You know how in movies and video games there are those characters who rank second only to boss and must be defeated in order for the story’s hero to move forward to the final challenge?

It could be someone like Gogo from the film Kill Bill that Uma Thurman’s character had to get through in order to face her boss, O-Ren Ishii, and then past her to get to the even bigger boss, Bill. Or maybe someone like Goro, the four-armed brute from the original Mortal Kombat video games that stood as the last step before facing the final boss, Shang Tsung, in order to beat the game.

Well, we have those in MMA too, and they’re called gatekeepers.

It’s an unofficial title that is given to fighters that are very good, but for whatever reason are just not champions. They can beat most competition, but cannot consistently do so against those at the top. But it’s enough to keep them relevant. So, they often find themselves serving as barometers in fights against up-and-coming challengers to judge how good the other person really is. If you can beat an ordained gatekeeper, then you’re probably title-challenger material.

Next Saturday’s UFC 159 will see a clash between two of the UFC’s best heavyweight “gatekeepers” in Cheick Kongo and Roy Nelson.

Don’t get me wrong with my use of the word “gatekeeper” to describe the two. They’re both great heavyweights that have always shown promise, but they have suffered key losses to the best of the UFC’s big men. That “promise” is a well that begins to dry quickly with age, and neither are spring chickens, with Kongo checking in at 37 and Nelson at 36. The winner of this unofficial “grapple of the gatekeepers” match is fighting to keep that slight bit of hope alive that maybe they’ll get another shot against the best to prove they can come out on top after all.

This match-up makes sense, because when we compare their careers, we’ll see a lot of similarities.

Kongo has 17 UFC bouts, which puts him in the top 20 for having the most appearances in the company’s history. You have to be doing something right to stick around for that long in the world’s biggest promotion, right?

If you look at Kongo’s percentages in the UFC, 13 of his 17 fights have ended in a finish. That means that 76 percent of the time he’s helping to keep a fight out of the judges’ hands, and 52 percent of the time he’s winning by a finish. That’s a big reason why the UFC likes having him around.

Kongo hasn’t been extremely consistent in his UFC wins, but he’s mostly put on exciting fights, which goes a long way for a fighter. If you go back to June of 2011, to his come-from-behind victory and “Knockout of the Year”-winning performance over Pat Barry, you’ll see what I mean.

Yet, as generous as the UFC can be to its fighters, it can also be just as wrathful when the time comes to trim the fat. Kongo’s last three fights were boring decisions against mid-level guys sandwiched between a TKO loss. That’s not the kind of stuff that is going to put a fighter on the UFC brass’ good side. So it makes you wonder how secure someone like Kongo is in the promotion if he’s not consistently providing drama in the cage.

Meanwhile, Nelson has half the UFC fights of his upcoming UFC 159 competitor, but came into the promotion by winning a season of The Ultimate Fighter reality series. His time on the show helped to create fans that are accustomed to his genial attitude and fat belly. In a lot of ways, it normalizes him to the average person, which makes him a guy that people want to see, and someone they want to have a beer with. That’s a qualification in how we choose our nation’s presidents for crying out loud.

Still, we know that UFC President Dana White isn’t a “Big Country” fan when Nelson chooses to be proactive about things that are on his mind. When we know a fighter is on White’s bad side, suddenly reading about them receiving a pink slip wouldn’t seem out to come out of left field.

But Nelson has picked up all of his UFC wins by way of KO or TKO, and against good competition. His current win-by-stoppage percentage in the UFC is 62 percent. And, boy, is it entertaining to see a guy like Nelson, who looks like he just rolled off his couch and into the cage, drop guys with a big looping right hand. For that, the general public likes him. Furthermore, he’s mostly knocking guys out when it’s time to go to work. It’s hard to see why the UFC wouldn’t want to capitalize on that appeal, even if his bosses can be at odds with him at times.

Like Kongo, however, Nelson has lost when it counts. He was drubbed by Junior dos Santos in their match, which showcased his iron chin, but did little else other than prove how dos Santos is on another level when it comes to fighting. Two more top-10 heavyweights, Frank Mir and Fabricio Werdum, were able to hand Nelson unanimous decision losses as well. It’s been shown that Nelson can put a hurt on guys when he’s winning, but his most recent losses to top-shelf competition have found him operating on a level outside of title contention, which puts him in gatekeeper limbo.

But that ability to float just outside of the top of the heap has also kept both guys relevant.

Kongo has won four of his last six fights, stretching back to 2010, and one of those was a draw which could have been a win for the Frenchman against promising heavyweight Travis Browne, had Kongo not been penalized for grabbing his opponents shorts. His last two losses to top competition goes back to 2009 in fights against Mir and Cain Velasquez. Kongo isn’t in terrible shape as far as his place in the division, and he could possibly be on his way towards getting a shot at a top guy or hot prospect if he can beat Nelson without taking part in another boring match or experiencing any in-cage brain farts.

While semi-relevant, Nelson is a bit harder to argue as being able to move past his current status as gatekeeper to the top of the division. He’s lost to three top-10 guys since 2010. They were pretty one-sided losses where Nelson showed great toughness, but lacked an overall ability to rise above his opponents superior work.

However, the fans still like him, and he’s pocketed extra cash for two “Knockout of the “Night” performances and one “Fight of the Night.” That might not make him a champion, but there sure are a lot worse positions for a fighter to be in. A loss against Kongo would be a significant blow to Nelson’s current trend of handily beating anyone outside of the the mix, so the pressure will be on him for this one.

Still, let’s not get too caught up in determining a guy’s career just yet, because, who knows, the winner of this match could be on their way towards starting an epic run out of gatekeeper status and towards contendership, similar to the Cinderella man, Mark Hunt.

Hunt was a guy whose UFC contract was picked up in the company’s acquisition of Pride. At that time, Hunt was someone his new employers wouldn’t normally have around. Still, with a losing record and a loss in his first UFC match against Sean McCorkle, Hunt pushed forward and has gone on a heroic run to become a possible contender.

After his initial UFC loss, the “Super Samoan” earned four KO/TKO’s in a row, including one over Kongo, which has brought him to a fight—possibly for No. 1 contender status—with former champion and top-three heavyweight Junior dos Santos at UFC 160. That’s the tiny bit of hope that lingers for a guy like Nelson or Kongo to achieve.

Remember, Hunt has done this at the age of 39, an advanced age over most of his contemporaries in the division. So, don’t tell me the other heavyweights are too old to break free from their current status to follow Hunt’s lead.

There are a lot of things you can say about heavyweights Nelson and Kongo, but “UFC champion” isn’t one of them. The fairly derogatory term “gatekeeper” seems to apply best, given their UFC runs, even if it doesn’t seem to do justice to the level of competition they are operating against.

But don’t say hope for something more is dead.

Photo: Cheick Kongo (R) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.