After a week of uncertainty and misinformation, former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion, Gegard Mousasi, is set to take on Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) newcomer, Ilir Latifi, this Saturday (April 6, 2013) at Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.
At just 27 years old, Mousasi has already compiled a long mixed martial arts (MMA) career. With more than 30 professional fights -- and a handful of kickboxing scraps -- Mousasi is one of the most experienced fighters in the UFC ... and he has yet to compete inside the Octagon.
That's more than likely among the many reasons he was pegged to headline UFC on Fuel TV 9.
However, despite all this experience, "The Dream Catcher" is still relatively unknown in the United States. Other than a few fights under the Strikeforce banner, his career has been spent in Japan and Europe. And In his UFC debut this weekend, he'll still be fighting in Europe, but he'll get a chance to expose himself to a brand new, more meaningful, fan base.
Unfortunately, his opponent, the highly ranked Alexander Gustafsson, was forced to withdraw earlier this week because of a cut sustained in training (read more here). Now, he fights Swedish wrestler, Ilir Latifi -- who happens to be a primary training partner of "The Mauler" -- on just five days notice.
Does Mousasi have the skills to make a good first impression?
Let's find out:
Mousasi began boxing when he was 15 and then quickly transitioned to kickboxing after becoming the Netherlands Amateur Boxing National Champion in 2001. In fact, Mousasi was talking about boxing in the 2012 Summer Olympics, but an injury derailed those ambitious plans.
Mousasi's boxing at range is pretty simple, but quite effective. His jab is excellent -- it's very accurate and packs quite a bit of stopping power. Mousasi is effective at using it when moving forward or as a counter, which he did repeatedly against K-1 Grand Prix champion Kyotaro Fujimoto.
Backing Mousasi's jab is a dangerous straight right. Additionally, he frequently throws hooks. Mousasi gets full extension on his hooks, maximizing both their range and power.
In addition to his range boxing, Mousasi has a pretty violent close range assault. He'll abandon his jab in favor of hooks and uppercuts. Mousasi manages to pack some serious power behind his punches without much space and doesn't let up -- he keeps attacking until his opponent is over. If his opponent tries to escape to the clinch to avoid this barrage, Mousasi will quickly blast him with a knee.
Mousasi is not just a boxer. To supplement his punches, he has developed a solid kicking game. Mousasi's hunched stance allows him to kick hard low very quickly. In addition to his leg kicks, Mousasi occasionally goes high and attempts teep kicks.
Mousasi is a talented counter striker. He'll use his jab to keep his opponent at a distance and interrupt their combinations, while delivering punishing kicks. Then, once his opponent falls into a rhythm, he'll switch it up and throw a hard hook.
While it may be the weakest area of his game, Mousasi is still a crafty wrestler. He has earned a black belt in Judo and trained with the great Fedor Emelianenko, who is an incredible grappler in his own right.
When Mousasi shoots for a takedown, he mostly goes for a double leg. If it's in the middle of the cage, he'll attempt a trip as he drives forward. If he has his opponent against the fence, he'll lock his hands and pull his hips in, before dragging him to the mat.
Mousasi prefers to take down his opponent from the clinch. He likes to push his opponent forward before switching directions and attempting a trip. While he rarely steps across and attempts and hip toss, he often counters his opponent's throw with a hard whizzer and uses it to obtain top position.
Once Mousasi gets his opponent down, his ground-and-pound is excellent. He excels at getting a dominant position, posturing up, then dropping heavy leather until his opponent folds. When he isn't able to posture, he'll work his passing and constantly feed his opponent elbows and short punches.
One of the biggest question marks in Mousasi's game is his takedown defense. At times, it looks excellent, as Mousasi counters all his opponent's attempts with his own takedowns. In other instances, it seems Mousasi doesn't care whether or not he's on the ground. While he has the guard game to get away with this, it doesn't look good to the judges. "King Mo" Lawal managed to grind him for five rounds, and despite doing very little damage while Mousasi worked from the bottom, won a unanimous decision. It's hard to fault Mousasi for being lackadaisical about takedown defense when he has an incredible bottom game, but unless he finishes, it will lose him fights.
Mousasi's jiu-jitsu game is very impressive. He is constantly searching for submissions and incorporates striking into his ground attack as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the sport.
