Bellator 208: Sonnen and Fedor Meet in Unlikely Clash

Fedor Emelianenko and Chael Sonnen
Fedor Emelianenko and Chael Sonnen Credit: Bellator MMA

Personalities will collide at Bellator 208 as Chael Sonnen meets Fedor Emelianenko for a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship in 2019.

When Chael Sonnen threw barbs at Fedor Emelianenko at a press conference in 2017, it appeared to be nothing more than smoke from one of the premiere firestarters in MMA.  He was a middleweight, moving up one weight-class to face another former middleweight at the time.  And yet here we are, in one of the greatest clash of personalities and cultures of 2018 as Sonnen faces the heavyweight legend Fedor in the main event of Bellator 208.

Few things ever appeared to bother Fedor Emelianenko, not even the promotional poster that appears to present him as the Russian villain Ivan Drago from Rocky V opposing Chael Sonnen’s Apollo Creed.  But after a career that has spanned nearly two decades, a 28 fight unbeaten streak in some of the biggest shows in the history of Japan, to expect him to be anything less than his stoic self would be counter-intuitive.

Even the most ardent fans, however, follow Emelianenko’s Bellator campaign with trepidation.  He is 42 years old.  He has historically struggled against competition stateside and his Bellator debut didn’t change that as he was stopped in the first round by fellow semifinalist Matt Mitrione.  But in late April, he scored one of the most impressive victories of his career with a vintage performance in stopping former UFC champion Frank Mir in the first round.  While  the Heavyweight Grand Prix is still seen as the likely final chapter for Emelianenko’s career, he remains a great threat to win the tournament.

While this is could be the last hurrah of Emelianenko, being a Grand Prix semifinalist almost seems to fall low on Chael Sonnen’s current resume.  He currently hosts a weekly program alongside Ariel Helwani on the ESPN+ app, he has his personal podcast, he serves as an occasional commentator for Bellator, and works as an analyst on ESPN for major UFC events.  And yet, he could be two victories away from becoming one of the unlikeliest heavyweight champions in MMA.

Sonnen had an impressive UFC career that saw him challenge three times for the world championship: twice at middleweight against Anderson Silva and once at light-heavyweight against Jon Jones.  He is no stranger to facing pound-for-pound greats, but moving all the way up to heavyweight to face an experienced fighter like Fedor Emelianenko presents a different challenge entirely as he will give up twenty pounds to the most prolific fighter in the history of the heavyweight division.  Even with victories over the likes of Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua, a win over Emelianenko would be the largest feather in cap of the self-proclaimed “American Gangster.”

The only thing more different than the contrast in styles is the contrast in personalities between the two.  Emelianenko tends to attack in spurts so Sonnen should look to throw punches in bunches when he engages.  Something to note, all of the opponents who have defeated Emelianenko were larger and able to use physicality to devastate “The Last Emperor.”  Sonnen will not have the same luxury.  While he may be able to test Emelianenko’s chin, it figures to be long fight for Sonnen either way.

Conversely, this is one of the rare times that Emelianenko will be stepping into the cage as the larger man.  He should come forward so that he can punish Sonnen against the fence.  Doing so will take away the space he needs to go for a takedown and give Emelianenko the option to wear him down against the fence.  Most importantly, he should not get reckless and chase down Sonnen.  It’s expected that Sonnen will use a lot of mobility and Emelianenko should not get reckless in chasing him down as it will open him up to take unnecessary damage.

The winner will meet the toughest test of the tournament in either Matt Mitrione or Ryan Bader in the final in January.  It will be considered an upset for either man to win the title, but a victory on Saturday may well provide the kind of confidence boost necessary to fuel a dramatic finish to the year long event.  In a tournament that has already had several participants tested, this weekend is expected to prepare everyone for the final battle.

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