Cheick Kongo has a message for his opponent at Bellator 208 on Saturday night: I have no idea who you are.
It’s nothing personal, mind you. His opponent in the main card bout at Nassau Coliseum, Timothy Johnson, is actually one of the more memorable heavyweight persona to come down the pike in recent years, with the combination of his magnificent mustache and his penchant for getting into bloody brawls, win or lose.
It’s just that at the stage of your career Kongo now finds himself in, the guy on the other side of the cage at fight time is just another face.
Kongo is 43 years old. He’s been a household name for North American mixed martial arts fans since he burst onto the scene with his vicious knockout of the late Gilbert Aldana at UFC 61. He’s had 63 professional fights between MMA and kickboxing.
So if Johnson, who will be making his Bellator debut after going 4-3 in the UFC, is looking to use the veteran Kongo to make a statement in his new company’s heavyweight division, He’s not going to find an opponent willing to engage him on those terms.
“It doesn’t matter, at this point,” Kongo told MMA Fighting. “They are all the same. No disrespect to Mr. Johnson, but every new fighter thinks they can make a name by beating the veteran. I will just worry about my own preparation, I will not be thinking anything about him specifically.”
And while that might sound on the brash side, really, can you blame him? For those who haven’t been paying close attention, Kongo (28-10-2) is on the longest win streak of his 17-year career. Kongo’s taken six fights in a row, and eight of nine dating back to 2014, with the only loss during that span a a debatable split decision to Muhammed Lawal at Bellator 134.
For his part, Kongo credits his success past age 40 to a company back in his hometown of Paris called Winback, which specializes in physical therapy. Kongo says the therapy has led to a better understanding of his body and has enabled him to feel better than ever as time marches on.
“For so many years, my body was banged up,” Kongo said. “I would say, all but one of my losses in my career, I came into the fight with something wrong. Every other fight I was injured. But now I take my time. Now I get my proper rest. Now I’m not going all-out sparring all the time in training. Now I work with them to make sure my body is feeling good. It is no accident that I’ve won so many fights in a row since I started to get smarter and more serious about how I treat my body.”
We’ve been ignoring the elephant in the room up to this point: Despite Kongo’s six-fight win streak, and 10-2 overall record since jumping over to Bellator in 2013, a run which includes a victory in one of the company’s tournaments during the previous regime, Kongo found himself on the outside looking in when the eight-man Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix tourney was announced.
Kongo was named as an alternate to the tournament, which has its semifinals on back-to-back nights this weekend (Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen headlines Bellator 208, one night after Matt Mitrione and Ryan Bader just threw down in Uncasville, Conn.). And it’s clear not getting named to the main roster still gets under his skin.
“Maybe management thinks I’m a piece of sh*t,” Kongo said. “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them. Ask the management. I didn’t hear anything about the tournament until after it was already in place.
Maybe Kongo will find himself placed in the tournament after all -- last time Scott Coker put on a tourney of this magnitude, Daniel Cormier entered the legendary Strikeforce Grand Prix as an alternate and won it the whole thing -- or maybe not. Either way, Kongo says that he’s going to ride this wave of success as far as it will take him.
“If you ask me how long I can do this? I don’t have a date in mind,” Kongo said. “I’m having fun. I’m feeling as good as I ever had. I believe I can beat anyone in that tournament and any heavyweight in the world.”