Bellator 161: "Kongo vs. Johnson" takes place this Friday night (Sept. 16, 2016) at H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, Texas, featuring a main event between two Heavyweights who are looking to stake a claim to the currently vacant title -- Cheick Kongo and Tony Johnson. While Kongo has a two-fight win streak and Johnson has a three-fight streak coming in, things are less clear for Bantamweights earlier in the night.
Former division champion Joe Warren lost his last fight to Darrion Caldwell, while Sirwan Kakai lost his Bellator MMA debut that same night to the man who'd later give Caldwell his first loss -- Joe "The Juggernaut" Taimanglo. Both fighters have much to prove in a heavily stacked division as Warren is not the only former champion looking to get back on top. Marcos Galvao would also love to get another match with Eduardo Dantas, but like the winner of Warren vs. Kakai, he'll be waiting in line behind Taimanglo after his stunning submission at Bellator 159.
What can former UFC prospect Kakai do to not only defeat "The Baddest Man on the Planet," but jump to the head of the line in the process? Kakai tells MMAmania.com it starts with having the best training camp of his life.
"Honestly, I feel like this is the best camp ever. I had a little bit of (an) off season, I built my body up and did a lot of strength and conditioning. I've been in Sweden to train with my new striking coach from Sweden Top Team, and I feel better than ever."
Feeling great is one thing, but defeating a decorated wrestler is another altogether. Kakai says that his inner strength right now is just as important as his physical strength.
"I think the biggest difference is I'm motivated. I feel like I'm 18 again and hungry. I think the motivation comes from ... when I train hard that stimulates me to fight and just to be mean. Of course it (also) comes from the loss because I definitely feel like in the last fight I didn't show the true me. That's why I was so upset (with) the way I performed."
There's no shame in losing to Joe Taimanglo, though -- he has won four straight and put himself in position for a future title shot against Eduardo Dantas, which is a reality that Kakai is well aware.
"You know what? You can't take anything away from Joe Taimanglo. He's a powerhouse, he's very experienced, he has double the fights I have I think. He's been feeling like how a world class fighter feels. I think he's undefeated at 135, too."
That's almost true -- Taimanglo lost his Bantamweight debut to Rob Emerson, but he's been undefeated at Bantamweight ever since. Kakai's point about Taimanglo's quality as an opponent still stands.
"I mean the guy fought good (1)45ers in there in Bellator so yeah he's definitely a tough guy. I just feel like the way I lost the fight it was more about me than him. Definitely (though) he's a great fighter."
Since Kakai mentioned the word "experienced" I had to bring up Warren's track record of being a world class wrestler dating all the way back to his University of Michigan days. Kakai is ready for the challenge.
"He's a great wrestler, but it's MMA and it's different. I can tell the way he fights -- he's nervous. I feel like he doesn't have the confidence. It's a false confidence. I think he has his back against the wall. He doesn't know if he's going to retire or if he still has it. I bet those questions are in his head, and I just feel hungry and motivated."
Warren has been accused of a lot of things in his career, but "phony" isn't usually one of them, so I asked Kakai if he thinks "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is an undeserved title.
"I don't know how he hit on it, but I don't see him as the best on the planet -- I definitely don't think so. And even if he is I'll prove him wrong. Greco-Roman is one of the toughest sports. I know because I'm from Sweden. In Sweden we have great great Greco-Roman wrestlers and I know what kind of athletes they are. They're very tough people."
It seems like Kakai may be splitting hairs here and it's his right to do so. He has incredible respect for Warren as a wrestler, but he still feels that Warren's overall MMA game can be beaten.
"He's a great fighter, but I just see this is MMA and he's on his way down and I'm on my way up. I believe that I'm gonna face the best Joe Warren ever, but I just believe in myself -- that's how I see it."
Surprisingly Kakai doesn't feel like the MMA scene in Sweden is on the way up or down. Despite the popularity of fighters like Alexander Gustafsson and Ilir Latifi, he thinks things may have stalled out just a bit.
"I think the scene is growing, but I feel like... once we had so many talents, like UFC caliber fighters, but I think those people are already in the UFC. I feel like maybe the next generation is not really there (yet). I don't think they have put in the time they need to do it but, we're still gonna have a couple of guys who are gonna make a big splash on the MMA circuit."
Perhaps an impressive performance against Warren might be that next spark for Sweden's young fighters, and Kakai's confidence is sky high that he can handle anything Warren throws his way.
"I'm ready to sprawl, I'm ready to hurt him with my knee, sweep him from my (Muay) Thai clinch, or I can double leg him. I can wrestle him, too -- I have good wrestling. If he comes in I will double leg him, take him down against the cage, I have great wrestling against the cage. I can do whatever."
We'll find out on Friday night if he can "do whatever" to Joe Warren on Spike TV.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete Bellator MMA coverage can be found right here on fight night.