The big news of this Saturday’s Bellator 172 is obviously the main event of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione. With Bellator’s heavyweight title vacant since May 14, 2016, when Bellator stripped Vitaly Minakov of the belt for failing to defend it for over two years, it’s probably safe to assume that the winner of Fedor vs. Mitrione will soon fight for the title. But against whom? Well, the answer will likely also be found on Saturday, when veteran heavyweights Cheick Kongo and Oli Thompson square off in the Bellator cage.
Cheick Kongo has been competing in mixed martial arts since 2001, and was a staple of the UFC’s heavyweight division, with eighteen fights there between 2006 and 2013. Since then, he has had nine fights in Bellator, amassing a 7-2 record with the promotion. Along the way, he has fought some of the sport’s best, and holds wins over Mirko Crocop, Pat Barry, and Saturday’s main eventer Matt Mitrione. At 41 years old, the huge Frenchman is still a force in the heavyweight division.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Cheick Kongo on the phone. It was a bit of a failed interview for several reasons. To avoid boring the reader with the nuts and bolts of an amateur MMA writer’s difficulties, I’ll save what happened for the end of the article.* What follows is my best effort at piecing together what he had to say.
On starting martial arts at the age of five, and whether it was his idea or his parents’:
No, it wasn’t like just an activity to distract myself, it was a thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be in the martial arts area, and that’s what I did during my childhood.
On drifting in and out of martial arts during his teen years before committing to it as a profession:
I didn’t know if I wanted to continue for the rest of my life. I used to get some breaks, for sure, when I was a teenager. I used to get into some different stuff around, you know, sports, so I need to make a break. And I came back right away, maybe two or three years after that, and being focused on what I want to do.
“The thing is, every win or loss, I learn from that. Every fight, I learn. To be stronger. I’m a competitor. We have no age to learn. We always increase our skills, to get better than yesterday.”
On his early career, both in Muay Thai and mixed martial arts:
So, I used to do, first of all, MMA before Muay Thai. Muay Thai came after, when I was… not tired… but I used to carry a lot of injuries doing MMA. Wrestling, MMA. So I decided to turn for Muay Thai, because I had that ability and I was pretty competitive. And when you’re doing good, you just explore. And that’s what I did. And I was pretty good. I was supposed to make a deal with K-1, but K-1 went down, so I take UFC. At the same time I used to get the choice of K-1 and Pride, but those shows went down, and there was only one left. The only way to keep going was UFC. And at the time UFC needed to grow, and I was pretty good about what I wanted to do. And being away from people using drugs, because in Pride some guys used to go crazy over that. That was one of the things that decided me between UFC and K-1 or Pride.
On mixed martial arts still being banned in his native France, the prospects of lifting the ban, and his responsibility to be a good representative of the sport:
For MMA in France to have a future, sure, it will take time, but it will have a future. You know, all the sports used to be banned in the past, like Karate, Judo, and different martial arts. It took time to make a name for the loyalty, the spirit of the sports. And here we go, you know. So for sure, some guys used to be skeptical, afraid about the profession of the sports. I am French. I’m living in America, moving back and forth between my own country and this country in the States. I’m not a bad guy. For sure I have my temper, I have my moods, you know. I try to be a sportsman, and that’s it. I’m a person, so if someone comes and piss me off, because I am doing MMA and I’m well known, I have to change my mood, I have to adapt my mood. Some of them are really good, and others are not bad, but they have the temper. Why? Because we are human beings. And everything will change. Rome never got built in one day, so this will be the same.
On whether he’d like to be included on Bellator’s events in Europe, especially the recently announced April show in Italy:
I wish. No, I wish to be a part of that show. For sure I am from Europe, and that would make me happy. It would be a good idea to bring me out there. I am known here too, but there it would be better because I am from those countries, the European people. I think it makes sense.
