Bellator’s matchmaking has been met with mixed reviews in recent months. Between the immediate title rematch for Pat Curran, the undue hype given to up-and-comer Brennan Ward as a title contender and the pure milking of the Michael Chandler/Eddie Alvarez saga, the promotion has finally hit the nail on the head with this Friday’s main event match-up for Bellator 115.

Newly crowned Bellator heavyweight champ and 2013 Summer Series winner Vitaly Minakov has made a big splash in his young career as a fighter. The Russian National and World sambo gold medalist first stepped into the realm of professional MMA only four years ago, and he hasn’t looked back. At 13-0, the 29-year-old has knocked out eight opponents and submitted four. He has only been to decision one time, back in his third fight. Now considered one of the top-20 heavyweights in the world, Minakov is set to defend his title for the first time, and the title defense comes against his toughest opponent yet.

A year ago, longtime UFC mainstay Cheick Kongo’s future was far from certain. He had alluded to the fact that he might not renew his contract with the promotion. In May, he turned down a four-fight offer from the UFC. Three months later, it was announced he would be joining his training partner, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, as part of Bellator’s new, beefed-up roster. In October, Kongo made his Bellator debut and earned a second-round TKO. Only a month later, he made his second appearance for the promotion and won via unanimous decision.

On Friday night, Minakov and Kongo will meet at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nev., as the Russian attempts to defend his title against one of the hardest-hitting kickboxers in the heavyweight division.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up, and as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Minakov – 9, Kongo – 10

Minakov may have a bunch of knockouts on his record, but Kongo has three more and was a 21-2 world kickboxing champion with 12 knockouts prior to entering the UFC. Although knockouts have been the Russian’s stoppage of choice, most of them have resulted from wrestling setups, whereas Kongo has the ability to destroy his opponents without leaving his feet. In fact, in his epic fight with Pat Barry back in June 2011, Kongo was basically knocked out twice before standing back up and dropping the American out cold at the midpoint of round one. Some people may feel that in his three knockout losses, Kongo has a bit of a glass jaw, but he has displayed an amazing ability to recover quickly.

Kongo is a huge problem for Minakov, both literally and figuratively. As a 6-foot-3 heavyweight in lesser promotions, he usually faces guys who are much smaller in stature. Ryan Martinez looked like a light heavyweight compared to Minakov. However, Kongo is an inch taller and has a whopping four-inch reach advantage. And, in respect to Martinez, Minakov showed that he can pound on his opponent for three straight rounds without earning a true knockout, so it may be tough for him to really put the hurt on the big Parisian.

On the feet, Kongo has a big advantage over Minakov.

Submission Grappling: Minakov – 10, Kongo – 9

What Minakov loses in striking, he greatly makes up for in grappling. The Russian holds one of the highest rankings in sambo, has won eight gold medals in the sport, and also holds a black belt in judo. Although he hasn’t gotten one in two years, Minakov’s four submission finishes check in at just around a minute or less. He wastes no time taking advantage of this strength. Kongo’s biggest defense is in not letting the fight get to that point.

As with most kickboxers, Kongo holds no belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and has really only trained in the sport as part of his MMA training. Of his three submission wins, only two were actual grappling submissions, and his last came way back in 2003. That being said, the Frenchman has only been submitted one time in 30 fights, and that was to BJJ black belt Frank Mir. Kongo’s best offense on the ground is his defense and his ability to get back to his feet. With his large frame, he is tough to keep down, but if anyone can do it, it would be the world sambo champ.

Chances are that his fight will not end in submission. However, if it does, there is nearly a 100 percent chance it will be in Minakov’s favor.

Wrestling: Minakov – 10, Kongo – 10

It has been mentioned many times above, but, pedigree aside, Minakov’s wrestling speaks for itself. Sambo, as a sport, combines elements of judo and freestyle wrestling, both of which are part of his repertoire. Wrestling is this guy’s specialty, through and through. For a big guy, he shoots fast, clinches up well and maintains positive control almost everytime he hits the mat. Kongo’s size does pose a problem, but it’s nothing Minakov’s skills cannot overcome.

Kongo’s best attribute in wrestling does not lie in takedown finesse or scrambling. He is just a big, strong guy who is tough to get to the mat and very difficult to keep there. On the feet, his clinch game is very high level, thanks to all of his Muay Thai experience. He can throw deadly strikes on a shorter opponent like Minakov, should the Russian get too close.

Although Minakov may be the superior wrestler, Kongo has displayed more issues with tough strikers like Roy Nelson and Mark Hunt than with tough wrestlers like Shawn Jordan, so this one is really a toss-up.


The x-factor in this match-up is definitely Kongo’s level of experience. The Parisian fighter fought in the Octagon 18 times before even thinking about leaving for Bellator. Although this is a huge score for the promotion, it is detrimental for an up-and-comer like Minakov. It was pretty sweet for him to win that belt so early in his career, but he literally has nothing to show Kongo that the big man hasn’t seen already. In addition to all of the top heavyweights mentioned above, Kongo has also faced UFC champ Cain Velasquez, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Travis Browne and Matt Mitrione, amongst many others. The biggest name that Minakov has fought is Alexander Volkov. The experience level in this fight is extremely lopsided in favor of Kongo.

Total: Minakov – 29, Kongo – 29

Verdict: Although the match-up might seem fairly even, it really isn’t. Minakov is a world-class wrestler and a great fighter for his level in the sport, but Kongo is a world-class fighter. Even though his biggest weakness is in submission grappling, his defense of said modality is top-tier. He’s not a walk-through submission, which is bad news for Minakov, since it may be his only way out of this one. Kongo is a better striker, he’s better in the clinch, and he will most likely put the first ding on the Russian’s record come Friday night.

Kongo by first-round TKO to become the new Bellator heavyweight champ.