Javy Ayala returns at Bellator 225 against Vitaly Minakov, and feels the former heavyweight champ looked a little rusty in his last outing.
Bellator MMA heavyweight Javy Ayala has made a name for himself over the past couple of years fighting some of the top athletes in the weight class. Names like Sergei Kharitonov, Cheick Kongo, Roy Nelson, and Frank Mir — fights which have turned ‘Eye Candy’ into a fighter definitely worth keeping an eye on. When he returns at Bellator 225 this weekend, it’s another massive name to add to his resume: Vitaly Minakov.
From a former UFC champ, to a former Bellator champ. Ayala has pretty much lived via the “take on all challengers” approach during his career with Bellator. Cageside Press spoke to the heavyweight ahead of Bellator 225 about fighting Frank Mir, his showdown with Minakov, and more.
Getting the Mir fight, frankly, was a pleasant surprise for Ayala. “I was actually super surprised. I guess they got my manager, my manager called me, he’s like ‘hey Javy, they’re offering you Frank Mir.’ Before we even said anything else, I was like ‘yeah! I’ll take it!'” Not a moment’s hesitation to take on the UFC legend. “I was like, this is the opportunity of a lifetime to fight one of my idols, and I’m going to take it.”
Ayala (11-7) made the most of the opportunity, forcing Mir to submit to strikes in the second round of Bellator 212 in Hawaii. Overall, a great experience for Javy. “It was cool, in Hawaii, I’d never been before. It was beautiful there.”
Ayala stayed for the second show of the back-to-back cards back in December, and got to soak up some of the atmosphere. He also took some lessons from the win.
“Going back and remembering the fight and watching it, it was like, okay what do we need to work on? We need to work on some takedown defense,” admitted Ayala. “I felt like when he was getting me down, I felt like my jiu-jitsu defense was good. I was able to stop all his attacks, all his offense.” The problem was, “we didn’t want to be on the ground with him” in the first place. “But he was able to get [us] down, we need to be able to stop that. So that’s something we’ve worked on quite a bit.”
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to find fault in the win, which Ayala sees as the biggest in his career to date. “The win over Kharitonov was great, but nothing beats being able to beat Frank Mir. He’s a legend in the sport, I have nothing but respect for him. Just to be able to go out there and get a win, it felt amazing.”
Now, it’s on to Minakov, who looked unstoppable until finally losing a decision to Cheick Kongo earlier this year. That loss was the first of the Russian’s lengthy career, moving him to 21-1. He’ll be looking to bounce back at Ayala, who has been eyeing this fight a long time.
“When I first started with Bellator and he was champion, I was like, you know what? I’m going to fight him one day,” said Ayala. “Once I heard that he came back, I knew eventually we were going to be matched up against each other, so I paid real good attention to when he fought Chieck.”
“I noticed rust had a little effect on him against Cheick. We’ll just see if he was able to shake it off, or he still has some of that rust for this next fight.”
Ayala was excited when Bellator offered the ex-champ, adding to his streak of big-name opponents. “He’s a tough guy. Throws some big bombs, and if one of them connects, he hits hard. Watching that fight, it showed me a few things that I need to work on, and things that I can utilize to win this fight.”
Without giving anything away, Ayala said that “I have a good training camp, good coaches. They’ve been working with me a lot on the takedown defense, a lot of countering back off his big punches, things of that nature, and just making sure I’m ready. My cardio feels great, just ready to go out there and put on a show.”
There are also a few factors leaning in his favor. “I have the home field advantage, it’s going to be a good tough fight. He’s been away for a long time.”
That might be an understatement. Minakov held the Bellator heavyweight title from 2013 onward, but only defended it once, against Kongo. That was in April 2014. A contract dispute entailed, one that saw Minakov fighting in Russia, while still technically Bellator’s champion. He was not stripped of the belt until May of 2016. However, he remained undefeated in Russia, fighting names like Josh Copeland, Peter Graham, and Bigfoot Silva for Fight Nights Global.
It wasn’t until FNG fell apart that Minakov returned to the Bellator fold. His return fight, the rematch with Kongo at Bellator 216, was a title eliminator. Kongo now gets the next shot at champ Ryan Bader.
“I noticed rust had a little effect on him against Cheick,” Ayala observed in regard to his opponent’s last fight. “We’ll just see if he was able to shake it off, or he still has some of that rust for this next fight.”
While some heavyweights might have a little ill will toward Minakov for holding up the division, Ayala told us that isn’t the case with him. “Not so much. I wanted to just be able to go out there and prove that, once the opportunity arose, someday to fight for the belt, I wanted to be in that mix. I feel now, with the way Bellator’s going, they’re doing a great job with it.”
“I feel now that Bader’s the champ, he’s going to defend it against Cheick, there’s a lot of opportunity for the next group of guys to prove themselves and see who’s the number one contender now,” he said, while admitting that Bader may have a rough time holding onto the title. “It’s going to be a tough one, there’s a lot of tough guys. He’s got a tough fight in front of him against Cheick. I know from personal experience that Cheick hits hard.”
Adding that Bader’s “wrestling’s really good, maybe he can take everybody down and control them,” Ayala still feels it’s a tough order.
Then there’s the possibility that, with two belts, the heavyweight division may be bogged down once again. “That’s something I think about too. If [Bader] does this win this fight and he retains his belt, when’s the next time he’s going to defend it again? If he fights twice a year, that’s only defending one belt each time. That really does tie everything up for the movement of the heavyweight division.”
For now, however, Ayala must concentrate on the task at hand: Minakov. Although he’d also like to remain active. “If everything goes well, I’d love to get in again before the end of the year. That way I can get at least two fights in this year.”
We’ll know if all goes well Saturday, August 24 at Bellator 225, going down inside the Webstar Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut.