Cheick Kongo. He’s seen it all — almost.
A veteran of 23 kickboxing matches and 30 MMA bouts, the French heavyweight is entering his 13th year as an MMA professional this year. After ten bouts on the European circuit, Kongo joined the UFC in 2006. He earned a 10-7-1 record in his 18 bouts with ZUFFA, before declining a new contract in 2013 and moving on to Bellator, where he won the Season 9 Heavyweight tournament.
In two days, Kongo will cash in on that victory and look to add something new to his accolades: the title of “Bellator Heavyweight Champion.”
Kongo faces Bellator’s reigning champion, the still-undefeated Vitaly Minakov, at the Reno Events Center in Nevada for the main event of Bellator 115. The event, to be televised on Spike TV at 9 pm PST/EST, also features the semifinals of Bellator Middleweight Tournament.
So, will 2014 represent a lucky 13 for Kongo?
Maybe we can find a clue looking back…
Kongo’s greatest MMA moment was back in June of 2011. That night, longtime middleweight contender Nate Marquardt failed to receive medical clearance shortly prior to the event, forcing his bout to be cancelled. That loss was Kongo’s gain. Kongo’s bout with Pat Barry was bumped up the show and into the main event.
The fight showed promise: two kickboxing specialists, one 6’4″ and rangy, the other 5’11” and stocky — both with power, and both with solid credentials. But no one could predict what we’d see.
Barry would drop Kongo with a right hook midway through the first round. Kongo scrambled, if one can call leaning limply at Barry’s legs a scramble, as Barry rained down punches. On commentary, Joe Rogan yelled, “It’s over!”
Only, it wasn’t. Kongo wobbled to his feet… and Rogan would sigh, “It looked like he was out.”
Then, Kongo was decked again by another right hand. “He is out!” barked out the other commentator, Mike Goldberg.
The odds were, he was. But, Kongo beat the odds.
A visibly shaken Kongo somehow made it to his feet again. This time, he backed away from the hard-charging Barry, eventually collecting himself with his back leaning against the cage.
Barry advanced recklessly to his shaken opponent, only to get blasted by a Kongo right.
Barry stopped in his tracks as if short-circuited. Kongo reached back for one more big right hand. BAM!
Barry dropped to the canvas, unconscious. Seconds later, at 2:10 of the first round, referee Dan Mirgliotta stopped the bout.
It was as melodramatic a victory you’ll ever see. We all thought Kongo was done, knocked out, beaten: but there he was, with a hand raised in victory. It brought the crowd to their feet, and earned Kongo his most satisfying career win.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last. Kongo would be a victim of a first round knockout in two of his next four bouts.
What does this tell us about this Friday’s fight?
For one, it shows that Kongo can come back from terrible adversity.
Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how can be hit and hurt in the first place. The champ Minakov is a former SAMBO world champion who has shown remarkable power, punching his way to eight knockout victories in 13-fight undefeated career. He’s also a disciplined fighter, unlikely to wade in recklessly as Barry did.
Kongo will enter the cage a (+210) underdog Friday.
Then again, he’s proven us wrong before. Still, there’s not much time left for him. If nothing else, we’ve learned not to count Cheick Kongo out.