Cheick Kongo: UFC Career Retrospective on the French Heavyweight

Sean SmithAnalyst IApril 5, 2017

Oct. 29, 2011; Las Vegas, NV, USA; UFC fighter Cheick Kongo during UFC 137 at the Mandalay Bay event center. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Cheick Kongo spent nearly seven years on the UFC heavyweight roster, competing inside the Octagon 18 times, before being let go from the promotion on Wednesday.

With a knockout loss to Roy Nelson at UFC 159, Kongo fulfilled his contract with the world's top MMA organization, which is not looking to re-sign the 37-year-old veteran right now.

Though he hadn't lost back-to-back fights, Kongo has not been considered a serious contender in the heavyweight division in years. Coupled with the fact that he was making $70,000 to show, that made Kongo a fighter who was generating diminishing returns for the UFC as a business.

With the UFC looking to cut costs and trim their roster, Kongo chose a bad time to start fading, and that has left him with a choice between retirement or fighting for a secondary MMA promotion.


The Beginning

Kongo's first Octagon appearance came in July 2006, when he met Gilbert Aldana at UFC 61.

On the same night that Tim Sylvia won his rubber match with Andrei Arlovski, UFC fans got their first look at a future heavyweight contender and one of the most physically imposing men to ever set foot inside the Octagon.

After being taken down twice by Aldana, Kongo was able to work his way back to a standing position and began battering his opponent with strikes from the clinch. Adana suffered a bad cut in the process and was not allowed to continue fighting after being checked on by the cageside doctor.

In his sophomore UFC showing, which took place only one month after his first UFC win, Kongo was successful in similar fashion. Taken down by Christian Wellisch early on, Kongo escaped and blasted away on his opponent near the fencing. A knee ultimately led to another stoppage win for the Frenchman.

With two finishes to start his UFC career, Kongo's public image was cemented. The chiseled heavyweight with a kickboxing background was deemed a devastating striker who could one day threaten the division's elite competitors.

That's why Kongo was labeled a massive favorite in his third Octagon appearance, a bout with unproven UFC newcomer Carmelo Marrero. 

Marrero, though, was able to better exploit the holes in Kongo's takedown defense than any of the French heavyweight's prior opponents. Taken down six times in the three-round bout, Kongo was never able to unleash his striking arsenal and ended up suffering a huge upset loss, his first inside the Octagon.


Rise to Title Contention

After losing to Marrero, Kongo was matched up with another grappler in Assuerio Silva. Although Kongo was again taken to the ground six times by the jiu-jitsu black belt, he did a better job of keeping his distance when standing and landed enough strikes to atone for his poor takedown defense on the scorecards.

Following back-to-back fights that left Kongo incapable of utilizing his knockout power, the UFC was looking to match the heavyweight up with another kickboxer. Another one of the promotion's priorities at the time was getting Mirko Filipovic back on track after a shocking knockout loss to Gabriel Gonzaga.

Killing two birds with one stone, the UFC booked a fight between Kongo and "Cro Cop" at UFC 75. 

Heavily utilizing knees to the groin, I mean from the clinch, Kongo defeated Filipovic via decision. Although there was controversy due to the fact that Kongo did not have a point taken away for landing multiple low blows, the win was still one of the biggest of Kongo's career, leading him to a new level of competition.

Kongo's victory over Filipovic would be followed by another setback, though. Matched up against Heath Herring, Kongo showed some improved offensive wrestling with five takedowns, but he struggled on the canvas. Herring executed multiple reversals and controlled Kongo from dominant positions in the latter rounds.

Although the loss to Herring would result in a step down in competition for Kongo, the French heavyweight was still being sold as a potential contender in the division. Mismatches with inferior competition gave Kongo the chance to build momentum and showcase his finishing ability.

Where Herring was able to use superior grappling technique to overcome his strength, Kongo's next three opponents were manhandled in all areas by the Wolfslair MMA Academy product. With stoppages of Dan Evensen, Mustapha Al Turk and Antoni Hardonk, Kongo was back in a position to take bigger fights.


Facing Reality

 A bout with another rising heavyweight in Cain Velasquez gave Kongo the chance to finally prove he was a legitimate contender for a UFC championship.

Instead, Kongo's shaky takedown defense came back to haunt him. Although Kongo rocked Velasquez early in the bout, the eventual heavyweight champion came back strong with his wrestling and dominated the fight on the ground, besting Kongo by a wide margin on the scorecards.

Despite the loss, Kongo was immediately given another opportunity to battle a top heavyweight in Frank Mir, who was aiming for a bounce-back win following his memorable UFC 100 loss to Brock Lesnar.

Though Mir was more well-known for his submission skills, he rocked Kongo with a punch in the first round before latching onto a guillotine choke and putting his opponent to sleep.

In a career full of ups and downs, this was the only time Kongo suffered back-to-back losses, but it was a telling pair of defeats that showed Kongo had significant faults in all areas of his game.


The Home Stretch

Kongo was given a fight with Paul Buentello, a matchup clearly designed to give him the best chance of avoiding a third straight loss. Buentello took a beating from Kongo before finally submitting due to strikes in the third round.

With that win, Kongo's established name pushed him back into an important fight with Travis Browne, who was undefeated at the time and looking to rise quickly through the heavyweight ranks. In one of the biggest signs of his pending decline, Kongo faded late in the fight and cost himself a decision win by having a point taken away for grabbing Browne's shorts.

Although Kongo's fight with Browne was called a draw, it was another setback for the heavyweight who was running out of time to earn his first UFC title shot. 

It was back to facing low-ranked heavyweight for Kongo, who barely survived a flurry against Pat Barry before landing a Hail Mary punch that resulted in one of the most impressive comebacks in UFC history. Kongo followed that jaw-dropping win with a lackluster one against Matt Mitrione, which prompted the UFC to set him up with a more proven striker for entertainment purposes.

Mark Hunt forced Kongo into a much more active contest and became the first fighter to knock out the Frenchman inside the Octagon.

The roller-coaster ride continued for Kongo, who then beat Sean Jordan in uneventful fashion to set up his fight with Roy Nelson, and we now all know how that matchup ended.


Kongo's Legacy

Turning 38 years old on May 17, it's tough to imagine Kongo earning his way back into the Octagon. Considering he's now suffered two harsh knockout losses in the past 14 months, Kongo may be best served retiring rather than taking further damage in less prestigious promotions like Bellator MMA or World Series of Fighting.

While he never really picked up the win against a top heavyweight that would have labeled him a serious title threat in the division, Kongo was a long-term fringe contender and regular gatekeeper in the world's biggest MMA organization.

Looking back, Kongo may have some regrets in never earning a title shot and being so conservative against opponents like Mitrione and Jordan. Nonetheless, Kongo finished his UFC career with many memorable moments and 11 wins inside the Octagon.

Although it would be safe to say Kongo was probably not going to be a top-10 UFC heavyweight again, he will be missed in a division that is still somewhat shallow.


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