The Beaten Path: Bellator's Vitaly Minakov Is Russia's Newest Super Prospect

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The Beaten Path: Bellator's Vitaly Minakov Is Russia's Newest Super Prospect

The Russian Revolution will not be socialized. 

The revolution will not be retweeted. It will not go viral. It won’t be measured in followers and likes. It will not be chronicled by gossip blogs, Facebook diatribes or controversial YouTube Interviews.

Nevertheless, somehow, some way, the revolution has a foothold in MMA. A new generation of Russian fighters is on American shores and making its way up the ranks of the sport’s most high-profile promotions. These fighters mean business. All business.

They aren't soundbite machines, but that’s OK. They’re pretty mechanized in plenty of other areas, like keeping their heads down and their noses clean, working hard, punching the head or rending the limbs off their opponents, then resuming the grind in hopes of doing it again as soon as Russianly possible.

Serious fans can recognize (if not pronounce) the names at the vanguard of this revolution. Alexander Shlemenko, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rustam Khabilov, Andrey Koreshkov, Frodo Khasbulaev and the list goes on.

Looming over this list, of course, is the most recognizable name of them all, Fedor Emelianenko, the illustrious retired heavyweight who buoys his up-and-coming countrymen just as much as he shadows them.

But the Russian Revolution may soon bring a new name to hot lists and MMA households around the nation and world—a secret weapon calibrated to unleash a new wave of terror on the heavyweight division. The name is Vitaly Minakov.

Minakov (11-0) faces Ryan Martinez Wednesday night at Bellator 97 in the promotion’s latest heavyweight tournament final. A win will earn Minakov a shot at a championship—currently held by another impressive Russian, Alexander Volkov—in only his fourth bout in Bellator and third on U.S. soil.

The average length of his first two Bellator engagements? A little less than six minutes. Minakov settled his side of the semifinal bracket in 32 seconds.

But all the data, hair-raising as they are, don’t encapsulate his dominance. His takedowns, trips and throws are not a bridge to offense but a violent attack in themselves, honed over years of wrestling, judo and sport sambo (the latter of which netted him several world and Russian titles). His control grappling is superior, his transitions are smooth, his submission repertoire is aggressive and very physical.

His stand-up game, particularly his footwork, is still progressing, but given that his last four wins came by knockout or TKO—largely thanks to that morning star swinging from the end of his right arm—it’s clear that progress is happening.

An MMA highlight reel for Vitaly Minakov
But it didn’t happen overnight. His involvement with combat sports began nearly two decades ago in Bryansk, a steel town carved from the thick woods of Western Russia. During what he called a “normal, working-class” childhood, he played basketball and soccer, but it all hit a new level when his father shared his hobby with his young son.

“My father brought me to one of his wrestling classes when I was 10 years old,” Minakov said through a translator in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “I wrestled for 12 years, and then at age 22, I started to train in sambo.”

Minakov, now 28, said he found his calling the moment he hit the mats.

“I picked my career after that first wrestling class,” he said. “It’s extremely hard to say where I’d be without sports. I can’t imagine my life without them. I’d be a completely different person.”

His MMA debut came in 2010, though it wasn’t until two years later he put sambo aside and made cage fighting a full-time job. Minakov trains with several different camps, being most closely affiliated with Bryansk Fighters and RusFighters Professional Sport Club, where Shlemenko is a head trainer.

“I always had the desire to do MMA. A lot of my friends were into it,” Minakov said. “I tried it and I really enjoyed it. I started to train and realized I was doing pretty well, so I switched over completely.”

“Pretty well” is one way to put it. Only one of his pro contests went the distance. Five submission wins came by four different methods. All but one of his five knockout victories happened in the opening stanza.

The dominance is opening doors for Minakov, who spends most of his time these days in Moscow but also trains in the U.S. He said there is a fraternal feel among Russian fighters, noting particularly close relationships with Shlemenko, Bellator’s reigning middleweight champ, and Koreshkov, who fights for the welterweight belt at Bellator 97.

Minakov wants to follow in their footsteps. But what about the UFC, which has sometimes clashed with Russian fighters and promoters? Does he ever watch Cain Velasquez? Minakov, as he is wont to do, is polite but firm as he recites his response.

“At this moment, I have a contract with Bellator,” he said. “Questions about the UFC are irrelevant. I’m a Bellator fighter. My main goal is being the Bellator heavyweight champion.”

As for that other Russian heavyweight, Minakov declines to even address questions about Emelianenko other than to reiterate his oft-used line that he’s focused on being his own fighter.

Vitaly Minakov (red) wins his fourth and final sambo world title in 2011.
“I’ve been asked that a million times,” he said of the Fedor question. “I have some emotions, but I have no feelings I’m going to say now.”

On Wednesday night, Minakov writes his next chapter. He expresses respect for Martinez, a hard-nosed, hard-fisted former high school wrestling standout and prison inmate. When discussing his approach, Minakov never abandons his humility, even as he reveals a conscious desire to finish and a supreme confidence in his grappling and the strategic flexibility it provides.

“Martinez has lots of technical knowledge about wrestling. I’ll have to be careful and smart when I fight him,” he said. “I come in pretty calm, and I start with the striking. Of course I’m trying to finish the fight. But I’m not doing everything just to knock him out. I can do a takedown and go for a submission or ground-and-pound.”

To help prepare for what is certainly the biggest fight of his burgeoning career, he spent time training on the U.S. West Coast. How does the higher-stakes fight and the glitz and glamour of La-La Land compare with his earlier career and his home base in Moscow?

“I would like to note the time I spent in Orange County, California. I came here to acclimate to the time difference. The climate is great," he said. "There are lots of places to train.”

 

The Beaten Path is an article series profiling top MMA prospects. Read the previous interview installment here. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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