A decade ago, when Chael Sonnen was just starting his ascent toward championship contention in the UFC, he developed a routine for his fight camps. Three nights a week, after a long day of training in the gym, he would go out for a run. It would wind him down, clear his head. Rain, snow or whatever the Oregon night put in his path, Sonnen was out there in the fresh air doing his road work. And thinking.
"I'd be thinking of Fedor," he said on Monday during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show. "Every step I took."
Now, that would have made perfect sense for Sonnen's runs over these past several weeks, as he has been preparing to fight Fedor Emelianenko on Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, in a semifinal of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.
But back then? In the late 2000s, Emelianenko was king of the heavyweights, in the midst of a fearsome 28-fight unbeaten streak that would last nearly a decade. Sonnen wasn't even a contender yet. And, oh yeah, he was a middleweight.
Still, when the shoelaces were tied and out the door Sonnen went, the soundtrack playing in his mind would be of all 185 pounds of him cutting fantasy promos for a fight with "The Last Emperor."
Why Fedor? Why a guy two weight classes away?
"He was the biggest star, and I always hated the biggest stars," said Sonnen. "I always hated the people who everybody wanted to talk about: 'This guy's so great.' What a bunch of chickens! 'Oh, this guy's so good. Don't fight him. He'll kick your butt.' I don't give a goddamn. It's a fistfight."
As things have turned out, Sonnen has found himself in fistfights with some of the most feared fighters in the game. In 2010, he fought UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva and was on the verge of pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the sport before the Brazilian foiled him with a last-ditch submission. Less than three years later, Sonnen stepped up to the light heavyweight division and challenged the indomitable Jon Jones for the belt.
Add in this weekend's tussle with Emelianenko, and the 40-year-old Sonnen has amassed quite the collection of candidates for G.O.A.T. status. (If only we could get him into a cage with Georges St-Pierre, Chael would have a complete set.)
Of course, the 2018 version of Emelianenko bears little resemblance to the motivating figure who fueled Sonnen's nightly runs, the fighter who terrorized the Pride Fighting Championship back in the day. After three straight losses in Strikeforce at the start of the decade, Emelianenko left the big stage to compete in lesser promotions in Japan and his native Russia, picked up some hollow victories against over-the-hill opponents and even retired for a spell.
Then Bellator enticed him into its cage last year. In his debut, Emelianenko was KO'd by Matt Mitrione in just over a minute. It looked as though one of MMA's great careers might be over. But then the Heavyweight Grand Prix came along, and the 41-year-old Russian was all-in. And in a wild first-round fight with ex-UFC champ Frank Mir, Emelianenko overcame a quick knockdown to win in just 48 seconds.
Those two fights earned Emelianenko a fan. "He lost to Mitrione and he was down and out. Where was Fedor going to go from here?" said Sonnen, who beat Quinton "Rampage" Jackson to make the semis. "And I was at the Mir fight, and I saw him rise back up and walk in there with a former two-time world champion, dig deep, get knocked down, get off the canvas and find a way to get his hand raised. I admire guys like that."
Now the man whom Sonnen once hated and has grown to admire is his opponent, the winner moving a step closer to the Bellator heavyweight championship. That last detail actually provides Sonnen with some solace, in the knowledge that Saturday's fight with Emelianenko is his only fight this week.
"I used to have two fights," said Sonnen. "First you've got to beat the scale. And then you've got to go beat your opponent."
Preparing to compete as a heavyweight for just the second time, he is still adjusting. Years of having to cut to 185 pounds required relentless discipline -- "It's a lifestyle thing" -- and when the irritable byproduct of that inner focus was absent in the lead-up to the Rampage fight, Sonnen said, "I went through a bit of a panic." He went to his wife and asked, "Is my eye off the ball here? Why am I not crankier? Why am I not focused?"
Then he realized that his mind and body were feeling unburdened because he didn't need to cut weight. He could focus on his opponent -- his only opponent. This is a good thing for a fighter who now is a father, broadcasts Bellator fights, has his own "You're Welcome" podcast and also co-hosts ESPN's Ariel & The Bad Guy. His attention is so divided in day-to-day life that it's refreshing to be a heavyweight, single-minded in fight preparation.
"So far I'm undefeated at it," said Sonnen. "But the other side of the story is, I've only done it once."