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Cheick Kongo never expected to be fighting in 2019

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ten years ago, Cheick Kongo was a 34-year-old UFC heavyweight who cracked Cain Velasquez’s jaw a few times, before being outwrestled for much of the fight and losing a decision.

If you asked him then where he figured he’d be, fighting a college teammate of Velasquez’s for a heavyweight championship would hardly be the answer.

”No, I didn’t think I’d still be fighting for sure,” said Kongo, who faces Ryan Bader for the Bellator heavyweight title on Saturday night in the main event of a show at the SAP Center in San Jose. “I didn’t know what I’d be doing, but not fighting.”

The battle between the French-born Kongo (30-10-2) and Bellator’s double champion Bader (27-5, winner of 12 of his last 13 fights) headlines a show that will air exclusively on DAZN and feature four first-round fights in the company’s featherweight Grand Prix tournament.

Kongo was 38 years old when he left UFC for Bellator. In that six-year period, he has gone 12-2, including winning his last eight. In his most recent fight, on Feb. 16 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., he scored a major upset over unbeaten Vitaly Minakov, a former Bellator champion, where the winner was promised a shot at the championship. Minakov had beaten Kongo n a 2014 title fight in a bout where the winner was promised a title shot.

It was sweet revenge for Kongo, who was not invited into Bellator’s heavyweight Grand Prix tournament even with his winning streak.

”For sure, I was shocked,” he said about not getting the call then. “Like wow, for sure.”

”I kept it to myself, but everything was pretty bitter.”

Kongo is hardly an ordinary 44-year-old. The obvious first thing you notice is the physique of someone with great genetics, who could easily pass for being nearly 15 years younger.

His still being around is largely because, with his consistently winning, he’s never had a reason to stop, and he loves training.

”The will to keep going,” he said is what has kept him in the sport. “A chance to enjoy life. I didn’t get hurt that much. I can keep fighting. I thought, `You can do better. You can do more.’ As long as I don’t have physical issues, that’s great.”

Bader, 36, who was an All-American wrestler at Arizona State at the same time as Velasquez. He was Bellator’s light heavyweight champion when he was put in the heavyweight tournament Kongo wasn’t invited into. In the tournament, Bader beat King Mo Lawal and Fedor Emelianenko in a combined 50 seconds, as well as dominated Matt Mitrione for three rounds to win a lopsided decision in a fight he was never touched in.

Many people just before the fight would talk up winning the championship, or making a statement in what has to be the twilight of his career. But Kongo comes across as stress free. He doesn’t speak of winning a championship or a championship fight. It’s just another fight to him.

”I wouldn’t say that’s the way I used to think, but now, with or without the championship, nothing will change. I’ll be the same guy.”

He doesn’t know Bader personally, but he watched the entire Grand Prix tournament and was impressed with Bader’s ability to win fast and win without taking punishment.

He noted that he used to see fighters with broken noses and messed up faces and that was never his goal, and his longevity was based on that.

”I know to be aware to not be one of those guys,” he said. “That’s the difference between those guys and me. I never stopped training. Always, I always kept training. I didn’t use any drugs to help me perform better. If I was injured, we got the best treatment to keep me way from chronic injuries.”

His being far more successful after the age of 38 than before it, something almost unheard of in fighting sports, is being mindful of injuries.

In his UFC days, he would fight whenever he was asked. He stopped doing that when he moved to Bellator.

”The difference is the physical situations I used to do in UFC,” he said. “I’d fight when I was injured. I’d fight if I was in a good way or a bad way. I always took the fights. I never complained. I was a good soldier. Today, I’m reacting differently.”

Kongo was born in Paris, France, although he describes himself as a gypsy, moving constantly from place-to-place. He’s fought in France before, but only as a kickboxer, since MMA still isn’t legal in that country. The UFC got very popular years ago, even though it not only couldn’t hold events there, but wasn’t even allowed on television. But people in the country followed it off Luxembourg television, that was available in the country.

While he defied his own expectations as far as longevity, if you ask Kongo the same question about years in the future, you’ll get the same answer you would have gotten a decade ago.

”I’ll fight as much as I can, but I don’t want to be a grandpa at 50 going into the cage.”