Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen headlines Bellator 208 this October 13, 2018 at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
One sentence summary
David: Red Pawn(s)
Phil: A toxic monstrosity born when Rocky IV and everything dumb about MMA got into a teleporter accident
Stats: Fedor Emelianenko 37-5-1 NC | Chael Sonnen 31-15-1 Draw
Odds: Fedor Emelianenko -250 | Chael Sonnen +210
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: It’s like they say: you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself nearly KTFO by Fabio Maldonado. This is my current knowledge base to deal with the once-king. His last years in Strikeforce were a series of brutal finishes. The he went back home to talk about how women should stay in the kitchen (just kidding: he clarified that he had humongous big respect for them). It’s fitting that when he came back to the US, him and Matt Mitrione nearly double KO’ed each other — which thankfully happens — and Fedor followed that up with a knockout over Frank Mir. Why is that fitting? Because MMA is hilarious. I suspect I won’t have much to say about these two fighters other than snark, so let me just say something totally off topic: how did I miss the boat back in the day on Type O Negative? I kind of love their music. What bands did you get into well after the fact?
Phil: RIP Peter Steele! I remember being pretty shocked when he died, because I think I got into them just a year or two prior. I guess the main posthumous I can think of is Eyedea, the rapper, which was all the more shocking because he was relatively young. It’s one thing to listen to blues and funk and know there’s a solid chance that at least one of Sam and Dave are no longer with us, another to listen to relatively modern stuff and then find out that they’re not around any more. To bring it back to MMA, one of the differences between music and fighting is that when old musicians do carry on, they have a lot more chance of bringing the old magic with them. Mick Jagger might not be in the greatest vocal shape of his career, but nostalgia can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Fighting exposes the ravages of age with a lot less mercy. When you watch Emelianenko, you can see that there’s something there. He’s not a total shell. But the record has some serious scratches in it by this point.
David: Oh. My. God. Chael Sonnen is on a two fight winning streak??? Oh. I see. He beat the flubbery, residue of Wanderlei and Rampage’s former glory. I mean, that’s actually still impressive, all things considered. It’s just the part where he lost to Tito Ortiz right before that balances the unlikely success with spectacular failure. Right now Sonnen is reaching for those grapes. He’s reaching for those grapes, and the wine’s starting to sound like a matryoshka doll.
Phil: I have no idea what to think of Sonnen at this point. By the time of that Tito fight it looked like he’d gone Full Sapp, just there to trade notoriety for a paycheck in a fight he had no intention of winning. Then he fought Wanderlei and Rampage and looked a lot more his old, somewhat relentless self. Perhaps it’s simply that he’s always been a “hard but brittle” fighter. He fights hard, but when he breaks, he breaks completely.
What’s at stake?
David: This fight is presumably part of a tournament. At least according to Wikipedia. No disrespect to the fighters, but if this fight is supposed to represent the hierarchy of the heavyweight landscape, then this is nothing more than a behind the scenes look at how movie villains decide which of their henchmen should die during the second act instead of the first.
Phil: Fedor earns his chance to potentially take his revenge against Matt Mitrione(?) in the final, and what a redemption(??) story that would be(???).
Where do they want it?
David: One of the things that has struck me about Fedor is that for all the bio-chemical conniving that typically sabotages an athlete’s speed and durability, he still has his speed. Yea his durability left earth, but damn if his quickness isn’t still blistering. That’s why I suspect Fedor has more wins left in him. For me, his striking was the essence of his success. His biggest wins — the Nog rematch, Mirko, Arlovski — came down to Fedor’s ability to sift strikes past his opponent’s defenses. Because he still has his speed, he’s still highly effective. Better yet, I think he knows this. Which is why you see a concerted effort to avoid sustained grappling attacks. All that said, his striking was doubly effective because of his clinchwork; if you need a better example of how the threat of wrestling can open up an opponent’s defense, watch Khabib flank Conor again. As such, Fedor is not just less effective because he’s less durable, but because he’s more of a one-way threat.
