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USATSI

Wrestling victory from the jaws of defeat, veteran heavyweight Cheick Kongo pulled out a dramatic submission victory on Friday over Sergei Kharitonov that likely keeps his Bellator MMA title hopes alive.  

Kongo (31-11-21, 1 NC), who was floored and badly hurt to end Round 1, turned the tables in the next round to wobble a tiring Kharitonov before taking him down and securing a tap out via rear-naked choke with just a second to go in Round 2 of Bellator 265.  

An exhausted Kongo needed an extended period of time to stand up on his own power following the victory, which served as the main event of the card from Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Forced to pour out everything left within him in order to rally, the 46-year-old Kongo improved to 16-3 under the Bellator banner since making his promotional debut in 2013.  

The victory improved Kongo's hopes of attaining his long-held goal of capturing the Bellator heavyweight title. Kongo secured a title shot in 2019 following an eight-fight win streak, but his Bellator 226 bout against Ryan Bader ended in a no contest following an accidental eye poke.  

Not only was Kongo not awarded a second chance, he lost what amounted to a No. 1 contender's bout in his next outing last October when he dropped a split decision to Tim Johnson. With Bader currently tied up in the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix, Kongo could be an interesting opponent for Valentin Moldovsky, who outlasted Johnson in June to capture the interim title.  

Kongo got off to a strong start against the heavy-handed Kharitonov by using his jab to control distance and counter right hands to mark up his opponent's face. But Kongo was too eager to work with his back to the cage, which left him a sitting duck for the plotting Kharitonov's heavy jab.  

A right hand from Kharitonov briefly dropped Kongo late in Round 1 and a high kick appeared to catch the eye of Kongo in the closing seconds, causing him to turn his back on the action before the bell, risking a stoppage from referee Mike Beltran that wasn't called.  

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Kharitonov (32-9, 2 NC) was unable to put Kongo away in Round 2, even with the native of France showing the kind of negative body language that suggested he was hurt. Despite routinely pinning his foe to the cage, Kharitonov began to tire and Kongo changed the momentum for good with a short right hand to wobble him.  

After briefly taking him down, Kongo took Kharitonov's back from a standing position and wore him down with heavy punches from behind. A final takedown in the closing seconds allowed Kongo to take Kharitonov's back once more and apply the choke using all of his body weight to force the tap at 4:59 of Round 2.