As the Bellator MMA heavyweight throne sits empty, Cheick Kongo and onetime King of the Cage champion Tony Johnson are but two of the men interested in filling the vacuum left by the deposed Vitaly Minakov.
Kongo will meet Johnson in the Bellator 161 main event on Friday at the HEB Center in Cedar Park, Texas. In the bantamweight co-headliner, former two-division Bellator titleholder Joe Warren takes on American Top Team’s Sirwan Kakai. The rest of the four-fight main card features a women’s flyweight battle pitting Anastasia Yankova against Veta Arteaga and a lightweight match pairing Derek Campos with Djamil Chan.
Something of an institution in the heavyweight division, Kongo will enter the cage on a two-fight winning streak. The 41-year-old Frenchman last competed at Bellator 150 in February, when he was awarded a split decision over Vinicius Kappke de Queiroz at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane, Kansas. A model of consistency throughout his career, Kongo has suffered back-to-back losses only once in his 15-years as a professional. He has secured 16 of his 24 victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
Johnson has rattled off three straight wins. The 30-year-old American Kickboxing Academy representative last appeared at Bellator 148 on Jan. 29, when he disposed of Raphael Butler with third-round punches at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California. Victories over former Legacy Fighting Championship titleholder, two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship titlist Tim Sylvia and reigning M-1 Global champion Alexander Volkov anchor Johnson’s resume.
With the Kongo-Johnson showdown on the marquee, here is what to watch for at Bellator 161:
A Reputation to Uphold
The self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” has some explaining to do.
Warren will be back in the cage for the first time since being ragdolled and choked unconscious by Darrion Caldwell in a “Beatdown of the Year” contender at Bellator 151 on March 4. The defeat, as decisive in nature as any in recent memory, interrupted a run of six wins in seven outings for the soon-to-be 40-year-old Grand Rapids, Michigan, native. A staple of the Bellator organization since 2010, Warren owns wins over Georgi Karakhanyan, Patricio Freire, Joe Soto, Marcos Galvao, Eduardo Dantas and L.C. Davis. He was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Michigan and a Greco-Roman gold medalist at the 2006 FILA Wrestling World Championships.
Kakai was jettisoned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship following a split decision loss to Frankie Saenz in August 2015. He made his first appearance under the Bellator banner on March 4, as he wound up on the wrong side of unanimous decision against Joe Taimanglo.
If Looks Could Kill
Some have called her the Paige VanZant of Bellator.
Yankova will try to take the next step toward legitimacy and proving herself as more than just a pretty face when she squares off with Arteaga in a catchweight clash at 130 pounds. The 25-year-old Russian kickboxer made her long-awaited organizational debut at Bellator 152 on April 16, when she needed just 95 seconds to tap Anjela Pink with a first-round armbar. It was the third submission victory in as many professional appearances for Yankova, who has set up shop at the powerhouse American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.
Both of Arteaga’s pro bouts have gone the distance. She last competed at Bellator 155 on May 20, when she captured a unanimous decision from Jackie Vandenburgh.
Campos has his work cut out for him.
The 28-year-old Mohler MMA export has lost three of his past five bouts but recorded the most significant win of his career at Bellator 149 on Feb. 19, when wiped out Melvin Guillard with second-round punches. An equal opportunity finisher, Campos has authored five wins by knockout or technical knockout and five more by submission. A former King of the Cage champion, he holds notable victories over UFC veterans Yosdenis Cedeno, Cody Pfister and Estevan Payan.
Chan, 26, finds himself on a seven-fight winning streak. The Dutch prospect was dazzling in his Bellator debut on April 22, as he knocked out World Series of Fighting alum Richard Patishnock 3:09 into round one. Chan sports 18-, 38- and 94-second finishes on his resume and has already won titles in the Respect Fighting Championship and German MMA Championship organizations. He was cast on Season 22 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” only to be eliminated during qualifying.
Daniel Pineda has a track record of success on which to draw.
The former two-division Legacy Fighting Championship titleholder has gone 3-1 since being released by the UFC in 2014 following back-to-back decision defeats to Robert Whiteford and Diego Brandao. Pineda returned to the Bellator cage for the first time in almost six years on Feb. 19, and though he lost a split decision to Emanuel Sanchez, the 31-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt showed he had staying power. All 21 of his victories have resulted in finishes, 14 of them inside one round.
Pineda will face Resurrection Fighting Alliance mainstay Mark Dickman on the Bellator 161 prelims. Dickman, 32, has won five of his last six fights -- a five-round decision loss to Justin Lawrence was the outlier -- and has never been finished in 13 professional appearances.