Rashad Evans and Chael Sonnen are both strong-willed wrestlers and cerebral athletes. Generally, they can either out-think or overpower their opponents, or win by some combination of both. Evans is a former UFC light heavyweight titlist and championship gold has been at stake in two of Sonnen's last three turns.
As wrestlers, at least credential wise, Sonnen has the edge. He was a Division 1 All-American in the late 90's and went on to place third in Greco Roman wrestling at the Olympic trials. Evans was a Junior College national champion before transferring to Michigan State, where he finished in the Round of 12 at the NCAA Division 1 tournament and improved throughout his tenure, but fell just short of All-American status. I know this because Mike Riordan, Bloody Elbow's wrestling extraordinaire, knows this.
Their in-cage characteristics and mentalities are very different. Sonnen is a straight forward, hard-nosed, blue-collar and no bullshit kind of guy whereas Evans is exceptionally fluid and smooth in everything he does, and has his own unique style. In other words, Rashad exudes artistry and grace, with more of a taste for flair -- Sonnen just gets the job done, then takes to the mic to make the outrageous boasts we all love him or hate him for.
When it came to expanding upon their wrestling foundation, Sonnen -- though the enhancements were far from immediate -- tacked on some half-guard mastery and a sensible menu of basic top-side submissions. His striking, while still fairly average considering some of his divisional counterparts, has also diversified slightly and increased in effectiveness.
Striking was a natural add on for Evans, who won TUF 8 as a drastically undersized and inexperienced (7-0 at the time) heavyweight by relying on his speed, agility and boxing. Having the "chin up, hands down" mentality of wrestling hammered into your brain for years can make the heavily contrasting "chin down, hands up" philosophy of striking a cumbersome transition. Evans is among the uncommon clique of wrestlers who've taken to MMA striking like a fish to water. The stance, footwork, movement and balance of wrestling are almost directly inverse to that of striking, but the casual fan could've mistaken Evans for a boxer instead of a wrestler by the time he was halfway through his UFC career.
My first instincts on this match-up steered me toward Evans for his speed, nimbleness and dexterity. If that sounds funny: those qualities have a large influence on key factors like anticipating and reacting to a takedown attempt, timing a counter-strike while dodging an incoming volley in the pocket or cutting a V-step to escape into open space and avoid being cornered and subsequently sandwiched against the cage.
Rashad fits nicely into the mold of the boxer in the classic "boxer vs. brawler" analogy, and he'll look to out-finesse the more primitively assertive Sonnen, who'll be intent on bum rushing Evans and suffocating him with control and leather, i.e. "brawling the boxer."
Sonnen's boxing has had a much larger presence recently. If you sleep on it, he'll rattle your cage with it -- just like he did to Anderson Silva in their first meeting. For the most part, Sonnen's straight punches and simple combinations have been a perfect smokescreen to disguise his blast double-leg takedown, which is about as good as it gets in MMA. Though Evans' footwork is more elaborate and diverse, the lightning-fast level changes and deep penetration that fuel Sonnen's voracious takedowns are highly attributed to his well-balanced and knifing footwork. For MMA in general, Evans has the better footwork; for wrestling purposes, Sonnen gets the nod.
Considering that Evans is far more polished on the feet -- he can string fluent combinations together, bob and weave, circle and pivot, connect while retreating and counter-strike well enough to sleep Chuck Liddell -- I've been leaning his way for the artistry and athleticism noted throughout. A big X-factor might be size, even though the difference could be minuscule. For some reason, painfully basic information like accurate height and reach stats have become hard to nail down, but Sonnen is listed as 6'1" and Rashad at 5'11" -- it's not much, but that extra length and heft has a chance to amplify Sonnen's swarming and bullying style.
Still, I think Evans has too many options and advantages on the feet, along with the wrestling prowess to stalemate with Sonnen or keep the fight standing more often than he'd prefer.
My Prediction: Rashad Evans by decision.