Prior to every event, Under the Radar will cast the spotlight on an up-and-coming talent who shows the potential for growth in their division and isn’t getting enough attention as they head into battle.
Name: Vitaly Minakov
Record: 21-0 overall; 5-0 Bellator MMA
Team: Fight Nights Team
Maybe this is bending the rules a little bit, but the fact that Vitaly Minakov is returning to the Bellator cage this weekend should be a much bigger deal.
The former heavyweight champion, who pretty much just up and left the company after beating Cheick Kongo in April 2014, returns this Saturday in the co-main event of Bellator 216 in a rematch with Kongo, who has won seven straight and nine of 10 appearances since their first meeting.
Join DAZN and watch Paul Daley vs. Michael Page at Bellator 216 on Feb. 16
The expectation is that the winner of this fight will become the No. 1 contender and earn the first crack at new heavyweight titleholder Ryan Bader, and while it has been a circuitous five-year journey, the prospects of having a still unbeaten Minakov fight for a title he never lost in competition against the biggest star in the company would be a massive main event opportunity for the organization and a very, very intriguing matchup for both parties.
While there are reasons to be skeptical of Minakov returning to compete in the Bellator cage after a nearly five-year absence and having faced overmatched competition during his sabbatical in Russia, there are plenty of reasons to be excited too.
On the skeptical front, it’s truly difficult to ascertain where he fits in the divisional picture at the moment because stopping Tony Johnson, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and DJ Linderman don’t exactly register as quality wins and going 14 months without a fight is always a concern.
At the same time, Minakov remains undefeated and has only gone the distance twice in his career, including his first bout with Kongo, and if those dominant wins abroad are more a function of his enduring skills and less about his middling opponents, than the Bellator heavyweight ranks have a familiar threat amongst their ranks going forward.
That’s why running it back with Kongo is the right call for Minakov’s return.
Just as he was the gatekeeper to the upper reaches of the heavyweight division during his lengthy run in the UFC, the French veteran is the guy you have to beat in order to be considered a contender in Bellator’s big boy ranks. Although he still has a penchant for grinding out wins and producing hard-to-watch, protracted fights, Kongo has earned first-round finishes in each of his two outings and will enter this one looking to draw level with Minakov after coming out on the wrong side of the cards in their first encounter.
It’s kind of fitting that Minakov is returning this weekend and the overall lack of noticeable excitement about his re-emergence in the Bellator MMA cage because the following evening, former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez will end his own 31-month hiatus in a headlining bout against Francis Ngannou on ESPN that has everyone buzzing.
While expecting the same amount of fanfare for Minakov’s return as Velasquez is generating would be asking too much, he’s still an undefeated former champion taking on an established, streaking veteran with a title fight opportunity hanging in the balance, so a little more excitement feels warranted.
Minakov is a legit talent — you don’t get to 21-0 by accident, regardless of whom you’re facing — and with a victory on Saturday at Bellator 216, he’ll put himself in a position to challenge for the belt he never lost in the cage later this year.
Call me crazy, but that feels like someone worth paying close attention to this weekend.
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