On whether he wants to return to kickboxing now that Bellator holds kickboxing events in addition to mixed martial arts:
Today I don’t know. I have no idea. I am training in MMA, so for sure sometime I come back, you know. The background I used to have in the past, it’s still good. But I have no idea. We will see. I have no big desire, but if they offer to me, if somebody decides that is good for me. So I will wait and see. If they have an interest for me to fight as a kickboxer or Muay Thai fighter, I will. If not, I will stay in MMA.
On whether a win Saturday might move him into a title match against the Fedor vs Mitrione winner, and on waiting for a title shot while the Bellator heavyweight belt was in limbo due to Minakov not defending it:
You know what? I think you know I grew up enough to stop believing in dreams. The last time for me was to fight the fight, to win the fight, and to get the shot for the title. What I need today is going to be I’m going to fight against somebody, you know, to put me in the position to fight for the title, I think. Yeah, you know, I’m not a kid any more. Whatever. The title has been vacant for more than two years. I think, you know, two or three to wait on the list. One guy used to deny for the others. I don’t know why. I don’t want to talk shit. I think Tony Johnson was the guy, the first guy in line for a chance for the title. He never get a chance to fight for the title. After that, it was the case for me and Bobby Lashley. If we were to fight for the title, there would be probably three of us. Or even fight for an interim title. So we didn’t get this ability to do it. So now, I’m not going to keep going and say ‘Yeah, after this fight, if you win you get to fight for the title.’ It would be great, but sorry guys, I’m not a kid. Fuck it. I’m not waiting. Just keep going.
On his training camp for Oli Thompson, and his training at several different gyms:
I never quit my partners. So I used to train at Body Shop, Lakewood California. I’m training at Norwalk at Dog Pound MMA, the Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach California, and sometimes I do the quick back and forth with my boxing coach [Note: I was unable to catch the name of his boxing coach on the recording, but in the past it was Christophe Mendy.] I just make a schedule to keep training all the time. Sometimes it is difficult because the distance is pretty far between two gyms, but that’s the way I spend my time to prepare myself and be efficient.
On changing his training methods and intensity over the years to minimize injuries:
Honestly, I used to carry a lot of injuries, especially when I overtrained, or when I didn’t feed myself correctly. What I mean correctly, I didn’t eat enough. Or I was just tired, because I never rest. With the injuries coming, I have to be careful about boxing in the gym. At the time eight years ago, it happened in my life that I was pretty messed up, I broke my vertebrae and I tear the ligaments in both shoulders. I have this medical device helping me for any kind of tissue. From that, I go harder. I keep my schedule five hours training a day, and that’s what I am doing. If I have to spar, I spar, but it won’t be that crazy like before. Now it’s like training very smart.
On training for a specific opponent versus focusing on his own improvement:
For sure, I always work on my skills, because I want to be comfortable to use it, you know, and when the day is coming to fight against somebody my guys study my opponent so I can react and act as such.
On the evolution of his fighting style, how injuries affected his style in the past, and how he is in better health currently:
Honestly, it depends. It depends on what I can do. From the beginning, as I said, I used to be injured, and from that time I didn’t know how to heal. I used to see different physical therapy doctors who suggested some surgery to get better, or different therapy treatments. But since, I discovered eight years ago the therapy that saved my life. I don’t say that because I want to promote that brand, but because it’s true. My experience with that device is really small compared what people before me experienced. I like that shit. Everybody used to be skeptical, but we change. Many fighters, many UFC fighters, use that device for their treatment when they get injured, and they feel the difference right away. And it’s not to say a few of them, we have several. Honestly, I like it. I feel great, and my coach sees the difference.
[Note: He didn’t specify the treatment, but apparently it is Winback TECAR treatment, for which he has served as a spokesman. Since he didn’t mention the brand, I am convinced he truly believes in its benefits and was not trying to promote the brand in the interview.]
