The featured attraction of tonight's UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen event is a light-heavyweight clash pitting former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Chael Sonnen. The stacked 13-fight ensemble from Boston's TD Garden marks the UFC's premiere on the Fox Sports 1 channel, which will house the six-fight main card at 8:00 p.m. ET as well as a four-piece preliminary lineup beginning at 6:00 p.m. ET. Three more preliminary contests will put things in motion on Facebook with an approximate start time of 4:30 p.m. ET.
The pair are polar opposites in every other category: Sonnen's clever wit and biting cynicism gets as much attention as his fighting prowess (some would argue more) and opponents are forced to defend a verbal onslaught well before the physical engagement begins; Shogun is soft-spoken, respectful in all capacities and does his talking in the cage. Sonnen exemplifies the blue-collar legacy of Team Quest with a grinding and hard-nosed wrestling acumen that actualizes in the form of stifling top-side control; Shogun's roots stem back to the fan-adored Chute Boxe squad that cemented a fierce reputation for dynamic striking carnage by way of excessively volatile Muay Thai.
Their career trajectories are equally divergent as well. Shogun debuted in Pride FC with only five outings under his belt but was branded as one of the hottest prospects and most exciting gunslingers in MMA just a few fights later. It took Sonnen 25 fights and 8 years to make it onto the big stage, whereupon he was submitted twice in three turns, posted a pedestrian 1-2 clip and was released shortly after. Sonnen wasn't even a candidate for the elite echelon until he dropped down to middleweight and avenged a previous submission defeat to WEC champion Paulo Filho at WEC 36 in 2008. Even then, the win was robbed of its luster by no fault of Sonnen's: Filho, the champion, failed to make weight, which took the official title implications out of the mix, and the Brazilian's bizarre conduct and personal struggles stole most of the spotlight.
Approaching his mid-30's and the tail-end of what most expected to be a mediocre career, Sonnen capitalized on the UFC's absorption of the WEC and made serious waves in his sophomore stint. Though he was tapped out by sub-whiz Demian Maia in his first go, Sonnen reshaped the division's hierarchy by streaking to a title shot with surprisingly commanding wins over the venerable BJJ black belt Dan Miller and perennial top contenders Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt.
Sonnen went on to walk his scathing smack-talk against the seemingly invincible pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva, becoming the first to make Silva seem at least partially mortal by rag-dolling and pummeling the middleweight champ for four-and-a-half rounds before succumbing to a late triangle choke. And now, everyone knows and respects Chael Sonnen, and his presence in MMA is anything but mediocre.
Shogun vs. Sonnen fits the timeless striker vs. grappler mold, the variables of which are constant and unchanging: they're both fully inclined to punch each other in the face hard and often, but Shogun wants to do it standing up and moving of his own accord and Sonnen wants to do it from the top position after burying Shogun with a takedown.
Sonnen's means of achieving that goal are obvious and precisely what he's known for -- either close the distance methodically or quickly change levels and blast a double-leg from outside. That's always been Sonnen's M.O., but the way he's learned to "set the table" with a completely retooled assembly of sharp, technical footwork in conjunction with shockingly crisp boxing has made all the difference in the world. Oddly enough, the Team Quest standouts -- Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Sonnen -- have all undergone a dramatic transformation late in their careers. The difference between Chael Sonnen then and now is virtually mind-blowing.
In the role of the striker, Shogun has his work cut out for him. Historically, the looming threat of takedowns is the best way to instill hesitancy in a trigger-happy striker. The ideal stance and position to defend takedowns -- having a low center of gravity, your shoulders square, your hands unoccupied and at chest level while staying light on your toes to react with motion -- is the polar opposite of the stance and position of throwing strikes. This means that, against a wrestler/grappler, the striker must assume the worst defensive form every time they even attempt to ply their best offense.
That's in general -- specific to Shogun, the imperative necessity of the striker's movement against a wrestler is a big concern because of the multiple knee injuries and surgeries that have plagued his career. Shogun was expected to be a flop after his notably uncharacteristic performances against Forrest Griffin and Mark Coleman early in his UFC run, in which he seemed to have cinder blocks strapped to his feet. But the Shogun that ricocheted around the cage with blinding speed en route to snaring the title from Lyoto Machida might as well have been wearing rocket shoes.
Movement is the biggest key to Shogun's effectiveness, and we just never know what we're going to get. It could be the sluggish Brazilian who's reduced to eating spoonfuls of leather, acquiescing to takedowns and hurling sloppy haymakers in the pocket, or the perfect blend of raw brutality and composed tactician who's racked up a library of highlight-reel stoppages.
While Shogun doesn't have the wrestling ability of Sonnen, he has relied on his trusty trip takedowns from the clinch with frightening consistency throughout his career. I don't think he can ground Sonnen in a head-to-head standoff, but I do believe he can turn the tables and surprise Chael by timing an attempt when he's barging in to lock horns.
Sonnen's allergy to submissions leaves the door open for Rua's black-belt-level grappling acumen to influence the fight, as he's known for having an active guard and an effective array of sweeps and leg locks. Since Sonnen is not easy to put away with strikes and Shogun might spend a good amount of time on his back, he might have a better chance of submitting Sonnen than beating him standing.
Though he's one of the more assertive and aggressive guard players in the division, banking on finishing an opponent from your guard in today's version of MMA is futile. And I said specifically said "finish" because effective guard play isn't even acknowledged by the judges, so the viable options are basically to sweep, submit or escape. Sonnen's ballsy showing against Silva, also a BJJ black belt, bodes well for the Team Quest rep, but Shogun's been more threatening and effective off his back than "The Spider." Chael's standard routine is to climb into a high half-guard after achieving a takedown and attack his opponent's closest arm, alternating between trying to pin it under his knee for better ground-and-pound opportunities or trap it and seek out an arm triangle. Chael would be wise to lessen his focus on attacking and concentrate on shutting down Shogun's options with his heavy top-side base and head control.
Considering Shogun's inconsistent performances, his gradual decline in voracity as time ticks on, the looming question mark of his explosive motion and all the aforementioned burdens he'll face to prevent Sonnen from doing his thing, I think Sonnen is clearly the safer pick here. What seals my decision is the way Sonnen can maintain his high-paced grinding in later rounds whereas Rua has established a trend for slowing down as the fight progresses.
My Prediction: Chael Sonnen by decision.