Phil: Co-sign. Offensively, Fedor still looks broadly intact. He still has a lightning fast jab for a heavyweight, he still has heavy hands (as Frank Mir can attest), and he has surprising craft and strike diversity when he can get people moving backwards. Defensively it’s another matter. I’ve said this before, but I suspect that Fedor does not get many opponents who actively spar with him. I think that everyone tends to be as respectful of the Last Emperor as possible, and so he goes into fights almost completely unprepared for people to hit him back. When he gets punched nowadays his defensive reactions are just straight-up shocking: turning away, extending his hands. The fabled durability just isn’t there any more to bail him out, either. It’s a strange dynamic, in a way. Normally as fighters age out, they tend to become more canny as their physical gifts fade. Andrei Arlovski might be about the most well-rounded, smart version of himself that he’s ever been. Fedor is an anomalous example of someone who has declined physically, but has declined strategically even more.
David: Sonnen is similar to Fedor in some ways. He’s past his expiration date, but he has yet to expire. For Sonnen, instead of stripping down his fighting style, he’s managed to expand it. For all the bluster about jiu jitsu being all social justic-ey or whatever, he’s used it to great effect. He has a better understanding of transitions, and even though he still posseses a kind of trademark sloppiness (the spinning back elbow isn’t his only gaffe), expanding his techniques has allowed him to get away with being unrefined. His striking is still millhouse level slap chop, but his wonky stance and abstract decision making give him an element of “elusive”-ness that might otherwise condemn one-note fighters like Chael. Upperclass milquetoast is Sonnen’s fighting style. He’s the fight version of a Chuck Norris meme: stale, and reminiscent of something that was never good but at least had value (i.e. Way of the Dragon).
Phil: Sonnen’s style also seems to have become a little less effective over time, in part because I think his confidence isn’t there any more. I’m not sure if he ever truly believed that he was the best fighter in the world, but he had a kind of elaborate set of reflective tricks where he sent that notion out into the world and asked for it to come back to him in some form. That particular framework is gone for him and it’s basically just a comedic, self-referential tool for making him money. The main thing that has disappeared is his boxing. It was never fantastic, but he moved his head, and struck with confidence so that by the time the takedown came, opponents weren’t even sure that it was coming. Now it’s just takedown, ride or die.
Insight from past fights
David: One of the things I love about previewing these dumb non-UFC spectacles — besides fanbases being infinitely more tolerable than Khabib or Conor’s — is that this section is never relevant. Sonnen winning his last two fights means he’ll probably get submitted. Obviously, the best case scenario is that this ends in a double knockout, and we get another riot. Except this time, it’s Russians vs. Americans in the crowd. There’s just one thing the foreign hordes didn’t see coming: these Americans already saw John Millius’ riveting documentary, Red Dawn.
Phil: Fedor has looked super bad in his last few fights, but at least Sonnen isn’t going to punch him out on the feet like Mitrione and (mostly) Maldonado did? He’s still done OK (against middling opposition) from a grappling perspective but at least this phase of the game spells good things for him, particularly given how quickly Sonnen gave up against Tito. He did fine against Rampage, but Sonnen does not have the fearless moxie of the raptor who attacked the Fakeasaurus Rex at the end of Jurassic World, size notwithstanding.
David: I have no idea. I haven’t paid much attention to the lead-up to the fight. Old dudes fighting is usually a matter of whose arthritis hits first. Unless you’re Bernard Hopkins.
Phil: Fedor looks like he’s in... pretty decent shape? Then again, that’s been true a couple of times recently, and he’s still looked pretty dire.
David: Unlike most silly spectacle matchups, this fight will either have a bonkers finish, or just whimper into a void of Sonnen’s top control. Nothing against Sonnen. He’s grown dangerous over the years on the ground. But he’s a fighter of unique frailty (and strength) inside the cage. I wonder if he feels so threatened by Fedor’s standup that he won’t just hold on for dear life and call it a day. Which means Fedor’s first head kick attempt will be a brutal knockout. Fedor Emelianenko by KO, round 1.
Phil: There’s a serious, serious chance that Sonnen tries to grapple with Fedor, realizes that Fedor is much stronger than him and then immediately goes foetal. Ref: Jones, J, Evans, R and Ortiz, T. But I just can’t get over how bad Fedor looks defensively these days. Perhaps he can and does defend takedowns, but even Sonnen should be able to tag him up on the feet and then push in for the double leg. It’s going to be a mess. Chael Sonnen by unanimous decision.