Ahead of his meeting with MMA great Fedor Emelianenko at Bellator 208, Chael Sonnen said he wasn’t sure if Emelianenko was a fast fighter, or just fast for a heavyweight.
He got a first-hand look at that speed in a hectic round of MMA as Emelianenko defeated Sonnen via TKO, winning at 4:46 of the first round Saturday at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
“Chael worked really very hard and it showed that he prepared very well,” Emelianenko said through his translator.
With the victory, Emelianenko moves on to the final of the Bellator heavyweight grand prix for a shot at the vacant championship.
Emelianenko immediately caught Sonnen with a left-right combination that put the American on his back. Sonnen recovered quickly, but Emelianenko came right back with relentless pace.
“He hurt me early. Everything he did hurt,” Sonnen said. “I was trying to recover and I was kind of drowning out there.”
Sonnen eventually shot for a takedown, which Emelianenko easily defended to wind up on top. When the fight returned to the feet, Emelianenko had little issue getting away from Sonnen’s takedowns at first, but the American grabbed a hold of an ankle and managed to get on top. That didn’t last, but Sonnen later landed a double-leg takedown and maintained his position on top for a short while. Emelianenko swept with a minute left in the round and eventually let Sonnen back to his feet, but as Sonnen slowly rose, Emelianenko didn’t let him reset, moving forward and catching him with a big punch.
Sonnen tried to defend the Russian’s strikes, but the onslaught continued as Sonnen hit the mat. Emelianenko continued to throw ground strikes until referee Dan Miragliotta stepped in with just a few seconds remaining in the round.
With Emelianenko’s win, Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix final is set. The Russian will face Ryan Bader, also the promotion’s light heavyweight champion, on Jan. 26 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Bader defeated Matt Mitrione in the other semifinal Friday night.
“He’s a great, very strong fighter,” Emelianenko said about Bader. “I had the opportunity to watch him during the open workouts and he’s great.”
Bader was impressed with the performances by both Emelianenko and Sonnen, but wished the fight went longer.
"Fedor looked impressive, they went out there and got at it right away," Bader said. "Chael got in his face and started putting that pressure on him, but Fedor was throwing back hard, throwing those three-four-five-punch combos.
"Overall, Fedor looked impressive. I'm excited, I'm ready, got me going."
In the co-main event, Benson Henderson finally exorcised his Bellator decision demons, beating Saad Awad in a unanimous decision, 30-27, 30-26, 30-26.
The win gave Henderson his first decision win and first back-to-back victories since joinng Bellator, bringing his promotional record to 3-3. The loss ended Awad’s four-fight unbeaten streak.
Awad tried to use his length to his advantage from the beginning of the fight, throwing plenty of kicks. Henderson eventually eliminated that advantage by working the fight to the ground. From there, Henderson got himself to Awad’s back and calmly secured a body lock. Awad escaped, but Henderson stayed all over him. When Awad eventually took the position, he looked to be in good position for a choke but escaped and rained down strikes of his own.
In the second round, Awad began to taunt Henderson a bit, inviting his strikes while keeping distance with kicks. Awad got the best of a scramble soon after, but Henderson worked his way back to the top against the cage. The fighters continued to grapple for much of the round with Henderson spending much of the time on top. Henderson secured a choke while on top in the closing seconds of the round, but Awad was able to stay in the fight as the bell sounded.
Early in the third round, Awad caught Henderson with a knee while Henderson was on the ground. It was unclear at the time if the knee hit Henderson in the head or not (knees to the head of a downed opponent are illegal). Henderson soon recovered and had Awad in a tough spot on the mat against the cage. Henderson was spotted grabbing the cage and received a warning from Hinds, but did not lose a point, just his position. Henderson was briefly dropped by an Awad right hand, but was on his feet immediately after and quickly secured another dominant position on the ground. With less than 30 seconds left in the fight, Henderson looked for a choke but couldn’t quite get the position to finish the fight himself.
Cheick Kongo made quick work of Tim Johnson, scoring a knockout with one of the first strikes he landed to put Johnson out cold at 1:08 of the first round.
Kongo caught Johnson with a right hand near the back of his head, sending Johnson tumbling into Kongo’s legs. Johnson looked to grab Kongo instinctively, but he already was out of it. Kongo threw a handful more strikes on the ground to finish the fight as referee Todd Anderson stepped in to end the heavyweight bout.
It was the seventh straight win for the 43-year-old Kongo (29-10-2), who is 11-2 since joining Bellator in 2013. Kongo figures to be a potential challenger to the heavyweight champion, who will be crowned next January when the heavyweight grand prix concludes.
Anatoly Tokov emerged victorious over former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko by unanimous decision after three rounds of grueling grappling. All three judges scored it 30-27. Tokov (27-2) is 3-0 since joining Bellator in 2017.
After a tough first two rounds, Henry Corrales knocked out Andy Main in the third round of their featherweight bout. It’s the fourth straight win for Corrales (16-3) after losing three in a row to start his Bellator career.