Alexander Sarnavskiy is regarded by many as one of the world’s top lightweight prospects, but the 23-year-old RusFighters representative says that would not be the case were it not for his mentor, two-time Bellator middleweight tournament champion Alexander Shlemenko.

“I think that if it weren’t for [Shlemenko] that I would not have become a professional mixed martial artist. If it weren’t for him, I would never have achieved anything even close to what I have [at this point],” Sarnavskiy recently told Sherdog.com. “He hasn’t just been a gym coach for me and my teammates. He’s also been a role model and a teacher and mentor. I’m very thankful to him, and I consider myself to be very lucky to have met him and to be able to train under him.”

Sarnavskiy will take all that he has learned from “Storm” into the cage in just a few hours to square off with Rich Clementi, the man who should provide the young Russian with the toughest test of his career thus far. The two will square off in the main event of Bellator 77, which takes place at the Reading Theatre at the Sovereign Center in Reading, Penn., and airs on MTV2.

Known as “No Love,” Clementi has competed 66 times during his 13-year pro career, during which the 35-year-old has bested the likes of Anthony Johnson, Melvin Guillard and Sam Stout in the UFC’s Octagon. According to Sarnavskiy, Clementi’s considerable experience advantage should make his job a difficult one when the two collide tonight.

“I think it will be really hard to somehow surprise him. He’s seen everything in the cage, and he’s fought in the biggest organizations against tough opponents,” said Sarnavskiy of his foe. “He is really good with his ground game. He either takes his opponent down or he lets his opponent take him down, and he is really good at [attempting] submissions in the moment when he is being taken down.”

As a result of Sarnavskiy’s respect for Clementi’s skills on the mat, the Russian says he will likely try to keep the fight standing.

“I dedicated a lot of time in training to defending the takedown and standing up after being taken down,” said Sarnavskiy. “I don’t want to fight him on the ground, even though I feel pretty confident there, because it would be his territory.”

Much like his mentor Shlemenko and training partner Andrey Koreshkov, Sarnavskiy has honed an intensely aggressive style over the course of nearly four years as a professional, finishing 17 of his 20 career victims by either knockout or submission.

“It’s how I approach fighting. It’s a professional sport, so there is no room for anything else here,” said Sarnavskiy. “When I enter the cage and the door locks behind us, there are just the two of us in the cage, and only one can win. I assume that my opponent is trying to take away food from my family, and I don’t want him to do that. That’s why I’m trying to beat him as fast and as brutal as possible.”

Although “Tiger” says that he would love to use his trademark aggression to stop his veteran opponent and make an emphatic statement, the prospect believes that focusing too intently on securing a stoppage could produce the opposite effect.

“Every fighter, including myself, wants a finish so that everybody will remember it. If I get this opportunity, of course I will take it,” Sarnavskiy said. “However, in my experience and the experience of my coach and teammates, when you focus too much on finishing your opponent, you almost never do it.”

Sarnavskiy will enter the cage tonight on the strength of 20 consecutive victories. While boxing enthusiasts might note that a 20-0 pro record is a relatively common occurrence, MMA fans know the standard for determining success is quite different under mixed rules. Although many fighters dismiss the idea of feeling added pressure to keep their undefeated records alive, Sarnavskiy readily admits that he feels a tremendous responsibility to stay unbeaten, not only for himself, but also for his friends, family, fans, manager and coach.

“I feel a huge amount of pressure every time I enter the cage, because I have to prove to everybody that my record is real,” said Sarnavskiy. “Every time I step into the cage, I have to mentally focus, and it’s really hard, but what can I do? I’m just trying to stay undefeated.”

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