On fighting Oli Thompson and his own aversion to fighting former training partners:
We used to train more than three times together, so he’s pretty familiar. He’s shorter than me, but he’s a big guy. He’s really strong. He hits hard. I’m tall, I have the reach. I don’t want to fight him. That simple. I don’t want to fight him. I don’t know why, but things happen, and we’re going to face each other, so fuck it. I used to tell him that before. We trained and he’s a great partner. We evolve together and he improved his game with me. And in the end, sure. If he wants to fly, he can fly, no matter what. It’s like fighting your brother, or your cousin, you know. I don’t care if you switch gyms, you know. Do not push that fight like you have something to prove or whatever. But fights happen, so there’s going to be a fight. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be personal or whatever.
On the possibility of fighting his friend Rampage Jackson now that Rampage has mentioned possibly moving to heavyweight:[Laughing] Don’t think about it. We have a really good connection, a great connection with each other, so never. Never. It would be great, but honestly, no.
On what Oli Thompson brings to the fight, and what threat he poses for Thompson:
You know, everything is a trade for each other. A fight is a fight, and he has the ability to fight, He is coming to fight. That’s the thing that makes him a good fighter. No matter what, somebody is coming. He’s earned a belt, you know. He’s skilled and he’s good. So he wants to put you down and he will put you down. He has the ability to do it. The threat for him will be my anger. If I go into the fight without anger, it will be nice for him. If I go in that fight angry, it will be way different. So that’s the big threat.
On learning from losses, and evolving as a fighter:
Yeah, you know what, but it’s different. The thing is, in a fight you have to be clever. The thing is, you are not coming in a fight just to lose. For sure you learn from your losses, but the thing is, every win or loss, I learn from that. Every fight, I learn. To be stronger. I’m a competitor. You get a chance to knock me down, good for you. If not, you just have to survive, because you never know what to expect from me. If you do it, it wasn’t because you were better than me. You get me before, before because I wasn’t there… I wasn’t focused enough. From the beginning, I didn’t use drugs, no matter what. Some of them were earlier, or still, whatever. Some of them, it was rare to be clean. But anyway, no disrespect for the win of my opponents. A win is a win. And I have no anger, no grumpy mood about that. That is sports. If I win, I take it. If I lose, I take it. Another thing that makes you better. For sure you can learn from the loss, but it depends how you are going to learn. For some guys, they get to be traumatized from that, and from that loss he never is the fighter like he was in the beginning. You know what, it breaks the will. When you get the will broken, I can bet anything that the best fighter ever, he won’t come back the same. And you know what? Just about the last year and in the last few months, you used to see those effects on fighters. I won’t say names, but you know who I am talking about. They keep saying that they are the greatest and stuff, but inside, they are not the same. They are broken. No disrespect. I support them no matter what. They did something good in the sport. Wonderful. Somebody, they get the great chance, to be promoted at the right time, to take what they deserve, or what they did not deserve, at the right time, and that’s it. So enjoy. But for sure, I wish they learn from that, from losses, and they will learn more. That’s life. We don’t have to be young to learn from everything. We have no age to learn. At 99 years old, one century, two centuries, we are still learning. That is why with martial arts fighters, we are doing that. We always increase our skills, to get better than yesterday.
*OK, here is why the interview is incomplete: Shortly after the appointed time for the call, Lauren, the Spike TV representative, called to let me know that the interviews were running late. No problem, these things happen. A while later, she called again and patched me through with Cheick Kongo. It was a fun conversation. Kongo was very forthcoming and passionate in his answers. However, since he was already running late and had other writers waiting to talk to him, we had to cut the interview short after about 25 minutes. At that point I had only asked him about half of the questions I had prepared. On top of that, the phone connection wasn’t the best. Between the poor audio quality of the recording, his deep voice and thick French accent, and my poor hearing [I’m partially deaf in one ear.], transcribing the interview was challenging. After about nine hours total under headphones listening to each sentence numerous times, I finally finished the transcript, but I have to confess to being able to piece together only about 80% of his responses.
For all these reasons, the interview is necessarily incomplete and choppy, with some sentences or phrases missed in the quotes above. I strongly considered not doing an article, but if Cheick Kongo takes the time to answer my questions, I feel a responsibility to present his responses to the best of my limited ability. If the result misrepresents what Mr. Kongo had to say, the fault is entirely mine.