Sergei Kharitonov was cleaning house in Pride Fighting Championships a decade ago, leading some to label him a potential all-time great. Wins over Fabricio Werdum, Pedro Rizzo and Semmy Schilt raised the expectations, but the monstrous Russian fell short in battles with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Alistair Overeem before the Ultimate Fighting Championship purchased Pride and dispersed much of the talent. Kharitonov moved on to Dream and Strikeforce, but losses to Josh Barnett and Jeff Monson left him in something of a career purgatory, at least in the eyes of the American MMA audience.
Kharitonov will make his Bellator MMA debut against Javy Ayala in a Bellator 163 heavyweight showcase on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. There, he plans to rekindle the intrigue that once surrounded him.
“If anybody has forgotten about me or thinks that I am under the radar, with this next fight I’ll make sure they remember me again,” Kharitonov told Sherdog.com. “Nobody wins without losses. I’ve thought a lot about the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve worked very hard on those, and I’ve improved a lot. I am ready for the next chapter of my career.”
Kharitonov has rattled off five straight victories, all of them finishes. He last fought under the M-1 Global banner in July 2015, when he cut down Kenny Garner with punches 4:11 into the first round of their rematch in Kazakhstan. Kharitonov credits a smarter approach, inside and outside the cage, for his resurgence.
“I am so much more experienced now, and I’ve changed the way I prepare for fights,” he said. “I eat healthier foods, and I really study tapes of my opponents. I never really did that before but now I do, and I go into my fights with an actual game plan, unlike before. You’ll see a better Sergei, a smarter Sergei, moving forward.”
Activity remains one of the knocks against Kharitonov, as he has not fought more than twice in a calendar year since 2005. He points to a variety of causes for his lack of action.
“I had some minor, nagging injuries that I had to deal with,” Kharitonov said. “Also, I had a hard time finding a fight. The opponents that were offered me just weren’t [great]. I had fought in Strikeforce, K-1, Pride and others, and I kept getting opponents that just didn’t interest me; and I wanted to fight for big promotions. It eventually came down to choosing between the UFC and Bellator, and I went with Bellator.”
Kharitonov was forced to withdraw from a Bellator 154 assignment opposite Josh Appelt on May 14. He became violently ill just days before the event and bowed out after his doctor and team implored him to do so.
“I was so upset, so disappointed,” Kharitonov said. “I was looking forward to fighting for Bellator in front of my American fans, and I did everything I could to get better. I had a very high fever, and it was getting worse. My doctor told me I was not allowed to fight, but I wanted to still fight anyway. They made me pull out of the fight. I was bothered and devastated about it for a long time.”
A Tachi Palace Fights alum, Ayala snapped a two-fight losing streak at Bellator 156 in June, when he disposed of Roy Boughton with first-round punches. Few outside the Californian’s inner circle view him as anything more than cannon fodder for Kharitonov.
“When they told me who I was fighting, I didn’t know who he was,” Kharitonov said, “so I looked at his fights and saw that he’s a dangerous fighter. He likes to strike, and he’s dangerous on the ground. I know people think I should knock him out -- and I expect to -- but he is no [pushover]. This should be a good, tough fight for me.”
Kharitonov figures to be on a short list of potential contenders for the vacant Bellator heavyweight championship, provided he can get past Ayala in decisive fashion. Cheick Kongo, Bobby Lashley and Matt Mitrione are among those jockeying for position in the division.
“I think it’s very competitive right now,” said Kharitonov, who has 18 first-round finishes to his credit. “If you look back on the days when I was fighting in Pride, the best guys were strong in kickboxing or wrestling or submissions -- they mostly had one strength -- but now, everybody can do everything. In order to be the best, even now with the heavyweights, you really have to be diverse and well-rounded; and also compared to 10 years ago, the fans are so much more knowledgeable about everything in the sport. It wasn’t like that, and it’s much more exciting to be fighting right now.”