Nearly two decades after he started, Fedor Emelianenko remains a relevant figure in mixed martial arts.
He’s no longer the greatest fighter in the world; not close, in fact. He’s 6-4 in his last 10 fights, against decidedly lesser competition than he’d faced during his prime when he was head and shoulders above any other heavyweight.
He got a gift win over Fabio Maldonado in 2016 that was later changed to a draw by the World Mixed Martial Arts Association. If you believe the WMMAA – Who? – he’s 5-4-1 in his last 10. If you believe the Russian MMA Union, he’s 6-4.
Either way, he’s a shell of the man he once was as he prepares to fight Chael Sonnen on Saturday at Bellator 208 in the second round of Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix tournament.
In facing Sonnen, Emelianenko will be meeting a guy who was everything he was not during his prime. Sonnen used his wits and his gift of gab to gain public attention, and though he lost the majority of his most significant bouts, his ability to sell a fight and a willingness to take on all comers has kept him at the fringes of contention for long past his useful shelf life.
Where Sonnen is loud and outlandish, Emelianenko is quiet and reserved. Emelianenko offered precious little Thursday at the Bellator news conference about the fight with Sonnen or the Bellator tournament.
Asked for a reaction to Sonnen’s years-long stream of trash talk, Emelianenko remained placid.
“I understand everything,” he said, sort of implying he’d make Sonnen pay for his words. “There is no necessity to translate.”
Sonnen, though, took the opportunity to help.
“Everybody wants to know what Fedor’s thinking,” Sonnen said as Emelianenko stared ahead expressionless. “I can promise you, he’s up here thinking the same thing you’d be thinking: Why in God’s name did I get on the wrong side of Chael Sonnen?”
Emelianenko will be the latest stop on the Sonnen Senior Tour he’s been on since joining Bellator. Sonnen, who nearly won the UFC middleweight title only to tap to a last-minute submission from Anderson Silva at UFC 117, will be facing his fourth consecutive opponent 39 or older.
Tito Ortiz submitted Sonnen in Sonnen’s Bellator debut when Ortiz was two days shy of his 42nd birthday. Sonnen defeated Wanderlei Silva on June 24, 2017, when Silva was days away from his 41st birthday. And he is coming off a Jan. 20 victory in the tournament’s opening round over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who was 39 when they fought.
Emelianenko turned 42 last month.
A win over Emelianenko would improbably put Sonnen on the verge of the Bellator heavyweight title. He’d meet the winner of Friday’s bout at Bellator 207 between Ryan Bader and Matt Mitrione for the grand prix championship.
It would be a remarkable feat by Sonnen, who was 1-4 in his last five UFC fights before being suspended because of drug-test failures.
Sonnen, typically, hyped that up when asked if he felt Emelianenko is the best heavyweight ever.
“I think Fedor’s great,” Sonnen said. “A lot of people say he’s the best heavyweight of all-time. I’m one of those people, but the best heavyweight of all time is about to take on the best fighter of all time.”
Sonnen has never won a major championship. Counting WEC and UFC, Sonnen was 0-4 in championship matches, losing twice to Anderson Silva and once apiece to Jon Jones and Paulo Filho.
It would have been unthinkable a decade ago to pair the men, when Sonnen was a middleweight trying to make his mark and Emelianenko was in the midst of a lengthy winning streak.
But now, it’s not such a stretch. The only real advantage Emelianenko brings to the cage with him against Sonnen is punching power. Sonnen’s shown over the years an ability to neutralize power, and if he can get Emelianenko off his feet, the fight will change dramatically.
“I had one face-off with Fedor and he was shorter than me,” Sonnen said. “More than anything for me, Fedor brings a power I’ve never had to deal with before. I’ve been stunned at how hard he can hit, particularly with his right hand. That’s the biggest obstacle I’m going to have to deal with. I think he can get a takedown, [and] I don’t think he can keep me down. The biggest standout I’ve seen from him is his explosive power.”
It’s that power that continues to keep Emelianenko relevant. It’s why Bellator president Scott Coker goes to the Fedor well repeatedly, because he knows that MMA fans love KOs and few deliver those like Emelianenko.
It will be a huge upset if the Emelianenko-Sonnen winner defeats the Bader-Mitrione winner, so this is probably the swan song at (or near) the top for both of them.
It could also be the last appearance of one of the sport’s greatest stars. That, more than any expectation of a dynamic performance, is more than enough reason to watch.
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