Bellator 161: "Kongo vs. Johnson" takes place this Friday (Sept. 16, 2016) at H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, Texas, featuring a Heavyweight showdown between two contenders -- Tony "Hulk" Johnson and Cheick Kongo -- who are both looking to inch closer to competing for the division's vacant title. Johnson is on a three-fight win streak, but Kongo -- an experienced Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Bellator veteran -- would be happy to stop his momentum.
The four-fight Spike TV broadcast also features a Bantamweight fight with a former champion in two weight classes, Joe Warren, as well as the United States debut of one of the biggest Internet viral sensations in women's mixed martial arts (MMA) today, Anastasia Yankova.
Let's break it down:
265 lbs.: Cheick Kongo (24-10-2) vs. Tony Johnson (10-2)
It's time for the Heavyweight division in Bellator to get serious, and fights like this one will separate the wheat from the chaff, determining the true contenders. Since the title is vacant right now, the winner can argue to be one half of a fight to crown a new champion. Kongo can make the argument by saying, "been there, done that" as a long-time UFC and Bellator veteran, and winner of six out of eight since he moved under the Viacom umbrella. Two straight wins over Alexander Volkov and Vinicius Queiroz show that even at 41 years old, he's not going away any time soon. Neither of those fights delivered much in the way of excitement, though, which is where "Hulk" Johnson may have the edge.
Half of his wins (five out of 10) come by way of knockout, including a finish against former boxing star Raphael Butler. Plenty of Heavyweights would love to have his track record, which includes career wins over Tim Sylvia and Derrick "The Black Best" Lewis. And defeating Kongo would not only be another feather in his cap but his fourth straight win and fourth overall in Bellator.
For Kongo the key to victory is to slow down Johnson, make him fight in the clinch, then punish him with his size and power. At 6'4" vs. 6'1," he holds a height advantage, and at 82" vs. 74" he has an even bigger reach advantage. Johnson needs to be cautious of those advantages, but not overly so, because the smaller "King Mo" Lawal already solved this puzzle with his speed and wrestling ability. That's how Johnson can win the fight -- be the first to engage and take down Kongo when he tries to clinch. The 30-year-old should be fast enough to pull it off.
Final prediction: Tony Johnson defeats Cheick Kongo via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Joe Warren (13-5) vs. Sirwan Kakai (12-4)
The winds of fortune have swept away everything we knew about the Bantamweight division. Marcos Galvao took away the title from Joe Warren, then Eduardo Dantas took it from Galvao by beating him for a second time. Warren could have earned a rematch, but he was dominated by Darrion Caldwell, and before Caldwell could cash in for a title shot, he suffered his first loss against Joe Taimanglo. Every possible scenario at 135 pounds is now up in the air save for Taimanglo now being in position to challenge Dantas.
Warren has a chance to get back into the mix with this fight, and history suggests he has a chance since he has only lost two fights in a row once in his MMA career. Kakai already has two losses in a row coming in, but one was to the aforementioned Taimanglo and the other was a close split decision loss to Frankie Saenz. Much like the main event, we have a sizable age difference as Warren is 39 and Kakai is 26, but nothing motivates "The Baddest Man on the Planet" like being told what he can't do.
That would normally be enough, but Warren is coming off a torn MCL, and if that has hurt his mobility or his speed the takedowns won't be there. If we learned anything from the Caldwell fight, it's that when the takedowns aren't there for Warren, things can go bad ... quickly. Kakai may be the less experienced fighter, but he has more finishes -- four knockouts and six submissions to Warren's three and one submission, respectively. I don't suggest Kakai stand and trade with a three-time Bellator champion, though. Speed and movement are his keys to victory in Texas.
Final prediction: Sirwan Kakai takes home a unanimous decision
125 lbs.: Anastasia Yankova (3-0) vs. Veta Arteaga (2-0)
This is a huge chance for Bellator to show off Yankova, a fighter who is eager to prove she's more than just a pretty face even though that's all some fans care about. After her promotional debut in Italy, fans should at least be aware of her submission skills, and although she's training with the American Kickboxing Academy ahead of her trip to Texas, she admits that her strength is Brazilian jiu-jitsu and her plan is to go for her fourth submission.
Arteaga gets to enter the fight in the enviable position of knowing that she can play the spoiler role in a main card fight on Spike TV, not having nearly the expectations or pressure placed on Yankova's shoulders. She already proved herself on Bellator 155's "Prelims" undercard and won't have any first time Bellator jitters, but Yankova herself got those out of the way in Torino. Arteaga is a tough, durable fighter from Idaho, but with what little we've seen of her, we can't call her a finisher after two decisions. Yankova seems to have the killer instinct that Arteaga lacks.
Final prediction: Anastasia Yankova improves to 4-0 with a first round submission
155 lbs.: Derek Campos (16-6) vs. Djamil Chan (12-2)
The lesser known Chan shouldn't be taken lightly going into this bout. He's on a seven-fight win streak dating back to 2013, has knockouts in nine of his 12 wins, and scored a highly impressive first round finish of Richard Patishnock at Bellator 143. The flipside of that coin is that Chan lost a fight to Marcin Wrzosek to get onto The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 22, one that doesn't officially count on his record because it's considered an exhibition fight, but it shows that Chan can come up short in a big fight. Coming off a big finish against Melvin Guillard, Campos could inch closer to contention with a second straight win, but two wins in a row has been a tough proposition for a while now. This is virtually a coin flip.
Final prediction: Djamil Chan takes a close split decision
That's a wrap!
MMAmania.com will deliver live coverage of Bellator 161: "Kongo vs. Volkov" tomorrow night, with real-time results throughout the evening followed by Spike TV fights at 9 p.m. ET. To check out the latest Bellator MMA-related news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive news archive right here.