The Bellator MMA Heavyweight Title: A Visual History

By Ben Duffy Jun 22, 2021
As Timothy Johnson and Valentin Moldavsky prepare to fight for a Bellator MMA interim heavyweight title, at the very least the promotion can breathe a sigh of relief; neither man can likely make 205 pounds.

Nearly two years since lineal titleholder Ryan Bader’s last defense and with the former two-division champ advancing through the ongoing light heavyweight grand prix, the promotion has finally conceded to reality, booking Johnson and Moldavsky at Bellator 261 for an interim strap and giving the rest of the division something towards which to work. Not that stagnation and neglect are anything new to the Bellator heavyweight title picture. In the decade-long history of the division, only one champion has been crowned by defeating his predecessor in the cage.

Problems were evident almost from the time Bellator inaugurated the heavyweight title through its Season 4 tournament. The champ who emerged from the tourney, Cole Konrad, was a young, undefeated prospect with two NCAA Division I wrestling titles on his mantel, and appeared to be the future of the division—that is, until he abruptly retired at age 27 and never looked back. That set the tone for the subsequent history of the division. The four men who have held the belt have all been excellent fighters, among the best heavyweights in the sport, but a division has not truly coalesced around them. Konrad’s retirement likely stemmed from his frustration with his sporadic and frankly unchallenging fight schedule, while Minakov simply shrugged and kept taking fights in his native Russia as Bellator stripped him of the belt. Much like the early years of its UFC counterpart, Bellator’s heavyweight features champions walking away for other promotions, and like the UFC middleweight and lightweight divisions, endured several years during which there was no champion at all.

Bader put an end to that nearly three-year interregnum with his breathtakingly dominant run through the heavyweight Grand Prix, as he wiped out Muhammed Lawal, Matt Mitrione and Fedor Emelianenko without having a single strike landed on him. That was good enough to make him Bellator’s first simultaneous two-division champion, but it had required him to leave his light heavyweight belt in mothballs for over two years as the heavyweight tournament played itself out, and left the question of whether—and how—he planned to defend both titles. Any hopes that Bader might concentrate on defending the heavyweight strap once Vadim Nemkov relieved him of the two-division-champ problem have proven unfounded, as Bader immediately charged into the 205-pound tourney. More of the same, in other words, for Bellator's most problematic divisional title.

Here is the history of the Bellator heavyweight title and the times it was won, lost or defended. It tells the story of a series of worthy titleholders, and a promotion that has thus far struggled to hold their interest.

Ben Duffy/ illustration

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