Newly-crowned Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan Bader appeared on his way to a dominant title defense against Cheick Kongo Saturday night inside the SAP Center in San Jose.
But an inadvertent eye poke to Kongo derailed a definitive finish and resulted in the Bellator 226 main event being declared a no contest.
Though he technically retained his title, Bader (27-5, 1 NC) said post-fight that it was unfortunate the fight ended under such circumstances.
But he also acknowledged his dominant performance and believed he was close to finishing Kongo:
“The first punch I threw – the jab – kind of rocked him a little bit. I felt like I was just getting the better of him everywhere. Every punch I threw pretty much wobbled him a little bit. It just sucks because that felt like he took the win away from me.”
Bader, 228.7, had Kongo reeling backwards early on courtesy of two short left hooks before scoring a takedown.
Kongo, 239.2, escaped the mount and attempted to return to his feet, but began signaling to his eye while Bader delivered punches.
Referee Mike Beltran stopped the fight and took Kongo (30-10-2, 1 NC) over to the cageside physician who determined that he was unable to continue, prompting Beltran to waive off the bout at the 3:52 mark.
Beltran said afterwards that Bader’s thumb slipped into Kongo’s eye during the strikes.
Bader, however, said his thumb poked Kongo in the nose and presented a replay on his phone during the post-fight press conference.
But he said he is open to a rematch and apologized in advance should slow motion replays indicate that his thumb actually poked Kongo’s eye.
Things almost got out of hand post-fight when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Kongo’s good friend and teammate, entered the cage and accused Bader of intentionally poking Kongo in the eye.
Jackson, who lost a unanimous decision to Bader at UFC 144 in February 2012, shouted profanities at Bader before Bader challenged him to step up. Officials immediately separated both men before an ugly scuffle could break out.
Kongo, who was unavailable for comment, entered the fight on an eight-fight win streak following a split decision loss to Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal at Bellator 134 in Feburary 2015.
The decorated kickboxing champion won Bellator’s Season 9 Heavyweight Tournament in 2013 to earn a title shot against then-champion Vitaly Minakov, which he lost via unanimous decision in April 2014.
Bader, who also holds the Bellator Light Heavyweight Championship he annexed from Phil Davis in June 2017, told SFBay that he believes there are people who don’t consider him a true heavyweight.
He also said that while he wasn’t able to fully dispel that notion through a successful title defense, he believes he made a statement with how easily he dominated Kongo:
“I feel like I’m just proving it to myself every time I go in there too. I’m like, ‘Ok, how am I going to feel with a big dude like (Matt) Mitrione?’ I feel great. I feel stronger than everybody, I feel faster, I hit just as hard – if not, harder. I literally have not been punched in the face in four fights at heavyweight, so it’s been fun.”
Bader rose to heavyweight prominence by winning the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix, defeating Lawal via shocking first-round TKO last May and utilizing his effective wrestling craft to dominate Mitrione this past October.
His road to glory culminated in January when he floored MMA veteran Fedor Emelianenko in just 35 seconds to capture the vacant heavyweight championship.
He also had success in UFC prior to joining Bellator, defeating the likes of Keith Jardine, Ovince Saint Preux, and Rashad Evans. But he came up short against elite names like Jon Jones, Tito Ortiz, and Lyoto Machida.
But a first-round knockout loss to Anthony Johnson in January 2016 put things into perspective and he was determined to never experience such defeat again:
“I said to myself, ‘Alright, we’re going to go in there and we’re going to have fun. We’re going to enjoy the process, don’t put extra pressure on yourself. You’re the best in the world.’ It made that switch in my mind. … I’ve always had the physical gifts, but it was the mental shift that enabled me to be successful going forward from there.”
He has remained undefeated since the Johnson loss, riding a seven-fight win streak which includes all five of his Bellator wins. He also expressed interest in fighting twice at light heavyweight and twice at heavyweight.
He credits his experience in UFC and all the opportunities he’s received in Bellator for helping him evolve as a fighter and establishing himself as a household name:
“All that accumulation in the perfect storm coming together was amazing and a lot of people are talking about it. I love being over here.”
While his ascension in Bellator has been quite impressive in such a short amount of time, Bader said that such success may or may not feel a little surreal:
“It’s all about opportunity. If I have that, I believe I could grab that and run with it. That’s what I was given over here at Bellator. I came over and I got to fight for the light heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden. I won that, defended it, went to the Grand Prix and won that. Going into this fight (against Kongo), just believing in myself and having fun over here, that’s it really. I’m reinvigorated and I feel like I’m in the prime of my career, mentally and physically.”
He also said that as a proud two-division champion, he is open to any challenges company president Scott Coker presents to him – while not ruling out a possible cross promotional superfight with UFC Heavyweight Champion Stipe Miocic:
“I love representing Bellator. I think some of the best fighters in the world are over here. The public sometimes are skewed and they look at one organization as superior in their fighters, but that’s not the case. We definitely have some of the best fighters in the world and I would love to do a cross promotion. I know Scott’s open to a lot of that stuff and look what he’s done so far with these tournaments, fighting over in Japan and RIZIN (Fighting Federation) and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know if it will happen on the other side, but I know I would love to step up and represent the Bellator flag for sure.”