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Cheick Kongo and the last chase for what's missing

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Anne-Marie Sorvin-US PRESSWIRE

Cheick Kongo isn't a bitter person. He's quite affable, actually. He's not only excited about his future in Bellator, but has nothing but fond words for the UFC, how he was treated there, what the experience was like and what it meant to him.

That doesn't mean, however, he's satisfied with his career.

"It's about the freshness," Kongo told MMA Fighting via telephone about his switch from UFC to Bellator. "I got the deal to be the next big deal for the organization in my weight class and of course, I need to get some change. I need to know where I should be. With UFC, I spent a really good time there, but I need to know where I am going."

It's an interesting observation. Where is Kongo and where, exactly, is he headed?

At 37 years of age and now living in Los Angeles, California, Kongo is actually past the point of crossroads and more into 'final chapter' territory. He's out of the UFC, which means he's not even in the running for contention of best heavyweight on the planet. He had a respectable run there, amassing an 11-6-1 record after nearly 7 years. He earned a victory over MMA and kickboxing luminary Mirko CroCop. His come-from-behind win against Pat Barry is one of the most memorable in heavyweight MMA history.

Yet, he was never truly able to get over the hump. He lost against upper echelon fighters almost every time he faced them. Frank Mir submitted him, Cain Velasquez outlasted him and by the time his UFC run came to an end, he was being put away in the first round by Roy Nelson and Mark Hunt.

Kongo looks favorably on his time in the UFC, but is candid about what stone went unturned: a shot at capturing a world title. "All the fighters want to be a champion, but the thing is," he explains, "some of the guys just want to fight. Some just want to say, 'I'm a fighter' and be well known everywhere they go. But for the real athlete, [the belt] means a lot because it's means all the things we did, the sacrifice, it's a legacy for life."

To make that happen, Kongo decided to decline a UFC offer after his last fight with the organization in April and go with Bellator. Kongo admits his friend Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson influenced his decision '15 to 20 percent', but otherwise felt it was the right move for him and likely would've made it, anyway.

That's an interesting choice given he admits he doesn't know many of the Bellator heavyweight fighters. He's not really one to watch tape either. He says he'll get around to it eventually, but doesn't seem overly preoccupied with acquainting himself with who is there now.

If he hasn't already, he'll get that chance to start Friday night at Bellator 102 in Visalia, California as he enters his first Bellator tournament opposite Mark Godbeer, an English heavyweight who essentially fits the profile of heavy handed if lesser-tiered opposition Kongo has feasted on throughout his career. Kongo didn't have many words one way or the other about Godbeer, but says the tournament format is no issue for him. "Only one survives," he says succinctly. "That's the deal. I like that."

There isn't much to dislike in terms of evaluating the challenge ahead if you're Kongo. This tournament is only a four-man operation, meaning tonight's fighters are only two wins away from a title shot against either current champion Alexander Volkov or Summer Series tournament winner Vitaly Minakov.

That's not a particularly long road to for Kongo to end his career on his terms by claiming a world title. He's perfectly happy with that and doesn't mind admitting as much.

By all appearances, Kongo looks no worse for the wear, but knows that as he approaches 40 years of age, the clock on his career is ticking. He says he feels healthy and doesn't have injuries, but is already thinking about how to end fighting successfully and what he'll do next.

Kongo says his deal with Bellator is "long term" and the door to the UFC "still open", but knows it's now or never for him. "I don't know right now," Kongo says of how much longer he'll fight, "but for sure, I won't fight forever. 

"Not for long. I won't do the same thing Randy [Couture] did. I have so much respect for Randy. He's the guy. But, I won't spend my time like he did."

The Frenchman gets to start his final journey to capture what's eluded him all these years Friday night. With deep UFC experience in his back pocket and a manageable road to a title shot, the odds are in his favor to get what he has long set out to do.

He'll be happy to step aside once it's all done. That's especially true if he earns the Bellator heavyweight championship. And if everything goes according to plan, he'll not only have claimed that elusive world title, but perhaps leave a more lasting impression on the MMA community and next generation of fighters.

"I have to leave my seat to the next guy, but I'm just going to do my best," he claims. "Just to print my name on the top of throne and after that, I will stop as everybody has to do. But right now, I have no issue. The goal I have is to get the belt and raise that in the air."