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After almost five years away from Bellator MMA, Vitaly Minakov will make his long-awaited return to the promotion at Bellator 216 this Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. In his second tenure with the California-based organization, the Russian returns wiser and more experienced and sounds excited for new beginnings.
It has been a long and winding road for Minakov, 34, to get back to the company over which he once reigned as heavyweight champion. After the first -- and only -- defense of his crown in April 2014, Minakov was under the belief he had met all the requirements of his contract at the time.
“I had signed a contract with [Bellator],” he told Izvestia.ru in 2016, “not based on the number of matches but for a period of three years.”
Although some speculated the undefeated fighter had his mind set on a run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he claims that was not the case.
“I switched promotions, not because of the UFC but [because] I was looking for better deal,” Minakov told Sherdog.com.
As a champion, his deal allowed the promotion to extend the contract longer than the original terms. With the fighter looking for a new and better accord and the promotion looking to continue the current one, the two sides were at a stalemate. That precluded Minakov from competing elsewhere in North America. However, it did not hinder him from seeking out offers abroad. “I was looking for a better agreement,” Minakov said, “and during that time, I received way better offers from Russian promoters.”
One promotion managed to procure the four-time sambo world champion’s services: Fight Nights Global. During his seven-fight stay, he played wrecking ball and demolished every fighter put in front of him. He earned a finish in every single bout, with only one of them reaching the third round. Despite having success at home and under a deal with which he was happy, Minakov actually longed to return to Bellator.
“I was looking for my return to the Bellator as soon as I left the organization,” he said.
Minakov credits his new manager for brokering an acceptable agreement.
“One day I met Ali Abdelaziz, my current manager,” he said, “and he [negotiated] everything for my return.”
That return consists of a brand-new contact that has the fighter locked in as a Bellator competitor for the foreseeable future.
“I’m very excited about my return,” Minakov said. “I got a new deal. After this fight, I have at least five more fights [with Bellator].”
While the promotion’s 2013 heavyweight tournament winner is finally back in the fold, he will not pick up where he left off. Minakov upon his return will not be handed the title he never lost inside the Bellator cage. That belt currently rests in the hands of heavyweight grand prix winner Ryan Bader, meaning Minakov will have to earn the opportunity to be the two-division champion’s first title challenger. To do so, he will have to defeat the same man he faced the last time he competed in the United States: longtime heavyweight standout Cheick Kongo. The pair fought in a competitive five-round bout that saw Minakov’s hand raised via unanimous decision. While Minakov took his talent to FNG and maintained his undefeated record, Kongo has put together an impressive run of his own since they last faced off. He won nine of his next 10 bouts and is currently on a seven-fight winning streak, having earned notable victories over former Bellator heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov, UFC veteran Timothy Johnson and Javy Ayala in that time.
Minakov believes he has become a more “experienced fighter” since their first scrap five years ago. While his respect for Kongo remains unchanged, he could not say if his opponent has grown, as well.
“Kongo is an experienced and smart fighter,” Minakov said. “I’m not sure if he has improved, but we will see very soon.”
The Minakov-Kongo clash in 2014 marks the last time the Bellator heavyweight belt was defended. Since the Russian was never beaten for the title, the rematch with Kongo could be viewed as a battle for the organization’s lineal championship. When asked about the fight possibly deciding the identity of the “true” Bellator heavyweight king, Minakov demurred. He prefers to own his position as a former champion.
“I was fairly stripped of the title,” he said, “so I cannot consider myself as the champion.”
Even though another win over Kongo could lead to a fight with Bader, Minakov was not ready to speak on hypotheticals. Talking about future opponents has never been his mode of operation. He remains ready to compete against any of the notable fighters in the division, from the aforementioned Bader to Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Mirko Filipovic.
“I don’t care who they put in front of me,” Minakov said.