At first blush, Bellator MMA’s 2018 heavyweight grand prix did not seem like a terribly impressive example of its kind. Half of the eight-man field were career light heavyweights or middleweights—including the eventual winner—and more than half were on the wrong side of their 40th birthday. Most crucially, none were Top 10 heavyweights at the time.
However, the tournament delivered beyond most expectations. Almost all of the fights were exciting, and for the most part, the proceedings acquired the “feel” of a big grand prix. Of course, it helped that Fedor Emelianenko, veteran of Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce, was involved.
At Bellator 208 on Oct. 13, 2018, “The Last Emperor” faced Chael Sonnen in the semifinals. The former Pride heavyweight champ and the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight and light heavyweight title challenger had won their first-round matches over two more legends in Frank Mir and Quinton Jackson, respectively.
While a bout between the aging greatest heavyweight of all time and a mouthy, opportunistic former middleweight contender didn’t seem to offer much on paper, like the grand prix itself, Emelianenko vs. Sonnen delivered. For a wild four minutes plus, “The Last Emperor” and “The American Gangster” engaged in wild momentum swings, including Sonnen taking top position after a scramble, then moving into full mount. However, it was Emelianenko who ended up on top, throwing a stream of hard left hands until referee Dan Miragliotta was forced to intervene. As Ryan Bader had won his semifinal the night before, smothering Matt Mitrione in the most dominant manner imaginable, the final of the 2018 Grand Prix was set.
Most importantly, Sonnen received as a consolation prize something any of us would kill for.