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These past few weeks have been a reminder of what heavyweight mixed martial arts is really like. In Hamburg, Germany, 38-year-old Josh Barnett choked out 37-year-old Andrei Arlovski in the third round of their battle of former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champs of decades past. A week later in Cleveland, Stipe Miocic managed to get rocked several times and nearly choked out, yet still somehow brutally dispatched Alistair Overeem in his first UFC heavyweight title defense in under five minutes. Fabricio Werdum dominated injury replacement Travis Browne for a second time, then front kicked his coach Edmond Tarverdyan after the fight.
Miocic and Browne are the babies of this group; they're both 34 years old. Barnett seemed like an afterthought when Ben Rothwell tapped and upset him and now with one win, a guy who made his Octagon debut almost 16 years ago on the first government regulated UFC show, UFC 28, is right back in contendership. All of this to say, skill and star power die hard in the heavyweight division -- very, very hard. Your favorite lightweight might have one great two-year run in them before regressing to the mean and seeing their athletic gifts erode; if your favorite heavyweight is 25 years old -- and if you find a good 25-year-old heavyweight, please do speak up -- you can probably enjoy their fighting exploits for a good 15 years at the elite level.
This weekend is another beautiful exhibition of heavyweight's surreal, stagnant nature and it's not even courtesy of the UFC. While Zuffa stages its Fight Night card main evented by Dustin Poirier-Michael Johnson on Saturday night in Hidalgo, Texas, one night earlier, Bellator MMA will plant its flag 340 miles away in Cedar Park for Bellator 161, headlined by of all things, Cheick Kongo taking on Tony Johnson (live odds).
Kongo-Johnson is a classically dreadful heavyweight style matchup: Kongo's clinch-heavy roughhouse tactics combined with Johnson's vanilla-but-powerful wrestling and absent offense is a potential recipe for 15 minutes from hell. On the flipside, it is an oddly relevant heavyweight matchup, as both guys are, at worst in this sport, top 25 heavyweights. Yet, Scott Coker's Bellator isn't exactly preoccupied with putting on tightly-matched fights with legitimate rankings impact, so booking such a fight, as a main event no less, seems even quizzical.
But that's the deal with Kongo and that's why he has long fascinated me, why I find him such a strange and delightful MMA figure. For the last 10 years, his career has been an ongoing exercise in cognitive dissonance and somehow, it's worked out pretty damn well for the Frenchman.
When Kongo made his Zuffa debut back in July 2006, it was just prior to the first major exodus of Pride Fighting Championships stars stateside and the UFC's consolidation of the heavyweight division, so Kongo wound up destroying the late Gilbert Aldana and Christian Wellisch with devastating knockouts in his first two Octagon appearances, in a span of less than seven weeks. The UFC's heavyweight division was so moribund at this point, someone like Kongo showing up and blasting two opponents so quickly made him seem thrilling. Obviously, it doesn't hurt that he is carved out of obsidian and has one of the most impressive, freakish physiques in MMA history. He looks like the final boss in an MMA video game and it only helped his hype train.
Then, barely three months after making his UFC debut, Kongo -- who was clearly being heavily pushed at this point given how often the promotion was booking him -- was driven into wrestling hell by blown-up light heavyweight Carmelo Marrero, who desperately tackled him to the mat over and over and over, eventually winning a split decision. The idea of Kongo as a future UFC title contender never recovered and rightly. But, Kongo did manage to go 11-6-1 in his seven-year UFC tenure and become an organizational fixture. What is weird, though, is that despite entering the UFC as a major flash in the pan who very quickly regressed to his mean, Kongo has continued to trick people into thinking he's the same thrilling striker who burst on the scene a decade ago, which couldn't be further from the truth.
Kongo fought 15 more times in the UFC after the Marrero meltdown, settling into a role as a perennial top 15-ish fighter and gatekeeper to the stars, while honing a fight style almost completed at odds with his initial perception. “A kickboxer with a Greco-Roman wrestling background” sounds like, at worst, some sort of Brandon Vera clone and with Kongo's physical attributes and early UFC knockouts, I don't blame some folks for desperately hoping he could be the next big thing back in 2006. But, in reality, the way his “Greco and kickboxing” fusion manifested over the long haul was Kongo morphing into the shorts-grabbing, groin-smashing terror he is today.
Kongo's career-defining win came at UFC 75 in September 2007, winning a unanimous decision over an already-fading Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. When I say career-defining, I say it both in the sense that Cro Cop is the greatest fighter Kongo has ever beaten, but also in the sense that Kongo won by drilling his knee into his opponent's testicles three times and never had a point deducted by referee “Big” John McCarthy, defining what would become the Kongo blueprint.
