Cheick Kongo is 45 years old and has hung around mixed martial arts long enough to finally fulfill a dream.
The veteran heavyweight, who was only a couple of weeks past his 26th birthday when he made his MMA debut in the Netherlands on June 10, 2001, will fight Tim Johnson on Saturday in a bout that is special to him not because of the opponent, but because of the location.
The show will be held at Accor Arena in Paris, which became possible when the French government finally legalized MMA earlier this year and assigned the French Boxing Federation to regulate it.
“I think this is really the last frontier,” Bellator president Scott Coker told Yahoo Sports via telephone. “France is the last country that didn’t allow MMA and so it’s really significant to open a market like this.”
It’s significant to Kongo for a number of reasons. He can finally experience that hero’s welcome that so many other fighters received when they made the walk to the cage in the first MMA event held in their country.
Kongo also loves MMA and believes legalizing it in France will help increase the quality of the sport. France has had a long and successful history in kickboxing, and the government’s recognition of MMA opens the way for many of those practicing martial arts in France to try MMA.
He said it made little sense to not allow MMA in France.
“They used to say it was human rights,” Kongo said.
“I think they were afraid if they did [legalize MMA] that a lot of the athletes would leave their disciplines like judo and karate and focus on MMA. It’s crazy, and it made no sense.”
Coker said there will be a small crowd of around 1,000 in the arena, but it will seem a lot more than that to Kongo.
“For me, it’s like winning an award seeing the sport come to my country,” he said. “I’m going to be really emotional and I’m going to feel it and experience it with the crowd.”
Coker said having MMA be legal around the world is a significant achievement and will push the sport to the next level.
He said he’d been working on opening France for the last three years, but said recently that Viacom’s government affairs division began to lobby the French Ministry of Sport.
Those efforts were successful and the culmination is Saturday’s show. Bellator Paris will be streamed on the promotion’s YouTube channel, while Bellator 248, the main card featuring Michael “Venom” Page against Ross Houston, will be broadcast live on the CBS Sports Network and streamed on DAZN.
“This just bodes so well for mixed martial arts on so many levels,” Coker said. “When we opened Italy and did a show in Milan, I think only [Alessio] Sakara was fighting at a high level from Italy. Now, there is a tremendous talent pool in the country. In Israel when we went there, there was one gym, and now there’s 28.
“If you go in and do a show in these big cities across Europe, like we’re doing in Budapest, you quickly see the talent bubble up and it’s impressive how fast they develop.”
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