Though he is known for being boisterous, somewhat arrogant, and an unrelenting self-promoter that can rub people the wrong way at times, Chael Sonnen is knowledgeable when it comes to the fight game.
This is what made him such an interesting choice to round Bellator MMA’s tournament to determine the promotion’s inaugural heavyweight champion. That, and the fact that the heavyweight division is two weight classes above Sonnen’s normal weight.
Tipping the scales at 185-pounds for most of his professional career, Sonnen had never gone up further than light heavyweight, where he stepped in for a couple bouts, one of which was a win over former champion Mauricio Rua.
He rounded out the eight-man tournament which also includes Frank Mir, Fedor Emelianenko, Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione, Ryan Bader, and Muhammed Lawal. Sonnen defeated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at Bellator 192 in the opening round, being the first man to move on to the semi-finals.
Emelianenko and Mir are the next fighters to face off in Sonnen’s bracket, meaning he’ll have to defeat one of them in order to make it to the finals – this is of course if a pullout does not occur, but alternates have been signed to the tournament just as a precautionary measure.
Sonnen used his wrestling pedigree to keep Jackson on the defensive for most of their fight, coming out ahead even though he was fighting a bigger man. Though Jackson weighed in at over 250 pounds, he’s a natural light-heavyweight. Both of Sonnen’s next potential opponents have spent their entire career at heavyweight. This helped him realize he’d need to make some adjustments to get passed them.
“I learned a lot of stuff in that fight as far as progressing through this tournament,” Sonnen said. “Particularly, the division. The heavyweights. I’ve gotta change some stuff. I need different angles. I blasted him a couple times with like a double leg tackle and he just stood there. And I mean, nothing happened at all. And it was as hard as I could penetrate. But when I found some angles, I was able to get him down. It was just totally different.”
Sonnen, who is now 40, has a tall order at hand with either Emelianenko or Mir. Emelianenko isn’t much heavier than Sonnen was on the day of the weigh-ins (222 pounds). However, he is a noted submission expert. This has proven to be Sonnen’s one major weakness throughout his career. Mir is also a dedicated submission specialist, though he also has numerous knockouts on his record. He’s broken multiple opponents’ limbs, and he usually hovers around the heavyweight max of 265 pounds.
Sonnen may be the smallest competitor in the tournament, but that makes it all the more impressive that he’s already advanced. He spoke about the benefits of having the first matchup, as it gives him time to assess his opponents and plan for any changes that need to be made. Mir and Emelianenko will meet on April 28 in Chicago.