Three-time title challenger, Chael Sonnen, is up for a Light Heavyweight showdown with former Pride FC and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) strap-hanger, Mauricio Rua, which is set to take place this Saturday (Aug. 17, 2013) at TD Bank Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Sonnen has certainly had a wild ride throughout his mixed martial arts (MMA) career. Early on, Sonnen was mildly successful at both Light Heavyweight and Middleweight, seemingly hitting his stride at the end of his stint with World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) promotion. After winning a five-round, non-title fight over the "champion" Paulo Filho, Sonnen was brought over to UFC.
While his debut ended poorly, a first round triangle loss to submission whiz Demian Maia, he went on an incredible streak immediately after. He followed up a win over the very game Dan Miller with two dominating performances over top competition in Yushin Okami and Nate Marquardt.
This, alongside his witty smack talk, earned him a title shot at then-champion Anderson Silva.
Sonnen took Silva to the edge, nearly winning a decision, but got tripped up by "The Spider" web late, tapping out to a triangle-arm bar combination. Two more quality wins earned Sonnen another title shot, but unfortunately for the Portland, Ore., native, he was finished once again.
The future seemed bleak for the self-proclaimed "American Gangster," but an injury to top contender Dan Henderson opened up a slot in the main event at UFC 151 versus 205-pound champion Jon Jones on just 11 days notice. Sonnen tried to fill in, but "Bones" refused, and the match was eventually made at UFC 159. Despite Sonnen's talk, he was finished just before the end of the first round.
Thanks to his marketable personality, Sonnen is always near the top of the division. However, a loss to "Shogun" could mark the end of both his relevance and drawing power.
Does Sonnen still have what it takes to compete with the best fighters in the world?
Let's take a closer look:
Sonnen may never be considered a knockout artist, but his stand up serves a purpose. Primarily, it's to get into a position where he can shoot a double that his opponent cannot defend. Combined with his constant forward pressure, Sonnen's basic boxing works wonderfully in setting up takedowns, as well as occasionally landing solid punches.
Sonnen, a southpaw, actually has a pretty decent spearing jab and it lands with quite a bit of pop. Less of a range finder and more of a damaging shot, Sonnen manages to cover a fair amount of distance with his jab, as he often steps in with it quite well.
Rarely throwing the jab on it's own, Sonnen likes to follow up with a straight left hand. Additionally, he'll mix it up by throwing an overhand. The ducking motion Sonnen uses when he throws the overhand is very similar to the level drop he does when shooting for a double, making both the punch and the takedown harder to avoid.
"The People's Champ" often closes the distance with a lead left hand, either straight or overhand. When he leads with his power hand, he does a very good job of ducking away during and after the punch, getting his head off the center line and making himself harder to hit. Sonnen will also feint with a jab to set up his lead left.
Sonnen occasionally follows up the one-two combination with a right hook or overhand. These three-punch combos are some of Sonnen's favorite attacks, covering a ton of distance and forcing his opponents closer to the cage.
Sonnen's favorite way to feint is an odd little bounce forward with a slight level drop, a move he constantly does. It works for Sonnen because he can either explode into a takedown or punch from the same movement as the feint. For an example, check out the first Silva .gif immediately after Sonnen drops him with a straight left.
On the rare occasion Sonnen breaks away from these techniques, it's because he's in the clinch. From the clinch, Sonnen likes to attack with a high volume of hooks and knees to the body, before going after uppercuts if his opponent ducks down. The clinch was the only place Sonnen had any success versus Jones, as he was able to land a few quick punches early on.
There isn't much else to Sonnen's striking. He has pretty good leg kicks and one horrendous spinning back fist, but Sonnen's purpose is to get his opponent in a position to be taken down ... not knocked out.
Sonnen was an All-American wrestler at the University of Oregon and went on to have much success in Greco-Roman tournaments at the international level. An extremely powerful grappler, Sonnen has out-wrestled excellent grapplers such as Okami and Marquardt.
While Greco-Roman wrestlers almost always prefer to work in the clinch, Sonnen is the exception. He loves to dive in for a double leg, grind his opponent into the cage and then yank him off of his feet. Sonnen is very good at pressuring his opponent into the Octagon and sapping his will before finishing the shot.
Sonnen also excels at powering through his opponent in the center of the Octagon. Instead of driving straight through his opponent, Sonnen often powers through diagonally. To do this, he will lower his arm on one of his opponent's legs and raise up on the other, depending on which direction he wants to drive.
As you'd expect of a Greco-Roman specialist, Sonnen has very good clinch takedowns. Sonnen loves slamming his opponent, working immediately to secure a body lock before lifting his opponent into the air. Additionally, he has sneaky trip takedowns and often attempts the inside trip from a body lock. Okami may be a very talented Judo stylist, but Sonnen tooled him so badly that "Thunder" decided he needed to train with Sonnen to get better.
Sonnen is far from the most athletic wrestler in the UFC. His initial explosion is above average, but it's really his determination to finish the takedown that makes him special. His drive is incredible, he simply doesn't give up until his opponent gives up top position. In the below .gif, Sonnen continues to drive through Silva hips despite not having his legs beneath him, essentially getting a reversal via pure willpower.
