Vitaly Minakov competed under the Bellator banner for less than two years, but it was enough for him to win four fights and become the promotion’s heavyweight champion. A lot has changed since though.
More than a year after his last title defense against Cheick Kongo, the undefeated fighter returned to his home country of Russia to compete at Fight Nights in 2015. Minakov finished Adam Maciejewski in 21 seconds, and never returned to the Bellator cage. When Minakov scored three straight finishes in Russia, Bellator decided to strip him of his belt in May 2016.
After adding another quick win to his record last June, the unbeaten heavyweight looks to improve to 19-0 on Feb. 23, when he faces DJ Linderman at Russia’s Fight Nights Global 59. And despite his activity overseas, Minakov is still under contract with Bellator.
"The contract with Bellator is in force now,” Minakov told MMA Fighting through a translator. "If I am not mistaken, it runs for another eight fights. I fight for Fight Nights Global now, but we carry on negotiations about the better terms of contract and the reduction of fights in Bellator."
Bellator officials told MMA Fighting they can't comment regarding active negotiations, but confirmed that Minakov is still under contract with Bellator. The Russian heavyweight, who hasn’t fought for Bellator since Scott Coker replaced Bjorn Rebney, doesn’t rule out coming back to the promotion.
"Lately, I fight only in Russia in Fight Nights Global,” Minakov said. "If we have luck in communication with Bellator, I will continue there. If not, I am looking for strong opponents in Fight Nights Global.
"If the organization agrees to make our contract acceptable,” he said when asked to give a timetable for his return to the United States, "I will not keep myself waiting for a long time."
As for Bellator’s decision to strip him of his heavyweight belt, Minakov doesn’t feel it makes a difference after all as he still considers himself the champion.
"I consider it was typical to (strip) me,” Minakov said. "First of all, I have not fought in this company for four years. (…) Even though I have been (stripped), as you can see, and due to non-sporting reason, I consider myself as Bellator champion. I didn’t lose any fight. It is just a formal decision.”
Ready to face a 20-11 veteran in Linderman, Minakov would also welcome fights against top competition in North American promotions.
“(As for the) heavyweight division, I won’t speak about the particular company, it is a perfect time to come to organization and fight,” he said. "It is generational change. Old residents retire and young hopefuls are ready to take their place in best world leagues. There is a fierce war for the first places and for the titles. Of course, in addition to battles in Russia, I would like to compete with the fighters of foreign promotion companies. Will I have such an opportunity? Time will show."
Minakov has to take care of Linderman before targeting other opponents first, though.
"Linderman has a great experience in MMA, he has more than 30 fights in different organizations,” said the Russian heavyweight. "He is forceful and a die-hard sportsman, works aggressively as No. 1. It makes him dangerous."
"It doesn’t matter for me what kind of fight he will chose,” he continued. "I am ready for everything, no matter what will it be: stand up or (the ground). I don’t think Linderman will wrestle with me. But if it is so, it will be a kind of gift for me and I will take it with pleasure."