Last April was a pivotal month in the career of Cheick Kongo. The UFC Heavyweight, who had claimed the distinction of knockout of the year over Pat Barry in 2011, faced a tough challenge in Roy “Big Country” Nelson.
After beating Shawn Jordan via unanimous decision almost a year earlier, Nelson would represent a real challenge after a layoff. Unfortunately, Kongo did not rise to the occasion, suffering a TKO loss at the hands of Nelson in the first round at UFC 159. The only other time that a first round TKO loss happened was at UFC 144 against Mark Hunt. And although Kongo still seemed safe within the ranks of the UFC Heavyweight division, time would prove otherwise.
Kongo’s next move surprised the fight world when he appeared in the semi-finals of the Bellator Heavyweight Tournament at Bellator 102. Leaving his former home and jumping in the March Madness of MMA proved to be the right move, as Kongo defeated Mark Godbeer to advance to the finals. There at Bellator 107, he outpointed his opponent, Peter Graham, to win the Strikeforce Heavyweight Tournament.
This Friday in Reno, Nevada, the journey that many thought would end at the UFC has been resurrected and Bellator now boils over with the title on the line. Kongo meets ‘Russian knockout connoisseur’ Vitaly Minakov who not only holds the belt, but also an impressive 13-0 professional record. With KO wins over Fabiano Scherner and Ron Sparks to name a few, Minakov is a definite impediment to Kongo’s title aspirations. However, to the challenger this is just another day at the office.
“(This is) just business as usual and also it gives me a kind of satisfaction because it’s not a simple thing, but I’m going to fight for the title. This activity will raise my rank up so I'm really happy with that, I can't wait. I used to fight in the (Heavyweight) division in the UFC but the opportunity (for a title) never happened so hopefully it will be positive in Bellator.”
Kongo, in addition to his teammate, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, are two of the highest profile names that have left the UFC ranks to find glory at Bellator. With Kongo now fighting for the title after demolishing the tournament contenders, it sends a clear message across MMA that not only is there life after Zuffa, but also you can thrive. A title win would signal a dynamic shift in the world of MMA, one where exploring your options can yield a championship.
“You know what, right now for the business it’s to just get that belt around my waist and for the future just dominate the division no matter what. So I don't have any clue or I didn't pay attention to my opponent yet because right now it’s not a big deal for me and I don't want to be cocky or arrogant. So everybody deserves to go at their pace to be the next contender but for sure. You know as soon as I reach that state I am going to stay there for long.”