Another benefit of Sonnen relentless drive is that it helps him chain together takedowns. By constantly keeping his opponent off balance, opportunities open up for Sonnen to cut an angle or switch to a single leg. If none of this works, Sonnen can keep pushing until his opponent is against the cage, opening up all new attacks.
Once Sonnen gets top position, he immediately begins working. Incessantly pestering his opponent with small punches and elbows to the head or body, Sonnen slowly wears his opponent down. Occasionally, Sonnen will posture up and drop down a big elbow in the midst of his regular small punches.
Sonnen often tries to control one of his opponent's arms with either his own hand or knee, and then land punches. While Sonnen puts more importance on controlling his opponent with heavy top pressure rather than trying to finish with big punches, he still manages to break his opponent's will with his endless attack.
For the most part, Sonnen doesn't try very hard to pass, as this creates opportunities for his opponent to stand up, sweep, or submit. However, he does love to control his opponent from the turtle position. It's very similar to referee's position, a situation that Sonnen has decades of experience in. From here, Sonnen will often control his opponent with a wrist ride while battering them with his free hand. While the chances of a finish are less than if Sonnen went to take the back, it's also more unlikely that he loses top position.
Sonnen has always had very good takedown defense. However, most of his UFC career has taken place at middleweight, not light heavyweight. As of right now, it's hard to see just how good, or bad, Sonnen's takedown defense is at light heavyweight. Jon Jones was able to takedown Sonnen with ease, and while Rua is far from Jones in terms of wrestling ability, he is talented from the clinch.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu has never been Sonnen's strong suit, as he's often been on the wrong side of the tap out. Immediately after his first loss to Silva, Sonnen got help from a jiu-jitsu expert, ADCC champion Vinny Magalhaes. He may not be a submission specialist, but he's clearly improved since.
In his next fight, Sonnen faced power punching Marine Brian Stann. He immediately showed off his new skills, repeatedly passing Stann's guard, mounting him and taking his back. The whole time he grappled with Stann, his transitions looked very smooth. Then, he capitalized on a small mistake on Stann's arm placement, hopping around to side control to finish an arm triangle choke.
It's clear that almost all of Sonnen's ground training was focused on positional dominance. Against both Michael Bisping and Silva in their rematch, Sonnen managed to pass their guards and achieve the mount. Sonnen finally managed to complement his constant top pressure with a similar style of passing. Guard passing should be very important for Sonnen, as he can get submitted if he passes his foe's guard.
Other than Stann, Sonnen last submitted an opponent in 2007. Against Tim McKenzie, Sonnen slapped on a smooth d'arce choke in just 13 seconds. After slipping on an early takedown, Sonnen grabbed a headlock and hit an inside trip. He held onto the headlock as he went to the ground, and then slid his arm deeper when McKenzie went to get an underhook. Locking his arms in the rear naked choke grip, Sonnen fell to his hip and squeezed, finishing the choke. Sonnen doesn't go after front chokes very often, but he would be wise to, as they are a low risk way to control his opponent and threaten with a finish.
Even though Sonnen has made some improvements, he still has holes in his jiu-jitsu game. In his last fight versus Jones, he showed that his bottom game hasn't improved as well as his top game. Jones, who to his credit has phenomenal ground and pound, was able to slice through Sonnen's defenses and land big shots with ease.
Finally, Sonnen has always been vulnerable to submissions. This is namely due to his aggressive ground and pound. He's willing to sacrifice poor hand position and posture in order to control while landing small shots, something crafty opponents have been able to capitalize on. In Sonnen's defense, the guys that have submitted him are very, very skilled grapplers, such as Jeremy Horn, "Babalu" Sobral, and Demian Maia.
Best chance for success
Sonnen has one gameplan, and for the most part, it works pretty damn well. This fight is no different, as Sonnen will need to make this a grueling battle and gas the historically soft Rua.
Rua is an absolute demon with leg kicks, which are harder to throw when moving backward. To counter these, Sonnen needs to force Rua back and try to catch any he throws. Sonnen can't afford to fight on one leg in the fourth and fifth rounds, so avoiding these kicks is imperative to his success.
If Sonnen cannot take down Rua early, he should force a clinch war. Even if Rua manages to out-grapple Sonnen from the clinch, which is quite unlikely, he will eventually slow down. Sonnen may have some faults, but cardio has never been one of them. Should Rua gas while Sonnen is still walking well, Sonnen has the fight in the bag.
Finally, Sonnen cannot fight in Rua's half guard unless "Shogun's" dead tired. If Sonnen finds himself in the half guard, he needs to back out. Not allow Rua to stand up, but back away enough that he can re-enter the closed guard, a position where Rua is much less dangerous.
Additionally, should Sonnen find himself in Rua's half guard, he absolutely cannot use his knee to pin Rua's arm. This would make "Shogun's" half guard sweeps much easier, as Sonnen would basically give him the first part of the move. While passing his guard would solve all of these problems, Rua will undoubtedly fight very hard to prevent that.
Will Sonnen prove he's a top fighter at Light Heavyweight or can "Shogun" show the world that he is ready to work his way back to the title?
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