When Mousasi is on top, he primarily tries to finish his opponent with strikes. To do this, he generally has to pass his opponent's guard. Mousasi's passing skills are quite apparent, he'll bust his opponent with strikes before cutting through their guard and getting to side control. From there, he'll look to either isolate an arm or move to mount. He doesn't force submissions, preferring to wait for his opponent to make a mistake.
Mousasi has one of the most effective bottom games in MMA. He likes both the butterfly guard and the open guard, both of which offer a multitude of sweep options. In addition to sweeps, Mousasi threatens with submissions constantly.
A major key to sweeping or submitting a skilled top player is to create space. Mousasi is very good at his, and he mainly uses two methods. First, he never allows his opponent to settle. Immediately after he is taken down, Mousasi has some form of guard and is either attempting to elevate his opponent or kicking out their hips. Once a skilled wrestler settles his position on top, it's incredibly difficult to remove him. By never allowing his opponent to get control, Mousasi constantly has opportunities to sweep, submit, or escape to his feet.
The other way he creates space is with strikes. When Mousasi is in guard, he is punching his opponent. In addition to being distracting, his opponent will react to these strikes. Regardless of how he reacts, he's no longer entirely focused on controlling Mousasi, which makes "The Dreamcatcher's" job that much easier.
In particular, Mousasi has brutal up kicks, likely the best in the sport. Whenever his opponent stands up, Mousasi tries to punt them. Additionally, his opponents tend to dive back into his guard after he kicks their hips out, which leaves them open to up kicks, as BJJ ace "Jacare" Souza found out the hard way.
While it may not have been as devastating as his finish of "Jacare," my favorite example of Mousasi's up kicking is his modified De La Riva sweep of Sokoudjou. De La Riva sweeps are fairly common in the upper levels of jiu-jitsu competitions but are rarely seen in MMA, which makes Mousasi's sweep very impressive. From a modified De La Riva guard, Mousasi throws two up kicks at Sokoudjou's face. Sokoudjou leans away from the kicks, which opens up a sweep for the "Armenian Assassin." Mousasi responds by pulling Sokoudjou's ankle with his left hand, kicking out his hip with his left leg, and tripping him with his right leg.
Despite Mousasi's surplus of skill, he leaves his arms in dangerous positions. Two of his three losses are by armbar, and although they were both many years ago, the problem remains. In the third round of his fight against Keith Jardine, a severely battered "Dean of Mean" was able to latch onto Mousasi's arm. While he wasn't able to break Mousasi's grip, it wasn't a good sign.
Mousasi has looked spectacular in every area of MMA in some fights, while looking pedestrian in others. When he is on, Mousasi is dangerous from every position and can end the fight in a multitude of ways.
Since Mousasi is comfortable from every position, there isn't an easy way to beat him. The only person to successfully grind him was Lawal, an incredible wrestler, and even then Lawal ended up taking a beating to hold position.
Regardless of where the fight takes places, Mousasi can finish the fight. At this point in his career, finishing Mousasi will be incredibly difficult. Therefore, any fighter that wants to defeat him has to be able to survive three rounds against a proven finisher. There almost isn't any other option.
Best chance for success
If Mousasi wants to win the easy, he should do his best to keep it standing. His first goal should be to establish his jab. Latifi has little, if any, head movement and a boxing arsenal of about five punches, so it shouldn't be that hard for Mousasi to snap his head back whenever he wants.
Once he establishes his jab, start working kicks and the straight right. Latifi is a powerful guy, so the clinch isn't an ideal location, therefore Mousasi should do his best to keep him at range and pick him apart. As the fight progresses, Mousasi can open up with power punches. Latifi is stepping up on short notice, so cardio will likely be an issue, making big punches less of a risk.
Should Latifi manage to get a takedown, Mousasi should just start working his guard game. A stand up, submission, or sweep, it doesn't really matter. As long as Mousasi is making Latifi work hard, he'll eventual tire or get discouraged. Or, he'll get caught and finished long before he has a chance to tire.
Will Mousasi crush Latifi in short order or will the Swede successfully pull off one of the biggest upsets in modern MMA?
For a closer look and "Complete Fighter Breakdown" of Latifi be sure to click here.