly as I do."
What can fans of Marshall expect when he returns to finish his successful run through Bellator's middleweight division?
"The difference between 'The Old Rhino' and 'The New Rhino' is that I'm faster, I'm in better shape and I have a lot more technique. People say, 'Oh man, I was so nervous for my first fight!' I wasn't nervous at all. I had nothing to lose and that's how I step into the cage every time now. I flip that switch and let The Rhino come in and take care of it. I don't even have to think. It's just like automatic pilot. Doug Marshall takes a little siesta and The Rhino comes out and just runs through people."
It is no secret that Bjorn Rebney and company are proud of the Russian-born fighters on their roster. Does the proud American consider this fight a matter of protecting his countries honor?
"Of course this is 'US vs. Russia.' Of course it is. I'm looking to show the entire world who the best is, and it's America. Russians are tough! I've seen many a Russian not tap in an armbar and come back to win a fight with their arm broken. As far as Russians and Shlemenko are concerned though, I almost jumped through my television when Brett Cooper hit that dude and he collapsed like a sack of potatoes. I was like 'OH MY GOD!' This dude thinks he's going to stand and trade with me?' There ain't nobody tough enough to stand with me. I'll draw a line in the center of the cage against Shlemenko and tell him, 'Let's toe up, right now, and we'll find out.' He ain't tough. He ain't tough enough."
There is something in particular that Shlemenko does following his fights that "Rhino" take offense to:
"I see Alexander Shlemenko win his fights and wrap himself in a Russian flag … I understand his pride for his country and everything but, brother, this is America and I feel like you're slapping me in the face every time you do that. So I'm going to slap you when we get in the cage, I'll get my belt and then I'll wrap myself in the most beautiful flag of all: the red, white and blue, baby."
So how much pressure does Marshall feel entering the cage on Friday with the opportunity to leave with the world title around his waist?
"According to the bookies, I'm the underdog against Shlemenko, so that takes all the pressure off me. He's had 50-60 fights or whatever, he's the champion, blah blah blah. I got nothing to lose. He's the champion. He's the one who has to stop me. And I don't see Alexander Shlemenko stopping me. He's going to say he'll stand up and trade with me just like Brett Cooper did, and I'll guarantee 100 percent that he'll try to take me down within the first round. Guarantee it."
I asked Marshall to lay out how the main event of the evening will go down at Bellator 109. Usually, fighters take the high road and do not attempt to predict how their fight will turn out. "Rhino" couldn't have been any more clear on how he sees it going.
"The fans can expect to see fireworks baby, like the Fourth of July. Then they'll see that beautiful American flag waving in the wind with me standing right by it, with that beautiful gold belt around my waist. What? Where's Alexander Shlemenko? He must have been tired because he's sleeping in the middle of the cage. I don't know why he's laying there like that. But The Rhino will have gold around his waist and the red, white and blue wrapped around him. The Rhino is the victor, by knockout."
And, according to Marshall, "fireworks."