Cheick Kongo will appear under the Bellator MMA banner for the 13th time when he meets Timothy Johnson at Bellator 208 on Saturday in Uniondale, New York. A semifinal showdown between Chael Sonnen and Fedor Emelianenko in the Bellator heavyweight grand prix serves as the event headliner. Despite having a 10-2 record inside the promotion, Kongo was not chosen as one of the eight entrants for the tournament and had to compete as an alternate. His exclusion serves as a source of frustration.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran was on a five-fight winning streak when the bracket was put together. His lone losses in Bellator have come to former heavyweight champion Vitaly Minakov and onetime Strikeforce light heavyweight titleholder Muhammed Lawal. Even so, Kongo was not selected.
“Honestly, I have no idea [why],” Kongo told Sherdog.com. “For sure, I deserve [to be in the tournament], but what can I say? I’m not the president [or] CEO.”
He claims he was never contacted about inclusion in the group of eight participants and only heard about the company’s plans once all the available spots were taken. One can understand why the 43-year-old feels underappreciated. Once plans for the grand prix were unveiled, Kongo only had one option: compete to be an alternate. He jumped at the chance and faced Javy Ayala at Bellator 199 to decide the first replacement in case a fighter was unable to answer the call to arms in the semifinals. Kongo knocked out Ayala 2:29 into Round 1.
“I knew he was a heavy striker, so I had to be careful,” Kongo said. “Some people like to watch tape. I hate that. I never watch tape.”
Instead, the 38-fight veteran’s training partners simulated Ayala’s movements and techniques. Kongo knew he needed to prompt his opponent to engage and counter with speed. The Frenchman connected with a massive counter left hook that floored Ayala and ended the fight. Having cemented himself as a grand prix alternate, Kongo will not rest on his laurels. A battle with Johnson awaits, as the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler makes his promotional debut on the heels of a 4-3 run in the UFC.
“Honestly, I don’t know the guy,” Kongo said. “[I’m] not trying to disrespect him, but it’s just what it is. I can imagine he is pretty fast during the first round and slow after. For sure, as a wrestler, he will try to get me down and get the mount.”
Kongo expects positive results and remains upbeat about his physical abilities despite his advanced age. The heavyweight division has proven more forgiving to older fighters, but at 43 years of age and with 17 years of mileage on the odometer, some decline should be expected. Kongo credits his work with French wellness company Winback for his ability to hold off Father Time. He was introduced to Winback and its massage-therapy techniques five years ago. The partnership has helped him withstand the rigors of the sport well into his 40s.
“I’m the kind of guy who always focuses on the wellness systems,” Kongo said. “When I started to work with this company, everything changed: my recovery, my ability to perform, everything. You look young and you are performing like you’re 20. That is the key.”
His success in Bellator coincides with his relationship with Winback. Kongo may not be the fighter he once was, but he has grown content with staying healthy and avoiding chemical enhancements.
“My choice is to not use [PEDs] to get fit and ready for fights. I have to be smart,” Kongo said, “and sorry if at some point [people say], ‘Oh, he’s not the same Cheick Kongo we used to see.’ But no matter what, the point is not being injured and to be healthy in and out of the cage.”
The Bellator Season 9 heavyweight tournament winner has no timetable for how much longer he plans to fight. “I don’t know,” he said. “If I have the ability to fight, I will keep fighting.” However, Kongo remains focused on the prize. “I have nothing to prove,” he said. “I want the belt.”
Like much of the MMA universe, Kongo plans to keep an eye on the Bellator heavyweight grand prix semifinals, as Sonnen meets Emelianenko and Ryan Bader faces Matt Mitrione. He expects the unexpected.
“The game is unpredictable,” Kongo said. “You never know what will make the difference. The best will win. Hopefully they will stay away from the [PEDs]. That is my only concern.”