From Frank Mir to Roy Nelson to Mark Hunt, almost every superior striker Kongo has fought has put hands on his face, forcing him to double down on his clinch-and-foul style. Outside of Cro Cop, Kongo's other notable MMA moment is his skirmish with Pat Barry of all folks, who savagely beat Kongo up before the Frenchman touched his chin with a desperate, Hail Mary counterpunch. In honesty, it's the only thing even close to a great Kongo fight despite his 36 career contests and it's a spastic brawl that lasts two and a half minutes.
Yet, it's more convenient or less painful to recall the thrill of Kongo blasting Barry out of nowhere than to reminisce on him intentionally kneeing Mostapha Al-Turk in the groin after Al-Turk had tagged him low, then savaging him with elbows, or Kongo grabbing Travis Browne's shorts so many times in their awful 15-minute draw that he was deducted a point and cost himself a win. With a decade of evidence, no one denies Kongo his rightful place as one of the sport's dirtiest fighters, yet many people still seem to cling to the explosion of violence in the Barry fight, or a hodgepodge of memories of Kongo savagely elbowed someone in the rib cage and imagine that's representative of his career, when those moments are obvious outliers, the brief sparks that burst forth between fistfuls of cloth and kneefuls of cup.
You'd think the veil has been lifted to an extent it would hurt Kongo professionally, but it hasn't. He was making $70,000 to show and $70,000 to win when he left the UFC three years ago, then parlayed his management with Anthony McGann and friendship with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson into a plum Bellator MMA deal at 38 years old.
“If you’re an MMA fan, you’re a Kongo fan,” said then-Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney when the company signed Kongo. “No matter who he fights he’s always going to bring the fight and put on a great show, and he’s one of the best guys you’ll have the pleasure of dealing with in MMA. This is another example of our alliance with Wolfslair and Anthony McGann resulting in our signing an exciting, explosive fighter to our roster who fans know and love.”
Sure, Rebney is a fight promoter and he's known for his “magical” salesmanship, not unlike his infamous father, but this quote is reiteration of the disproven-but-persistent myth of Kongo as some electrifying fighter fans are dying to see. If anything has helped Kongo over the years, it's that he has one of the most distinct and imposing looks in the sport and he spent seven years fighting heavyweights in high-profile UFC fights. On top of being able to actively convince people he's thrilling to watch, Kongo also has the benefit of long-term MMA omnipresence. There's no telling if Kongo's name itself has really ever actually drawn a dime for the UFC or Bellator, but for 10 years, he's just constantly wound up in a cage on your TV screen, getting paid.
Since signing with Bellator, Kongo has made six figures for victories and Saturday night will be his sixth Bellator main event in nine fights. You'd think the regime change from Bjorn Rebney to Scott Coker would perhaps hurt Kongo. He's not a traditional “Coker guy” and on top of that, while we must take his words with a massive dose of salt, in ex-Bellator employee Zach Light's wrongful dismissal suit against the company, he claims that Coker called Kongo's manager Anthony McGann a “terrorist”, instructed that Wolfslair fighters be matched tough so if they lost they could be plausibly released, and most critically, that Coker told Light to use his friendship with Kongo to convince the Frenchman to drop McGann as his manager and sign a new contract for less money than the one he'd signed with Rebney. I can't vouch for Light's claims and he's a classic disgruntled employee stereotype, but Coker's problems with McGann and Jackson aren't exactly a secret; let's not forget when “Rampage” somehow fought in the UFC as a Bellator contractee.
Yet, in his four fights since Coker took the Bellator reins, Kongo has been on two Bellator tentpole events, then main evented two cards that immediately followed up tentpole events the next week on Spike. Kongo got to have a predictably awful fight against Alexander Volkov the week after Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson fought Ken Shamrock, then got to have another predictably awful fight with Vinicius Kappke de Queiroz the week after the Kimbo-”Dada 5000” Dhafir Harris and Shamrock-Royce Gracie 3 double debacle. Consequently, his fight with Volkov drew an audience of 940,000 on Spike and peaked at 988,000, while the de Queiroz fight averaged 866,000 viewers and peaked at 984,000. Like I said, star power dies hard in this sport, even if it's based on curious mythology and simple ubiquity.
Maybe the Johnson fight is Bellator's idea of setting Kongo up to fail. After all, Kongo is a slight underdog at around +100 on most sportsbooks. Frankly, though, if this is the promotion's idea of a trap fight for a fighter they didn't sign, managed by a guy they don't like, they certainly could've gone for something more certain, let alone creative and exciting.
Kongo looked vulnerable in his last outing against de Queiroz, getting rocked late and taken down throughout the contest before winning a split decision. It's possible that at 41 years old -- aged even for an MMA heavyweight notable -- his skills are finally declining and he's prime to get wrestled straight into the dirt by Johnson, but it's just as likely he grinds out another main event win in a dreadful fight within a division Bellator has no champion and virtually no other talent in. At that point, Kongo would have Bellator by the shorts. And it's just likely he'll go for the groin.