There isn’t a more thankless role in the UFC than becoming a gatekeeper. The contenders get more high-profile bouts, the prospects get more media attention and the aging stars get more main events. In effect, a good gatekeeper will get a few opportunities over the course of their career, but they’ll never quite be able to make the most of them, and eventually the fighter will be little more than a well-known guy stuck in the middle of the pack.

The definition of a gatekeeper is simple. A good gatekeeper can beat the vast majority of fighters in their weight class, but when pitted against the highest tier of competition, they can’t quite get the job done. It’s not the most appealing spot to be on the UFC roster, but in all likelihood the fighter can string enough wins together against the non-elite competition to make a pretty good career out of becoming a mixed martial artist.

However, the sad truth is that you can only remain a gatekeeper for so long. Eventually, the quality of fighters looking to get into title contention is going to increase to the point where a new level of gatekeeper is needed.

We’ve seen this happen more and more frequently as the level of talent on the UFC roster continues to grow. As a result, some of the more popular fighters outside of title contention have gone from safely holding on to their roster spots to dangling on the unemployment line. The latest casualty of this growing trend? Cheick Kongo.

Kongo has been a mainstay on the UFC’s heavyweight roster for years. After amassing a strong 3-1 record during his early days inside the Octagon, Kongo earned himself a shot at Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic at UFC 75, and when the Frenchman earned himself a decision victory over such a MMA legend, his spot on the UFC roster was solidified. All Kongo had to do was keeping winning the majority of his fights and his job was almost unquestionably secure.

For a while, that’s exactly what Kongo did. Despite falling short in bouts against top-level competition like Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir, the Wolfslair Academy team member still had a 6-3-1 record inside the cage from 2008 to 2011, and it seemed like he was going to continue to keep rolling right along in the heavyweight division.

Soon after, however, things started going wrong for Kongo, and he’s never truly recovered. A knockout loss to Mark Hunt at UFC 144 broke Kongo’s four-fight unbeaten streak. Although his follow-up bout against Shawn Jordan resulted in a win, the stalling tactics used by Kongo made the fight one of the least entertaining in recent memory. Despite going 3-1-1 in his last five fights, Kongo’s back was firmly against the wall heading into his UFC 159 fight against Roy Nelson. When “Big Country” put the Frenchman to sleep with a big right hand just two minutes into the bout, Kongo fans had to be concerned about his job security. Their fears were confirmed a few days later. The UFC announced that Kongo’s contract had expired following his loss to Nelson, and reports say that the UFC has no intention of resigning Kongo right away.

The future for Kongo is unclear at this point, but due to his popularity from his UFC tenure, he should have plenty of options. World Series of Fighting has made a habit of signing UFC castoffs that can draw in an audience, as evidenced by its signings of Andrei Arlovski, Anthony Johnson and Jon Fitch. Kongo would likely be able to step into the promotion as a top contender for the inaugural heavyweight title. The chance to hold a championship in one of the larger promotions in the world has to appeal to Kongo, who never quite earned the shot at UFC gold he desired over the last half decade.

If WSOF doesn’t become an option, it wouldn’t be too surprising if Bellator came calling as well. Although it may not be the best idea for the 37 year-old heavyweight to try to get through the grueling schedule that comes along with winning a Bellator tournament, a spot with Bellator would put Kongo back in the public eye and give him a decent shot at winning a championship.

The third, more boring option for Kongo would be to try to climb his way back into the UFC. A few wins on the regional scene and a restructured contract would probably be enough to convince UFC matchmaker Joe Silva to bring Kongo back into the Octagon for another run, but there really isn’t much left for Kongo to gain by fighting in the Octagon. His role as a gatekeeper was effectively stolen from him by “Big Country” when Nelson knocked him out cold last month and unless he can get on a Matt Brown-esque career resurgence, another UFC run is going to result in Kongo once again becoming a middle-of-the-pack fighter.

Kongo has much more to gain by parting ways with the UFC at this point. A spot in WSOF or Bellator would provide Kongo with new match-ups, new scenery and a ton of new opportunities. But perhaps most importantly, he would become one of the featured fighters in his new promotion, and if he wins himself a title in the process, that’s just icing on the cake.

Kongo has been a good, but not great, UFC heavyweight for far too long now. It’s time for him to move on and attempt to become a star for someone else.

Photo: Cheick Kongo (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.