Chael Sonnen’s last eight fights have all been against world champions — either past, present or future — and on Saturday he takes on arguably the most decorated one of all: “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko.
Though Emelianenko is long removed from the legendary 28-fight unbeaten streak that to this day has him at the top of many pundits’ all-time pound-for-pound lists, he’s seen a fair amount of success in his past few fights dating back to November 2011. The 42-year-old has won six of his last seven (which were split by a three-year retirement from the sport) and he is coming off of a 48-second TKO of Frank Mir, which put him into the final four of a tournament to crown a new Bellator heavyweight champion.
Sonnen out-wrestled Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in the quarterfinals to keep himself in the running to claim his first title in a major promotion. The winner of the Bellator 208 main event will go on to face Ryan Bader in the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix finals.
Former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson may be the bigger name in the co-headliner, but he has a tough task against the surging Saad Awad. Winner of his last four, Awad is a Bellator original who could pick up his biggest win since knocking out Will Brooks back in 2013 if he can upset Henderson.
Also on the main card, former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko takes on countryman Anatoly Tokov, Cheick Kongo and Timothy Johnson clash in a heavyweight bout, and featherweight Henry Corrales goes for his fourth straight win against the debuting Andy Main.
What: Bellator 208
Where: Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.
When: Saturday, Oct. 13. The preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET and will stream live on MMA Fighting, and the five-fight main card will air on Paramount Network and stream on DAZN starting at 9 p.m. ET.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen
The worst-case scenario for Fedor Emelianko fans is that they see a repeat of what Chael Sonnen did in the opening round of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix to Quinton Jackson. Sonnen was able to use his trademark wrestling to trip “Rampage” to the mat and snuff out any chances of him landing a knockout blow. It’s the same Sonnen strategy we’ve seen for years and it works.
Given that Emelianenko has never been one of the heavyweight division’s larger fighters, it’s easy to imagine Sonnen grinding out a win over him and that could certainly happen if Emelianenko isn’t prepared for Sonnen’s pressure.
But the good news for Emelianenko fans is that as much as he’s fallen off since his prime, the fighters who have given him problems are usually hard hitters like Dan Henderson and Fabio Maldonado, or larger grapplers like Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva. Sonnen doesn’t fit into either of those categories and that spells trouble for “The American Gangster”.
Certainly, there’s an outside chance Sonnen catches Emelianenko with something on the feet, and he’s been doing his best to tout his boxing skills in the lead-up to this fight. His best hope will still be to grind this one out and it’s hard to imagine him doing that against Emelianenko, who has made a career out of foiling wrestlers.
Let’s say this ends in an Emelianenko TKO victory and the “Pride Never Die” crowd getting to pop bottles at least one more time.
Benson Henderson vs. Saad Awad
There’s a lot on the line for both Benson Henderson and Saad Awad in this one.
Henderson has had some hard luck in the Bellator cage, being thrown into an ill-fated welterweight title fight in his debut and then picking up his first win when Patricio Freire suffered a leg injury. Back-to-back split decision losses followed, before Henderson snagged a submission victory over Roger Huerta in an entertaining, but sloppy bout.
He remains an outstanding defensive fighter and one of the best at scrambling at 155 pounds. Those attributes will have to be on point against the aggressive Awad, an excellent striker from both in close and at distance. If Henderson lets Awad find a rhythm, there’s a legitimate chance that Awad gets a KO.
Henderson specializes in frustrating opponents and he’s going to make Awad work to find that finish, chipping away with leg kicks and digging in on takedown attempts whether they’re initially successful or not. His well-deserved reputation as a grinder is going to give Awad nightmares.
Dangerous as Awad is, I expect to see Henderson defuse him and pick up another win on the scorecards.
Alexander Shlemenko vs. Anatoly Tokov
This could be a coming out party for Anatoly Tokov.
Already 2-0 inside the Bellator cage, the 28-year-old can make a serious statement if he defeats fellow Russian Alexander Shlemenko. “Storm” is heading in the opposite direction of his younger opponent, currently riding a two-fight losing streak, though he’s typically performed well with his back against the wall.
In this fight, Shlemenko is probably going to have to be used to having his back against the wall and the mat as he deals with the dynamite wrestling of Tokov. In 29 pro bouts, Tokov has proven to be an absolute bulldog, capable of scoring takedowns with well-timed shots and also slamming opponents who get sloppy in the clinch. Shlemenko has a serviceable submission game, but the grappling looks to favor Tokov here.
The striking edge goes to Shlemenko, who will confuse Tokov with his effectiveness from both orthodox and southpaw stances, and his creative striking. That said, we might not see much of his trademark spinning techniques in this one given the threat of Tokov’s takedowns. Tokov has power in his right hand, but his standup is mechanical compared to Shlemenko’s free-flowing style.
Wrestling should win the day here and Tokov will be the one who earns a unanimous decision.
Cheick Kongo vs. Timothy Johnson
There’s no way of sugarcoating this: Cheick Kongo vs. Timothy Johnson could get ugly. And not in a good way.
Based on sheer size, seeing these two heavyweights in the cage has a certain appeal, but once the bell rings, it will be a surprise if either man makes any attempt to push the pace early on. Johnson may initiate with his boxing, but Kongo has always been a strong counter-striker and he’ll likely exhibit extreme patience rather than engage in any prolonged exchanges.
The clinch will be a major factor here. Johnson is used to having a size advantage that allows him to press his opponents against the cage; on the other hand, Kongo has always been comfortable working in the clinch for long stretches (occasionally to the detriment of the viewing audience) and he’ll make Johnson pay with sharp knees in close. However, should Johnson manage a takedown, top control could be enough for him to maintain an advantage.
It’s a difficult call to make between two smart, durable heavyweights, but Kongo often seems to find a way to eke out close fights. If Johnson doesn’t finish, it will cost him when the judges make their decision.
Henry Corrales vs. Andy Main
This is a solid test for Henry Corrales, who has turned his career around since joining The MMA Lab in Phoenix. In Andy Main, he faces an opponent with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Main is an excellent grappler and someone who does great work off of his back. He makes opponents pay for sloppy takedowns by blocking them, then transitioning into top or back control before his opponents recover. His weapons of choice in the past have been armbars and triangle chokes.
That’s not to say that Corrales shouldn’t mix in some wrestling. He effectively used takedowns to pick up a unanimous nod over former World Series of Fighting Champion Georgi Karakhanyan in his last outing. It’s just that every second he spends on the mat with Main is an opportunity for Main to catch him with something.
Corrales will be the more aggressive striker in this matchup, though he’ll have to watch out for the length of Main, who can score points with his jab and low kicks. Look for Corrales to throw combinations when he gets in close, pouring on the pressure, and then backing off if Main tries to pull guard and force a grappling exchange.
Corrales is peaking at the right time and while Main has an excellent chin, “OK” could have enough power to hand him his first knockout loss.