One thing is certain after watching Cheick Kongo’s meticulous destruction of Mark Godbeer at Bellator 102: “The Darkness” is consuming the heavyweight division.
In a division starving for notable talent, Bellator began its march toward heavyweight legitimacy with the eagerly anticipated debuts of UFC castoffs Kongo and Lavar Johnson.
While Johnson was cut from the UFC, Kongo actually passed on an opportunity to negotiate for a new contract with the MMA mecca.
Instead, he made the unlikely decision of going to Bellator, a televised promotion void of the same mainstream attention as the UFC. For fans, it’s tough to comprehend why any fighter would choose to bypass an opportunity to continue fighting on the big stage.
After competing in the UFC for over seven years, Kongo admitted he really just needed a change of scenery:
I felt in the UFC, those company had me a lot. [I just wanted to focus] on getting back in shape, and [Bellator said], “Don’t you worry about anything.” After I lost weight, I didn’t have to worry about nothing, just the conditioning from here. It’s just different perks for [different companies]. Honestly, it was really good. It was really great to get a change. The crowd was wonderful and I thought the promotion was also.
Change isn’t always the answer, but it appeared to be the best solution in Kongo’s case.
After being plagued by inconsistent performances in the UFC, Kongo looked like a new man when he stepped foot into the Bellator cage for the first time on Friday night. Standing across from him was Godbeer, a dangerous striker looking to make a name for himself by knocking out “the UFC guy.”
Unfortunately for Godbeer, years of experience taught Kongo to keep his emotions in check and be tactful in the cage.
A chorus of boos echoed throughout the Visalia Convention Center in Visalia, Calif., but Kongo remained fixated on finishing the fight on his terms, which basically consisted of making Godbeer carry his weight and wearing him down with elongated clinch grapples against the fence.
With the tournament-style setup in Bellator, Kongo’s primary concern was leaving the fight with a win and remaining injury free:
I’m used to doing different things, but I went to use the fence so I wouldn’t get injured for the next opponent. Just tried to save energy and avoid injuries from the war in the stand-up, striking. I tried a whole bunch of different things, no matter what he tried to do, and to make him tired.
The game plan came together like clockwork for Kongo, who leaned heavily on his grappling and clinch strikes throughout the fight.
By the time the second round rolled around, Godbeer was breathing heavily and winging haymakers out of desperation. The turning point in the bout came when Godbeer missed on a sloppy overhand right and Kongo ducked under and secured a body lock from behind.
From the clinch, Kongo began to unload with a series of devastating knees to Godbeer’s legs and body. Godbeer stood tall in the face of adversity until the damage relocated to his face. The referee was finally forced to step in at 2:04 to save him from further punishment.
The post-UFC transition has gone well for Kongo, but Johnson wasn’t so fortunate. In a truly shocking turn of events, the former UFC heavyweight was knocked out in just 23 seconds by Vinicius Queiroz.
Kongo, who was eyeing the fight backstage, admitted he was shocked by the knockout. Many expected he would be facing Johnson in the next round, but things have certainly taken an unexpected turn.
After seeing Queiroz’s performance, Kongo is already formulating a game plan that would ensure victory and minimize the risk of injury:
I was shocked to see how [Queiroz] finished Lavar Johnson. I was surprised. The fight was so fast. It’s on and I was like, “Oh!” So after that, I was thinking OK, I have to do the same thing. Don’t go for the war, get injuries. Just save your energy and do the things as a smart guy.
Kongo is now one step closer to winning his first major MMA world title, which is a far cry from where he was in the UFC.
Perhaps “The Darkness” may have finally found the light.
Jordy McElroy is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.