- Brett Okamoto
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Cheick Kongo holds no deep grudge against his former employer, the UFC -- or at least, if he does, he keeps it close to his chest.
The French heavyweight, however, isn’t unlike any other martial artist. He covets the opportunity to prove himself as the best fighter of his weight class. And in seven years and 18 fights with the UFC, he never got that chance in the form of a title fight.
Kongo, 38, will make his Bellator Fighting Championships debut on Friday when he meets Mark Godbeer in a heavyweight tournament semifinal matchup at Bellator 102 in Visalia, Calif.
It’s real simple now for Kongo -- more so than ever before. If he wins his next three fights, a championship belt will go around his waist. It’s a good feeling to have.
“It feels different,” Kongo told ESPN.com. “I have complete confidence in what I’m going to bring to this new promotion. It’s a really good chance for me to show what I’ve got. Three fights and I can be the champion. That’s what pushes me.”
It’s obvious that Kongo (18-8-2) has no desire to publicly criticize the UFC’s treatment of him. Several former UFC fighters have done so in 2013, including Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz, both of whom also signed with Bellator.
Any divorce of a seven-year marriage, however, is likely to include some share of resentment. In Kongo’s case, it’s based around that UFC title shot that eluded him.
“I don’t want to look like someone who is (complaining),” Kongo said. “Of course, I wasn’t happy because I didn’t get the shot. I deserved to fight for the belt. It was always just keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting. I wasn’t really pushed or promoted as a challenger.”
The closest Kongo came to a championship fight was 2009. He compiled a 5-1 run starting in 2007, with the only loss coming via split decision to Heath Herring.
He was booked as a late replacement at UFC 99 in a fight against eventual champion Cain Velasquez. Not a bad opportunity, except there was a problem -- Kongo says he was injured.
The contest resulted in a unanimous decision win for Velasquez. The momentum that had built toward that all-important title fight was fractured -- then erased completely in a submission loss to Frank Mir six months later.
Kongo doesn’t believe in sour grapes. He says he’s always moved on quickly from setbacks in his career and in the Velasquez case, he accepted the fight. But yeah, losing that potential title shot in a fight he wasn’t healthy in, it left a sour taste.
“I was injured when I fought Cain Velasquez,” Kongo said. “The UFC knew it but you know, everybody was excited about the fight. Nobody was asking me, ‘What’s going on? What happened?’ I’m not the guy to go scream, ‘Hey, this happened.’
“I took the fight and I lost. That’s it -- end of story. These guys come to you and say, ‘Yeah, come on. You’re supposed to be a fighter. Take the fight.’ You never know what to do because people go crazy. But I don’t want to blame somebody. In the end, I was the last one to make that decision.”
There were other instances, too. Kongo revealed he fought with a dislocated shoulder after a lackluster performance against Shawn Jordan and he says his left hand was broken heading into his most recent fight, a knockout loss to Roy Nelson.
All that is water under the bridge, though. One thing Kongo hasn’t lost through the ups and downs is his confidence -- and it’s unwavering heading into his Bellator debut.
He’s been pegged a 5-to-1 favorite over Godbeer in the heavyweight tournament semifinal. He’s promised everyone will see why when the fight starts.
“I think at this time, I don’t have anything to prove except to myself to be the best,” Kongo said. “And I am the best. That’s what I’m going to prove in this tournament. It’s not even about proving, it’s about showing. I have to show them.”
Cheick Kongo holds no deep grudge against his former employer, the UFC -- or at least, if he does, he keeps it close to his chest. The French heavyweight, however, isn’t unlike any other martial artist.