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Vitaly Minakov - Responsibility, not pressure

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MMA: BFC 96-Minakov vs Sparks
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Jun 19, 2013; Thackerville, OK, USA; Vitaly Minakov celebrates a victory over Ron Sparks (not pictured)during BFC 96 at the WinStar World Casino. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Bellator champion Vitaly Minakov’s is as hot an MMA fighter as there is these days. The 29 year old is undefeated in 13 career fights and has only gone the distance once before.

On Friday, the Russian takes a step up in competition and faces UFC veteran Cheick Kongo in defense of his heavyweight strap. If Kongo feels like the favored and more experienced guy, he hid it well when Cagewriter spoke with him earlier this week.

Kongo, though confident in himself, called his younger opponent “a beast,” and wondered out loud at the kid’s size and aggressive fighting style. When Cagewriter spoke with Minakov Thursday, as he prepared to weigh in for the bout with Kongo, he was gracious but nonplussed at his opponent’s compliments.

“I don’t care at all what my opponent says about me before the fight, positive or negative,” Minakov told us through an interpreter named Alexi.

“I usually only care about the opinions of those close to me - my family, friends, and my coaches and teammates…[others] are just opponents. It is not important for me to hear what they say about me.”

Minakov has recently arrived in Reno, Nevada for the fight with Kongo from his training camp in Moscow. There, the wrestling and sambo champion spent a lot of time training with solid Russian boxers and kick boxers, he says.

“I spent a lot of time at the Moscow academy of boxing,” he details.

“Before starting any training camp, my coaches and I set up goals to achieve and this camp we achieved all of those goals. I’m ready, prepared and confident. There is just one little thing left to do and that is defending my title Friday.”

For a young champion like Minakov, skill-building and experience are important. In Kongo, Minakov will be facing the most accomplished and best opponent of his career.

Kongo left the UFC of his own accord, turning down a contract offer from them in 2013. The French kick boxer fought in the world’s top MMA promotion from 2006-2013 and amassed an impressive winning record in that time, full of KO’s and thrilling bout.

All that Kongo has accomplished just serves as fuel for the young Russian. “This just motivates me,” he says.

“Even back in my wrestling and sambo days I always wanted to fight the most experienced fighters, the top fighters. It just makes me more hungry to beat him.”

Minakov says that keeping the Bellator title is important to him because he feels added responsibility to those invested in him. However, he is quick to draw a distinction between responsibility and pressure.

“I feel a lot of responsibility to my fans, my team, everybody that believes in me. I would also like to add that I do not have any pressure on myself,” he explains.

“I learned how to deal with it years ago as a grappling competitor. I learned how to avoid thoughts that could make an athlete feel pressure, pressure that doesn’t allow him to showcase the best of his skills in the ring and cage. I feel responsibility but no pressure.”

Minakov does feel a sense of urgency when it comes to improving and proving himself, though. The grappler is focused on beating Kongo tomorrow night but that step is part of larger goals for the young champ.

“I have been in this sport for a few years and I realize that, even though I’m a champion of a great organization in Bellator, I have a lot of things that I need to improve in myself,” he says.

“The goals I set up for myself are, first, defending the Bellator belt. Then, I want to become a really dominant champion. I want my fights to be very impressive, extremely action-packed and technical. So, I spend a lot of time in training trying to evolve in all different directions. There are a lot of things that I need to improve on in my game and I’m really trying to do it.”

Follow Elias on Twitter @EliasCepeda & @YahooCagewriter

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