Linton Vassell moves back up to heavyweight tonight for the first time in 10 years when he faces Russian ‘Fedor Team’ fighter Valentin Moldavsky in the mood to impress at Bellator 220 tonight in Oklahoma.
After squeezing and sucking life from his huge 6ft 4ins frame into 205lbs in search of world title glory, the Milton Keynes fighter insists that championship status will be his, by hook or by crook, by the time he leaves the hand wraps and the gloves in the locker room to decay.
Vassell revealed to Telegraph Sport the physical pain and mental anguish of making weight last year at Bellator 200 in London. Indeed, it remains one of the most talked-about, and controversial aspects of the sport.
“The last one it was difficult making the weight,” he explained. “I couldn’t break 100 kilos the last two weeks. It killed me. I didn’t want to deal with it. I ran so far [getting the weight off, at Bellator 200 in London versus Phil Davis] I couldn’t even run back. It’s not good. It was probably about four miles and that was on an empty stomach.”
“It was horrible. It’s even horrible talking about it. I’m over that now. I don’t want to feel like that anymore, and I feel you shouldn’t be doing it like that.” Vassell was knocked out that night at Wembley Arena by opponent Phil Davis.
At 35, and although Vassell is not shop worn, he now needs a win streak to propel him into the mind of the matchmakers in the Bellator fight league. The 220 event, will be headlined by Emmanuel Sanchez, who faces Georgi Karakhanyan, at the Winstar World Casino, in Thackerville, Oklahoma.
“I feel good. I feel good right now. Nothing’s change in the way I train. My strength is still there, my speed, my cardio – everything. It’s going to be very, very interesting and exciting,” Vassell told Telegraph Sport, having weighed in at 246.7lbs with Moldavsky, a Russian Sambo world champion, hitting the scales at 232.7lbs.
Vassell recalled his first five career fights – now 18-7-1 – and shook his head at the fighter, and athlete, he was then. “I was probably about 100 kilos at the most then. I wasn’t heavy at heavyweight. I wasn’t eating the right foods or anything when I started.” But three runs at the Bellator light heavyweight title – a loss in the 205lb tournament and finishing the wrong end of title challenges against Emanuel Newton and Ryan Bader – have convinced him that amongst the very heaviest is where his destiny lies.
The title, says Vassell, from Milton Keynes, will eventually be slipped around his waist. He insists it has been visualised, and it will happen. The chances are that it could even be against old foe Bader. “It’s going to happen, I’ll get the title. It doesn’t matter when, there will come my time. It is going to happen and at heavyweight. I’m not going back down. I’m heavyweight now. I feel like this is the perfect time. I had a good run at light heavyweight. I know what I can do at light heavyweight. I’m excited to see what I can do at heavyweight.”
Vassell, like many of the raft of British fighters on the Bellator roster, is delighted that the fight league is now being aired on Sky Sports. “It’s good it’s going on Sky. Sky Sports is our biggest channel, so it’s perfect. About time too,” he explained.“I feel everything happens for a reason and this is the perfect time for Sky. We’ve got the deal and I’m already on it.”
Onto Moldavsky, and Vassell is content that he possesses all the sharpened tools to deal with the Russian fighter, who is 7-0-1 in MMA. “He’s a Sambo champion and heavy hitter, from what I’ve seen. He likes to go to ground. He’s a strong dude. But again, I feel I beat him everywhere. We’re doing MMA, not Sambo. I’m going to be punching, choking, kicking – pulling arms off. I feel I beat him in every aspect. I feel I’m the stronger guy, the more experienced. I’ve got the reach, the height – I feel he’s perfect for me to showcase my skills at heavyweight.”
Indeed, if Vassell can exploit the variance of his skills, and showcase his health at heavyweight, it could be a chance at redemption against Bader, who wrestled Vassell to the ground in November 2017 at Pennsylvania State University and smothered the Briton’s ambition with a second round TKO.
Meeting Bader at heavyweight would kill the proverbial two birds. “It’s perfect. He’s the champion. At some point we’re going to face each other again. Right now, obviously there’s a way to go. But that’s something I’m looking at. I’m not looking past Valentin, he’s the guy in front of me right now. Once I beat him in good fashion, then the next guy, then we’ll see what Bader’s saying.”
The game plan, as ever, will not be divulged. “I won’t say everything, but I’m working on new stuff and we’re drilling that in. I will tell you one thing, I’ve been working on knees. That’s one thing you’ll start seeing. I’m a big dude and I haven’t been using my knees as much.”
“I’ve been working on that and ground work. I’ve a great team behind me with some great heavyweights. With my coach, Greg Jones, we’ve been beasting it. I feel I can’t get any fitter than I already am. I feel this has been a great camp and it’s time to fight now. Tick, tock… that’s all I’m waiting for.”
Complete the victory injury free and Vassell may call to be on the mega-card being planned for London in June.
“There shouldn’t be a reason I’m not on that card. I’ll speak to the boss Scott Coker about it, but as long as I’m fit and healthy, touch wood, I’ll be on that card.”
“I’ve got time to get back into camp. March, April, May, June – that’s perfect. I haven’t got to cut weight for ten weeks, that’s what I used to do. I haven’t been in as many fights as I liked to because of that. I only need a good six, seven weeks for a fight camp at this weight.”
But deep down, there is relief. Relief at the stress of making weight, and the losses at light heavy. “I know it’s fight camp and you’ve got to make weight, but I don’t want to feel like that ever again. That was the nail in the coffin at light heavyweight.”
“Had I won the fight, I’d still have wanted to move up anyway. It did get harder and harder. Little bit by bit, I got older and it got harder. It just made sense to make the move and knock it on the head. I’d thought about heavyweight anyway and I’d made a dent at light heavyweight. I had a good run, some good fights. Now it’s time to do what I do best at heavyweight.” Action calls.
Bellator 220 is live on Sky Sports Action tonight from 1am Friday night/Saturday morning.