After 101 or so fights in the kickboxing ring and cage, Melvin Manhoef was done fighting. A bid to capture the Bellator middleweight title and defend it in his native Holland went south – twice – and a first-round knockout this past October felt like a satisfying enough conclusion to his career.
Then Bellator told him about an event planned for Amsterdam, and he agreed to a two-fight contract extension. He’d just beaten two younger opponents at light heavyweight after his title setbacks, so he figured he could stick around longer for a swan song at home.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned – the Amsterdam event is now on indefinite hold due to the pandemic. But he gets to fight a high-profile UFC export who’s looking to prove something and avoid an embarrassing loss in his Bellator debut.
“For me, it’s like a test,” Manhoef told reporters on Tuesday during a media day in support of Bellator 251, which takes place Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. “I know I can do it. People don’t think so, but I think I can and my team. It’s a massive fight. I want to shock the world.”
No one doubts Manhoef’s ability to land devastating punches. The only question is whether he’s still capable of landing them against top competition. At 44, he is known equally for knockout losses as well as wins. A fight against Anderson, a would-be UFC title contender who fell out with the promotion over compensation, is a steep step up from his recent competition, and it comes at the most unusual moment in the sport’s history.
But MMA is also a sport where conventional wisdom is often flipped on its head and careers suddenly surge as often as they fizzle. Manhoef knows he’s the underdog, and it may be his greatest asset.
“This organization, Bellator, they treated me with respect and gave me this opportunity,” Manhoef said. “I think for him, it’s going to be a lot of pressure for him, because he wants to let the world see that he’s still Corey Anderson, even though he lost his last fight. But I’m not here for him.”
Manhoef still plans to fight his retirement fight in Holland when the pandemic brings order back to the world. He envisions a hero’s welcome from friends and family and plans to pay his respects to all the people that supported him over the years.
But first, there’s Anderson, a fighter who’s equally comfortable on his feet and on the ground. The latter is the obvious way to defeat an aging fighter with dynamite in his hands.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do, but it doesn’t matter,” Manhoef said. “I’m going to keep the fight standing, and I’m going to try to do everything to win this fight. Everybody has pressure, but for Corey, it’s more, because he should be very easy [to win], people say.
“We’re going to see what’s going to happen. For me, it’s comfortable. If I win, it’s good. If I lose, people are going to say, ‘He’s old.’ It’s always like this. I only think about what I have to do in this fight.”
It’s a gamble to keep going. But Manhoef said older fighters are responsible for their own bodies and should be the ones to decide when they quit. There’s a reason he’s been fighting so long.
“I had so much fun in this sport,” he said. “That’s why I always got motivated to be the best. The goal that you have to reach something and you’re on your own. This is the thing that drives me, and I think the drive that’s kept me in this game. I really live for this sh*t.”