The Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix is underway and the first bout is already making headlines. What is there to make of Rampage vs Sonnen?
Heavyweight tournaments have long been a staple of mixed martial arts. Fighters like Mark Coleman and Bas Rutten made their names winning heavyweight tournaments in the early days of the sport. Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Nogueira, and others became legends in Pride competing in tournaments in Japan. In 2018, Bellator looks to add another great chapter to the legacy when their heavyweight Grand Prix kicks off with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson taking on Chael Sonnen.
Bellator has not held tournaments since 2015, but the organization is bringing back the format in a big way as they have added several big name additions to their roster in the last year. The heavyweight Grand Prix will feature names such as Fedor, Frank Mir, Matt Mitrione, and Roy Nelson in a tournament that is set to span the entirety of 2018.
With such names in the mix, it would be assumed that this is setting up to be one of the best tournaments of the decade. Instead, it’s the remaining four competitors that are drawing criticism. Also in the running are former light-heavyweight King Mo, Bellator light-heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, and fighting on Saturday, former UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and former middleweight title contender Chael Sonnen.
It has been widely speculated why the aforementioned fighters were chosen over other qualified heavyweights, but the most likely reasoning is that the line-up is expected to make for more entertaining promotion. This now raises an interesting question: how invested is the general public in the non-heavyweights participating in the event? None of the fighters moving up in weight are favored to win it all, and the only way to gauge the success of the event will be how it is received after the fact. Will fans declare a farce if the non-heavyweights fail to deliver? Or is the public interest behind the match-ups enough that they will tune in regardless of whether a tournament victory is realistic?
Rampage vs Sonnen will be the ultimate test in that regard. Jackson is among the most outlandish personalities in the sport of the last decade and won the UFC light-heavyweight title in 2007. Recently, Jackson was involved in controversy when he accused Bellator of being in breach of his contract. Bellator countered by filing an injunction but not before Jackson had re-signed with the UFC and even booked a fight. The court ruled to let Jackson compete inside the Octagon for his agreed upon bout; afterward Rampage would settle with Bellator and return to the promotion. While it was speculated that Jackson would be obligated to complete his new UFC deal prior to returning to Bellator, no such issue came to pass and “Rampage” will now be opening the year with his first tournament since Pride: Final Conflict in 2003.
Jackson has been competing as a heavyweight for the last two years, citing a lack of desire to put his body through the rigors of the cut to 205 lbs at this stage of his career. He is currently 2-1, losing the rematch with King Mo while winning two bouts prior to that, one as a heavyweight and one at a 215 lb catchweight. While he is an experienced veteran, the test for Jackson will be how he handles the combined size and skills from the more natural heavyweights in the tournament.
Opposing Jackson will be the most controversial entry into the tournament: Chael Sonnen. Sonnen is best known for his career-defining fights (and promotional onslaughts) against former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. A coaching stint on The Ultimate Fighter followed, as well as a bid for the light-heavyweight title then held by Jon Jones. Sonnen failed to win UFC gold, and appeared to be retired when he was suspended for two years after testing positive for steroids in 2013.
Sonnen shocked the world when he signed with Bellator in 2016 and high-profile bouts with Tito Ortiz and Wanderlei Silva at light-heavyweight followed. That being said, Sonnen visibly struggled with the larger athletes at 205 throughout his career and it is abundantly clear that his best success was twenty pounds lower at middleweight. Sonnen’s inclusion in a heavyweight tournament would be considered blasphemous, were it not for the fact that he is arguably the best promoter in the sport not named Conor McGregor. Sonnen’s bout with Wanderlei Silva, despite both men being far removed from their prime, became a success due in large part for Sonnen’s still impressive ability to incite a reaction on the mic. At a time when ratings are arguably more important than standings, having Sonnen associated with an event automatically brings more attention.
Stylistically, the two factors that will likely determine the outcome will be how Rampage handles Sonnen’s wrestling, and how Sonnen approaches handling the size and power of Rampage.
To begin with the first, Jackson has had mixed success when facing wrestling dominant fighters. He has wins over the likes of Matt Hamill and King Mo and recorded losses to Rashad Evans and Ryan Bader. Historically, he does better against wrestlers whose speed and striking are sub-par. Sonnen fulfills both of those categories, known for more closing the distance and using the clinch to get his opponents to the fence where he can better set up his takedowns. The key for Jackson will be to keep his hips low enough that he can pummel under and reverse Sonnen upon entry. From there, he should capitalize when Sonnen is right in front of him as that will be his best opportunity to do damage.
Conversely, Sonnen’s strategy as always will be to get the fight to the ground where he can use his dominant wrestling to keep his opponent for the mat for ground and pound. Although it is rarely on display, Jackson’s wrestling is underrated so Sonnen should look to keep him away from the fence, as he will have more difficulty escaping to his feet.