Bellator 115’s Vitaly Minakov: ‘Cheick Kongo can’t catch up to my grappling experience’

00 Vitaly MinakovDespite this being Vitaly Minakov’s first Bellator Heavyweight Title defense, the talented Russian has experienced this feeling several times before. Undefeated (13-0) in mixed martial arts, Minakov hails from an extensive combat sambo, judo and wrestling background, rising to the World Championship gold medal level for four straight years from 2008-2011. Since transitioning to mixed martial arts, Minakov has been a wrecking ball. He smashed his way through the 2013 Summer Series Heavyweight Tournament and earned a shot at teammate Alexander Volkov where he promptly disposed of “Drago” inside the first frame to capture the Bellator gold. The 29-year old is slated to square off against his stiffest test to date in UFC veteran Cheick Kongo later tonight (April 4, 2014) in the main event of Bellator 155 and he spoke to about how life has changed since becoming champion, why age won’t be a factor and how he’d like his fight to finish in this exclusive interview. Check it out: Brian Hemminger: We had to have our interview delayed yesterday because you had some travel issues. Can you discuss what problems you had? Vitaly Minakov: Well I can say it was a blessing in disguise. Our flight from Moscow to New York City was delayed a little bit so airport control took tons of time and we were delayed on our connecting flight to New York City to Phoenix and we had to spend the night in New York. It was not that bad actually because I had a bed, I got to sleep, I was rested and I had a nice day before we flew from New York City to Phoenix. In Phoenix, we also got delayed for our fight from Phoenix to Reno and the next flight was full with no available seats. Bellator helped us out though and they bought us a first class ticket. We spent some quality time in Phoenix and then we flew first class to Reno. So even though the travel took longer than it was supposed to, I can say that I’m not tired and I got to relax a little bit. Brian Hemminger: Most fighters that fight overseas, they usually fly in a week or more before the bout to get acclimated. How come you cut it much closer to the fight when you arrive? Vitaly Minakov: For me, in order to get good acclimation, the best is to come one month or at least three weeks before the fight. For this fight, my whole team and my managers decided that it would be best to prepare in Moscow because my original training conditions were there. I only need to come a couple days before the event before the fight and it’s not something that causes trouble for me. In my past, not for MMA fights but in sambo and wrestling events, I know that if I come just a couple days before the match, I can still have my motivation. I don’t give myself time to overthink the fight. I don’t think it will be an issue and I’m ready. Brian Hemminger: How have things changed for you since you became champion? Does anything feel different? Vitaly Minakov: When I won the title, I got a lot of attention back home from different types of level of society in Russia. For example, the government and my home province of Bryansk, I do a lot of things to improve the lives of other people. I meet a lot of kids and talk to them about sports and importance of living healthy and developing good habits. It’s very important for all of Russian society to learn that they have a champion in Bellator MMA, a huge organization in the United States. We have a very good following over there thanks to me and Alexander Shlemenko being champions in Bellator. I think it plays a very important role in the social life that I’m able to make a lot of people want to be like me as a champion and I’m able to tell them about my sport. It helps me make my home a better place. Brian Hemminger: With those added responsibilities, does it put any added pressure on you to remain Bellator Heavyweight Champion? Vitaly Minakov: Well of course being champion is a huge responsibility, but I cannot say that I feel pressure, because not just in MMA but I’ve been a champion in wrestling and combat sambo. I know how to deal with the pressure and I feel very well. I try to stay away from the pitfalls that cause a fighter to feel the pressure and that’s why I can say that I don’t feel much pressure at all. Brian Hemminger: What did you think of Cheick Kongo’s performance in his first two fights for Bellator when he earned this title shot by winning the tournament? Vitaly Minakov: I think that when Cheick Kongo won the last tournaments, his opponents that he beat were pretty comfortable for him because they were a little one-dimensional for him and they were all strikers. Also, I was very surprised by Peter Graham’s performance because I know that he is capable of much more than what he showed in his fight against Cheick Kongo. I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t ready for that fight. I think that I have an advantage on the ground and I think I have a lot to offer against Cheick Kongo. I have a lot of surprises for him. My fight with him will be completely different than his last two fights against those other two opponents in Bellator MMA. Brian Hemminger: Cheick Kongo is a fighter who was close to the top of the UFC heavyweight division a few times and a lot of fans here in America are very familiar with him here. Do you think a victory over Kongo is what you need to legitimize yourself for the American fans? Vitaly Minakov: The outside aspects of this title fight and it’s implications are the last thing on my mind. Right now I’m just thinking about winning the fight and I don’t really care about the significance it could bring me. It’s more important to get in the cage and secure a victory. Brian Hemminger: Kongo is getting up there in years. He’s actually 38 years old now. With you being nine years younger than him, do you think his age could negatively impact him in this fight? Vitaly Minakov: I don’t think for this fight age will be a factor because we are heavyweights and in he heavyweight division, age does not matter as much as the other weight classes. Many fighters who are older at heavyweight still compete at a very high level. I know he is hungry and he’s been active. He has a ton of experience so I don’t think age will be a factor. I do not feel it will be my advantage. Brian Hemminger: Kongo is pretty strong in all areas. He has the striking background, but he’s developed his clinch and wrestling significantly in recent years. Is there any particular aspect of his game that you’re concerned about in this fight? Vitaly Minakov: I have been wrestling all my life and I’ve been doing sambo for many years as well. I know that it’s impossible to develop wrestling, learn all the nuances and tricks that are acquired over a lifetime of competition in just a short period of time. Even if he catches up in some of the wrestling since he started competing in MMA, I know that I’ve been doing it for a way longer period of time at a higher level than him. I know a lot of things that he’s not aware of. I think I have a very big advantage and I feel confident that I’ll be able to use it. Brian Hemminger: When you visualize victory against Cheick Kongo, what do you see? Vitaly Minakov: When I think about the fight, as much as I think about it, I often visualize the ways I can finish it. There are so many ways I can do it and I visualize all of them: How I can beat him standing up, how I can beat him on the ground and everything I can do to him to beat him. I have a lot of ways to do that and that adds to my confidence. Vitaly would like to thank his whole team, everyone who supports him, his manager Alexei Zhernikov, his sparring partners and Bellator for giving him a chance in the United States to become champion.       

Written by Brian Hemminger

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