Timing is everything in sport. And Cheick Guillaume Ouedraogo – known as Cheick Kongo, and the cousin of France rugby forward Fulgence Ouedraogo – has always been ahead of his time.
His longevity in the sport has seen him realise a dream. Not until his mid-40s has the combat artist been able to fight in his native France.
But now the heavyweight, born to a Burkinabe father and a Congolese mother, gets the second opportunity to headline in his home town for a shot at the Bellator MMA heavyweight crown. History in the making, potentially.
Kongo took centre stage in the historic first Bellator Paris event in October 2020 – a first for the fight league and the first event in France by a leading MMA fight league.
Although he lost to Timothy Johnson, Kongo is gathering his storm to bring everything against incumbent Bellator champion Ryan Bader on 6 May. It will be Kongo’s 69th contest in kickboxing and MMA.
Before 2019, MMA was banned in France, and it was not until the walls were breached, after much lobbying – political and sporting – that an MMA event was licenced in France. It came at the behest of Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu, a former swimmer, who lifted restrictions that had been hanging over the fighting arts in that country since MMA’s inception in 1993. Times have changed.
Kongo sees it as “a gift” for the MMA movement. After an unbeaten four-year streak in Bellator and nine victories, Kongo met Bader for the belt in the United States in 2019 – behind closed doors in a fight declared a No Contest due to accidental eye-pokes – and the fighter remains furious that some fans say he “quit” in that fight.
Finally, though, after being a road warrior in the USA, Japan and all over Europe for over 20 years, the title fight in Paris. Victory would mean everything for the 6ft 4in tall, 250lb martial artist.
“I’m speechless,” he says. “I have no words because all my followers are excited about it. Every day it’s always like a crazy run with text messages and phone calls about tickets. On Instagram, as well, all my followers are telling me they are so excited and showing me support and love.
“It’s great. It means a lot to them because they don’t have to travel. Seeing this happen in France is like wow. One of their soldiers fighting for the title is amazing and wonderful for them. It’s one of the best things for all the MMA lovers in France.”
Then he takes an out-of-character swipe at those questioning his heart – in reference to the first fight with Bader. Kongo told BBC Sport: “It doesn’t affect me. They don’t know how I am made and how stubborn I am. If I used to be a quitter, I wouldn’t be at the point I’m at today. It’s easy to quit fights or avoid situations or struggle in life because life is a fight.”
Can Kongo claim the Bellator heavyweight crown at the age of 46? He is a year older than when George Foreman achieved the feat in the boxing world.
“Age is just a number,” Kongo says. “This moment is great for me, and great for French MMA lovers, who have struggled for years with the sport banned there. It’s a big thing for the fans as well as me.
“Everywhere I go I have fought and put my flag there. I might have failed at times but I did it. To now come back and fight in France, I have a different position. I am with my troops and I will not let anyone down. I intend to smash Ryan Bader. At home, for me, and my fans.”
PFL enter UK MMA scene
It has been another monumental week in the growth of MMA. The Professional Fighters’ League has signed up a raft of UK fighters for its fourth tournament series.
One of them is Brendan Loughnane, a hugely talented featherweight fighter and one of the most underrated mixed martial artists in the country. The 32-year-old has been a professional fighter for 12 years and has plied his trade with several fight leagues.
“This is a massive opportunity and fighting to a schedule in a tournament in the PFL makes such a difference,” he told BBC Sport this week. “I know exactly when and where I’m fighting and planning camps and fights makes such a difference. I’ve had periods in my career when I don’t know for 12 months where I’ll be fighting.”
The Mancunian will be joined by other British fighters in the tournament, with $1m (£738,000) on offer for the winner. With BBC Three about to embark on a new venture showing Bellator MMA’s European events in 2022, beginning with Dublin next week, fans of the sport have never had such a broad depth of coverage available.
Can Whittaker claim revenge over Adesanya?
Onto the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship. On Saturday, Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker go at it for the second time, contesting the UFC middleweight title in Houston, Texas. Whittaker looked far from his best when the two men met in October 2019.
Point fighter Whittaker deserved a second shot at the crown. He had come into the contest after stirring back-to-back victories over former Olympic gold medallist Yoel Romero, of Cuba, yet Adesanya bamboozled Whittaker in the title fight and looked brilliant as the victor by second round knockout.
In the meantime, Adesanya has stepped up to light heavyweight but lost over five rounds to Jan Blachowicz. Too big, too strong, too solid.
There are weight divisions for a reason, as we know. But back to Whittaker. The 31-year-old has produced three majestic performances since that loss to the dazzling stylist Adesanya, and second time around, this looks like it could be a different kind of fight, and even, a different outcome than the first.
Whatever happens, this is a match-up between two of the most elite fighters in mixed martial arts today.