After a successful decade fighting at welterweight, Chidi Njokuani’s body decided it was time for a change. His debut at middleweight was a victorious occasion against Japanese power puncher Hisaki Kato at Bellator 189. This Friday, at Bellator 210, he will step into the cage as a middleweight for the second time, happier, healthier and primed to make a run towards bigger opportunities.
“It had a lot to do with the weight cut,” Njokuani told Sherdog about why he left the 170-pound division. “I’m getting older now, so it’s harder to get the weight off. And I’m starting to keep weight on that I didn’t [before].” The 29-year-old has matured into his 6-foot-3-inch frame, and outgrew being a welterweight.
For many years, the Texan would often walk around at 185 pounds, a size favorable for cutting weight to make the welterweight limit. However, as he continued to fill out, and inch closer to his thirties, he found himself walking around much closer to 200 pounds -- sometimes as high as 210 -- before fights, despite maintaining a diet aimed at managing his weight professionally.
In recent years, his camps became as much about getting the weight off as preparing for his opponents and training his skills. It became a burden. In Njokuani’s words, a day training meant “getting to the gym and always worrying about that scale.” The stress on his mind and body pushed him to a place where he thought, “I’m kind of over it,” he said. “I figured I had a good run [and] I’m tired of just beating up my body trying to make that weight.”
As a middleweight, the stress of being unsure if he would make weight has been removed. “That was a big deal, just not knowing,” said Njokuani, who claims the move has freed up his mind and improved his energy levels as he nears his bouts. “When I’m training, I don’t feel like I get tired the closer the fight gets because I’m trying to lose the weight,” he said. He believes being dehydrated may have hurt his chances of reaching his full potential in camp and therefore in his bouts.
The early reviews on his decision were positive, as he defeated Kato via unanimous decision last December. He believes his first foray into the new weight class was an improvement on many levels, because he was able to train in an appropriate way for a dangerous opponent for whom he had much respect. “I took that fight really serious,” Njokuani said. “He was tough. I respected what he was capable of doing before I went in the fight. He definitely deserves to be at the top [of the weight-class].”
On Friday at the WinStar World Casino & Resort, in Thackerville, Oklahoma, the One Kick’s Gym fighter will face-off with John Salter, a veteran of the Bellator MMA middleweight division who can be just as dangerous with his strikes as with his grappling. For many fighters moving up in weight, there is a fear they could be facing stronger opponents that make grappling that much more difficult. Yet, because of his already large size, Njokuani claims he will not need to add weight. He prefers to fight at a more natural weight and keep the speed he has. “I just try to maintain the speed. I didn’t want to lose that,” he said.
What made him unique at 170 pounds -- a spindly and rangy body -- he wants to continue to make use of at 185. “That’s one of my best qualities. Being long, lanky and fast,” said Njokuani. Along with his elongated reach and speed to combat Salter’s strength, he believes he is more than ready for a grappling showdown at middleweight, something he did not have in his fight with Kato. That’s because he believes in the talent of his coaches and training partners. “Our coaches constantly try to kill us in the gym. That gym’s got a lot of good people,” he said.
Bellator 210 will be the third time “Chidi Bang Bang” headlines a card for the organization. A part he doesn’t enjoy about the gig is the waiting. “I just hate sitting in the back waiting all day. I’d be cool with being the very first fight and getting it over with,” he said. However, he understands the role’s value, especially when it comes to sponsors. “Those words, ‘main event,’ sound so much better. I’m sure the sponsors kind of run towards that. They look at that like it means a little more. Whether or not the shows at a small casino or a big arena,” Njokuani said.
Although there is a bump in pay for main eventing, he does see more long-term value in being a part of a major tentpole event. “When it comes down to money, if you’re being shown on TV on one of those big heavyweight grand prix [events] then it probably makes a bigger difference,” said Njokuani.
Outside of earning bigger paydays, he does hope a win over Salter gets him closer to contention for Gegard Mousasi’s middleweight belt. “It would be cool to get that belt,” he said. “The Bellator championship, that would be dope. Just to have it on my resume.” Yet, hopes and priorities are very different things. “But I’m not sitting around hoping and praying it will come [a title opportunity]. If I get it, it is what it is. If I don’t, I don’t.”