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Eyes on the prize: Bellator hopes to identify title contenders with double events this weekend

Eyes on the prize: Bellator hopes to identify title contenders with double events this weekend
A duo of events this week could shape Bellator MMA’s next title contenders as undefeated former heavyweight champion Vitaly Minakov returns to stake his claim for gold, while Michael ‘Venom’ Page and Paul Daley finally face off.

Minakov, 34, boasts a spotless 21-0 professional record in mixed martial arts and his return to the organization he represented as champion between 2013 and 2014 is part of the continued resurgence of a Bellator heavyweight division which had been dormant and without a champion until Ryan Bader’s inauguration at the culmination of the recent Heavyweight Grand Prix.

READ MORE: Right on the button! Ryan Bader KOs Fedor Emelianenko just seconds into their fight

Minakov has drawn former opponent Cheick Kongo in his Bellator return on Saturday at Bellator 216, with the winner understood to be next in line to face the promotion’s first ‘champ champ’ in the All-American wrestler.

Bader, of course, defeated Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko in the finals last month and the addition of The Last Emperor’s compatriot to the list of potential title contenders adds an interesting wrinkle to the summit of the division.

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Cheick Kongo, meanwhile, has quietly assembled a very impressive run since joining the Bellator ranks from the UFC in 2013. Through 13 fights his record shows just two defeats. Crucially, though, one of those was against Minakov in his last Bellator fight back in April 2014.

Since then, the Russian has won seven straight bouts to Kongo’s 9-1 ledger during that spell.

At 43, it is worth noting that Kongo’s athletic prime is likely behind him and that might be evident against the relentless assault of Minakov, who has gone to a decision just twice in his fight career.

All signs point to a win for Minakov this weekend, the ideal script to set the scene for a Russian revenge mission against The Last Emperor’s conqueror.

Another Russian heavyweight, Sergei Kharitonov, will also look to establish himself among Bellator’s heavyweight elite when he faces UFC veteran Matt Mitrione in the main Bellator 215 event on Friday.

All of this, though, is a precursor to the biggest grudge match in UK mixed martial arts history between heated rivals Michael ‘Venom’ Page and Paul ‘Semtex’ Daley which, curiously, is taking place in Bristol, Connecticut (and not the United Kingdom) as the headliner for Bellator 216.

The two welterweights, both English, flashy strikers and at each other’s throats for years, have been linked to the bout for about as long as they have been on the Bellator roster and now, after practically years of build-up, appetites to see them face each other have been well and truly whetted.

Page is as dynamic as they come. A tall, rangy fighter, he has impeccable measurements of distance and dangerous array of strikes from every angle.

Daley has an equally devastating, if polar opposite, approach centered around manufacturing situations to deliver a left-hook as concussive as anyone’s in the sport.. 

To hit him, though, you have to catch him. ‘MVP,’, as he is known, is a constantly moving target and is known to flummox his opponents into making mistakes, something he says he expects from Daley on Saturday.

“I can be frustrating as a fighter, let alone as a person,” Page said.

“I can frustrate people, I can get into people’s heads. And I feel like that’s what I was able to do then. He’s trying to backtrack now which I don’t understand. He’s trying to play it all calm, ‘There’s no real issues between us,’ trying to play it all Mr. Nice Guy.

“I don’t get it but it comes across as fake because the second I say anything he bites, there’s an immediate explosion in him. And it is what it is, I think I’m living in his head right now and it’s gonna take its toll through this whole promotional period and then we get to the fight.”

In his own pre-fight comments, Daley has taken a more blunt approach.

“I wouldn’t spit on him if he was on fire,” Daley told reporters last week.