In a career spanning 18 years that has seen him compete professionally 42 times, Cheick Kongo may well be getting his final crack at winning a major MMA title this weekend. Currently riding an eight-fight winning streak, the Frenchman has risen to the top of the Bellator heavyweight division and this run culminates with a shot at the belt. Kongo gets the opportunity to put a final stamp on his legacy at the SAP center in San Jose, California on Saturday night when he headlines Bellator 226 opposite reigning heavyweight title holder, Ryan Bader.
Kongo (30-10-2) earned a shot at the belt when he became the first man to ever defeat former Bellator heavyweight champion, Vitaly Minakov, in February after previously losing to the Russian in 2014. There were a few significant moments in the fight but there were many occasions where both men were reluctant to engage. After the bout, Minakov said that his disappointing performance was due to being on antibiotics during fight week which made him fatigue easily in the cage. However, Kongo wasn’t going into that showdown at his best either.
“It’s frustrating that Minakov was making excuses for his performance but he wasn’t the only one going in there compromised,” said Kongo. “That night he was fighting someone who was only at 50% because I was limited in what I could do too. I got the win which is the result I was looking for but I didn’t read too much into my display because of the circumstances.”
The fact that Kongo is receiving a title shot now is even more impressive considering he is 44-years-old. Heavyweights tend to hang around in the game longer than smaller fighters but for a martial artist in one of the major promotions to be competing for titles at that age is very rare. Kongo puts this achievement down to being healthy for most of his career while also staying away from drugs. To add to this, he has utilised Winback technology which boosts the body’s natural ability to repair itself which has played a significant part in his longevity.
Ryan Bader (27-5) stands between Kongo and the Bellator heavyweight crown and he will be looking to make the first successful defense of his title this weekend. Since arriving in Bellator after departing the UFC, Bader has won all of his promotional bouts and picked up two titles in the process. He will always have a place in Bellator history as the first ever fighter to hold two championship belts simultaneously. The NCAA Division I wrestler only moved up to the heavyweight division relatively recently and is still considered among fans as a natural light heavyweight. Kongo thinks he knows how Bader will approach the upcoming main event but still isn’t sure whether the heavyweight division is where the American is best suited.
“I expect Bader to try and wrestle all the way through the fight,” stated Kongo. “As far as how he looks at heavyweight, he has only had three bouts in the division up to this point. Therefore, it is hard to say how I think he looks at the weight due to the limited time he has been here.”
Despite the title being on the line, Kongo is treating Saturday’s fight just like any other. He won’t allow himself to get distracted by the thought of what the belt being wrapped around his waist would feel like. After sharing the cage with some of the sport’s greats including Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir and Mirko Cro Cop, it is unlikely that he will get caught up in the occasion. If Kongo can emerge victorious on Saturday night, he will prove that age is indeed only just a number.
Bellator 226: Bader v Kongo is exclusively on DAZN in the US and kicks off at 10/9c on Saturday night. In the UK and Ireland, it can be seen live on Sky Sports Action at 2am early on Sunday morning.
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