For the second time in his career, Cole Konrad has a chance to follow Brock Lesnar into sporting glory. Only this time, he's looking to fill the big shoes (literally) of being the best mixed martial artist out of Minnesota.
Lesnar, the 2000 NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion out of the University of Minnseota and former UFC Heavyweight Champion, has retired from MMA after battling diverticulitis and consecutive losses to Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem. He has since returned to the WWE while Lesnar's former training partner at Team Deathcluch Konrad continues to make his own mark in MMA as Cole defends his Bellator Heavyweight Championship for the first time tonight at Bellator 70 against Eric Prindle.
Like Brock, Konrad is both a collegiate wrestling - winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 as a Golden Gopher - and MMA champion. He doesn't, however, have the same recognition based on both not being a WWE superstar before entering the cage and the organization he fights in (Bellator is much smaller than the pay-per-view behemoth UFC). Despite that, Konrad posts an undefeated 8-0 record as a professional and in October 2010 became the inaugural Bellator heavyweight champion after winning 3 fights in 3 months.
Cole has been on the sideline for much since then because unlike other organizations, Bellator only grants title shots to fighters who win eight-men tournaments. Being inactive is not something he prefers; telling MMA Mania "I would fight every weekend if they let me. I don't care who it is or what it's for. I don't care if it's a superfight or not. I'd be content taking any fight I possibly could. So yes, I would." Since then he has fought a non-title fight against former UFC title contender Paul Buentello to keep busy as he awaited the end of a strange set of circumstances surrounding the season 5 heavyweight tournament and opponent Eric Prindle.
Originally Prindle and fellow finalist Thiago Santos fought to a no-contest at Bellator 59 in November 2011 when Eric was unable to continue from a kick to the groin. This was followed by a scheduled rematch in March at Bellator 61 where the fight ended up being postponed a week due to Prindle having the flu. Then during that fight's weigh-in, Santos came in at 277 pounds - 12 pounds over the heavyweight limit of 265 lbs - and Prindle ended up being named the winner without fighting. To make matters worse, Konrad accepted a fight against Prindle on two week's notice at Bellator 65 before an injury to Eric postponed it until tonight.
As a mixed martial artist, Cole relies heavily on his wrestling background to control opponents that has led to calls from fans to call him a "lay and pray" artist. However, he has utilized jiu-jitsu to submit opponents - most notably against Neil Grove - and Konrad kept most of his last fight standing against Buentello to show off his boxing skills.
Keeping the fight standing might not be the best strategy as Prindle, a former amateur boxer and training partner at Deathcluch, enters tonight's fight having knocked out or TKOed 3 of his last 4 opponents (excluding the no-contest against Santos). At the same time, it's a necessity as Konrad evolves and faces tougher competition; being one-dimensional in MMA only gets a fighter so far.
Overall, tonight's fight is a chance for Cole Konrad to take that step. Despite being in the shadow of Brock Lesnar or the UFC (who is putting on an all-heavyweight pay-per-view Saturday night) or labeled a "lay and pray artist," Bellator 70 against Eric Prindle gives the former Golden Gopher the opportunity to get his name in the heavyweight conversation.
And being the best heavyweight from a state that Brock Lesnar calls home doesn't hurt either.