After winning his main event at Bellator’s New York debut last summer, Chael Sonnen used his post-fight interview to call out Fedor Emelianenko.
It was an eyebrow-raiser from Sonnen. Aside from never having competed at heavyweight, Sonnen was in the aftermath of a win over longtime rival Wanderlei Silva, while Emelianenko had just been knocked out by Matt Mitrione.
The fight just didn’t make sense.
“I did not think this fight was an option,” Sonnen said. “I did not think Fedor and I’s paths were gonna cross.”
Over a year later, their paths will converge at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 13 at Bellator 208 in the semifinal of the promotion’s heavyweight grand prix. A berth in the tournament final against the winner of Mitrione and Ryan Bader will be on the line, but for Sonnen, putting himself up against a legend of the sport such as Emelianenko is the real prize.
“I don’t believe in ever punching down. I’ve made my whole career in punching up,” Sonnen said. “People never call out Fedor. They pretend it’s because they’re respectful of Fedor, but they’re liars. They don’t call him out because they’re scared of him. I don’t live my life that way, I don’t walk around scared of people. I don’t walk around looking for easy matches. I will take on any match, and there’s a lot of guys that talk tough, but it’s just talk. I am the only guy that backs it up.”
Emelianenko didn’t think much of the callout when it happened, but he appreciates Sonnen’s will to compete against him.
“I’m glad he’s not afraid of me, it’ll be a more interesting fight,” said Emelianenko through a translator. “I wasn’t really surprised, but at the time, I thought this fight was not likely to happen because we were in two different weight classes.”
The fight became a possibility after Sonnen made the jump to heavyweight for the grand prix. Slotted on the same side of the bracket, Sonnen defeated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson via decision in his quarterfinal, while Emelianenko knocked out Frank Mir in the first round of his opener.
“The grand prix format is very interesting. In single fights, it’s just two guys fighting and then it’s over,” Emelianenko said. “Here, you have continuity. With each round, the stronger guy stays so it just gets tougher.”
Sonnen will be up against it to prove he’s the stronger fighter, mainly because of the weight disadvantage after a career at middleweight and light heavyweight. The Oregon native was 222 pounds for his bout against Jackson, saying he could feel the increased strength and size of his opponent during the fight and leading him to focus on training with bigger, stronger fighters. Against Emelianenko, who weighs in around 240 pounds, Sonnen believes it’ll be anybody’s fight.
“He can definitely beat me. I can beat him too, and I’m not sure he knows it. I know it could go either way. I don’t know how to beat him, it won’t be my usual style because I don’t think you can just throw this guy down and hold him there,” Sonnen said. “He’s very explosive, he’s very fast. I don’t know if that means he’s fast for heavyweight or that just means he’s fast. I’ve never seen him be the slower man in a contest, but he’s been taking on big fat bums that are at heavyweight and don’t have the discipline to go to a real weight class. So I don’t know that he’ll have that advantage over me, I’ve never had anybody faster than me ever. I’m the fastest guy I know, so I would be shocked if he was, but I’m not certain he’s not, when you watch his tapes he just looks fast, so it’s hard to say.”
Emelianenko has the experience at heavyweight, but he said he isn’t focused on any perceived advantages he has over Sonnen.
“I don’t really think about advantages,” Emelianenko said. “A lot of times, fighters think they have the advantage in something, and then they are not able to use that advantage in the fight, so I don’t think about advantages.”
The Russian said there are plenty of similarities in his and Sonnen’s fighting style, but he doesn’t expect the fight to play out in any specific manner.
“Chael is a wrestler, obviously has really good wrestling, good ground control and good ground and pound, but he also can stand on his feet. Nowadays, everybody is well rounded, nobody is one-dimensional anymore,” Emelianenko said. “I come from a sambo background and Chael is a freestyle wrestler. We have some things that are similar and some things that are different.”
Sonnen respects what Emelianenko has accomplished in the sport, but he remains confident as ever.
“I think that he’s the most talented fighter in the world and the most talented fighter the world has ever seen,” Sonnen said. “I’m the toughest fighter in the world and the toughest fighter the world has ever seen.
“I think toughness trumps talent.”