When Bellator signed heavyweight Pride veteran Sergei Kharitonov earlier this year, it was with little fanfare. Despite being one of the most notable big men not signed by a major promotion, Kharitonov’s Bellator deal was little more than a blip on the radar. Shocking, considering that talented, name heavyweights are not exactly in abundance. More shocking is that there didn’t seem to be much of a bidding war for his services.
Perhaps it’s due to Kharitonov’s status as a failed prospect — a status that is, all things considered, ludicrous. Kharitonov’s resume includes a litany of fights in Pride, Dream, Strikeforce, and Russia’s M-1, and a number of big name opponents. He holds wins over Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, and Andrei Arlovski. However, later-career losses to Jeff Monson and Josh Barnett seemed to sour fans on his potential, and the Arlovski win came when “The Pitbull” was at his lowest. Overrated became the refrain. He was good, just not good enough.
Yet on a five-fight win streak for M-1, Kharitonov adds depth to any heavyweight roster, and would not have been out of place in the UFC. A couple of losses don’t blemish a career, at least not one as storied as Kharitonov’s. It seems, in reality, that his only sin was not living up to very lofty expectations. Maybe that’s why he opted to sign with Bellator, which doesn’t bring with it the pressure the heavyweight waters of the UFC would. Then again, signing with the world’s No. 2 MMA outfit is not all that surprising, since Bellator CEO Scott Coker happened to be the Russian kickboxer’s boss back in Strikeforce.
That’s been a common theme: Coker seems to be reshaping Bellator in his image, and that image is pretty much Strikeforce.
Now, Coker has provided the decorated striker with one last shot at MMA glory. At 36, Kharitonov’s actually a young buck compared to most of the top heavyweights in the world these days, but his window is still closing. For the first time since 2011 when he fought in Strikeforce, he’ll have major exposure on an international level. Given Bellator’s relatively shallow heavyweight division, he also has an opportunity to quickly make an impact. With a win or two, he could easily find himself either challenging, or in a tournament, for Bellator’s vacant heavyweight title.
With his debut earlier this year called off due to injury, Kharitonov now makes his was to the Bellator cage Friday at Bellator 163. His opponent for three rounds or less is Javy Ayala, a 9-5 heavyweight with four wins (and two losses) under the Bellator banner. It’s a winnable fight for Kharitonov, and one in which he no doubt wants to make a statement.
“If anybody has forgotten about me or thinks that I am under the radar, with this next fight I’ll make sure they remember me again,” he told Sherdog.
While no fight is ever easy, that goal is very attainable. All but one of Kharitonov’s 23 wins have come in the form of a finish. Which is a very, very impressive number, and yet another reason why it is shocking that the man’s career has been so criminally overlooked.
Should he get past Ayala as expected, there are a number of interesting fights ahead for Kharitonov. Matt Mitrione, Cheick Kongo and Bobby Lashley are the big names in the division at the moment. Japan’s Satoshi Ishii has been dabbling at light heavyweight, but traditionally has fought at heavyweight. “King Mo” Lawal pretty much fights at moneyweight, as he calls it, and has been more than willing to go up in weight. “Rampage” Jackson has talked about fighting up in weight as well.
Any one of those names would be a marquee match-up, as far as Bellator is concerned. And then there’s that other big name floating around out there: Fedor Emelianenko. “The Last Emperor” is rumored to be in talks with Bellator, a rumor he has not denied. While Mitrione has been the name linked to a potential fight with the heavyweight great, nothing is set in stone at this point.
In any case, with the belt very much up in the air in Bellator’s heavyweight division, Kharitonov’s presence represents one thing: opportunity. For one last crack at glory for a frankly underrated fighter.