Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rookie, Ilir Latifi, has answered the call to make the mixed martial arts (MMA) major league leap on just five days notice when he collides with former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion, Gegard Mousasi, in the impromptu UFC on Fuel TV 9 main event, which takes place this Saturday (April 6, 2013) at Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockhold, Sweden.
After a cut just below Alexander Gustafsson's eyebrow derailed the anticipated marquee match up, FUEL TV was alarmingly left without a main event. Attempting to fill his training partner's surging 205-pound shoes is Latifi, a virtual unknown international prospect heretofore, who will debut inside the Octagon on a three-fight wins streak.
Indeed, "Sledge Hammer" has enjoyed recent success with victories over journeyman Tony Lopez and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) veteran Jorge Oliveira. And while Mousasi is a significant step up in competition -- very few would be willing to scrap with the "Armenian Assassin" on such short notice -- Latifi believes he can win.
But, does he have the MMA skills to make it happen this weekend?
Let's take a closer look:
Despite being one of Gustafsson's main training partners, who's an excellent boxer, Latfif's striking is very rough. Since he doesn't have much technique, but has an abundance of strength, he brawls.
Indeed, Latifi is a very aggressive striker. He rarely throws just one punch, lunging forward with a looping hook or overhand and then attacking with another punch. Despite his limited technique, he throws fairly fast and accurately and hits hard enough to make it dangerous.
Besides his flurries of hooks and overhands, there isn't much to Latifi's striking. He will occasionally mix in an uppercut when he is dirty boxing.
Unfortunately for the Swede, he has numerous bad habits. One very obvious sign of a poor striker is the tendency to throw without setting up strikes. This is basically all Latifi does and it's especially dangerous when the striker kicks. Latifi occasionally kicks, but they leave him open to counters because he fails to set them up.
Another huge flaw is that he backs straight up when his opponent presses forward. Bellator tournament champion Emanuel Newton repeatedly capitalized on this, forcing Latifi to back into punches and kicks. In addition to backing up straight, Latifi's lack of strike diversity and feints means he is easy to hit as he comes in. His opponent knows he will charge straight in with big punches because he isn't skilled enough to do anything else.
Latifi is clearly at his best when he has his hands locked around his opponents. Latifi has international Greco-Roman wrestling experience and it shows in his fights.
After his bum rush of strikes, Latifi looks to grab a clinch. Depending on what grip he gets, he will pick a takedown to attempt. For example, when he gets double underhooks, he tends to trip his opponent by pulling his waist in while leaning forward. When he gets over-under, he will attempt high risk slams like lateral drops and suplexes.
Once Latifi gets his opponent down, he is very destructive. He looks to posture up immediately and then begins to drop bombs. The way he flows around his opponents is quite impressive as well, especially for a fighter with such a muscular build. He constantly switches positions, attempts to pin down -- or isolate -- an arm.
While Latifi's takedown defense is unlikely to come into play, he clearly has some solid defense. Newton is a very skilled wrestler, and Latifi stuffed most of his attempts and quickly scrambled back to his feet when Newton managed to set up a trip.
Latifi has an impressive jiu-jitsu game to accompany his dominating wrestling game. In fact, he won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club European trials in 2005, which is a major accomplishment in jiu-jitsu.
Because of his wrestling base, there isn't much available footage of Latifi's guard game. Instead, we have to focus on his top game.
Despite his submission skills, Latifi prefers to beat up his opponent with ground-and-pound rather than try to choke him. However, he will attack with arm locks whenever his opponent panics and tries to push him off. Additionally, he attempts to pass guard and smoothly navigates around his opponent while on the ground.
In his most recent fight, he fought jiu-jitsu specialist and Pan-Am champion Jorge Oliveira. Latifi quickly took down Oliveira to the mat and a majority of the fight was contested in Oliveira's guard. While Latifi was unable to pass, he did get to half guard and repeatedly shut down Oliveira's submission attempts.
This will be very important against Mousasi, who has a deadly guard.
Latifi's game revolves around being stronger than his opponent. If he didn't have the strength necessary to make his strikes imposing, he'd be completely helpless on the feet. Additionally, his style of takedowns mandates that he can overpower his opponent.
There are some problems with relying on strength over technique. Latifi is very similar to fellow European Stanislav Nedkov. Both are Greco-Roman wrestlers with submission skills that rely on haymakers to mask their takedowns and disappointing striking technique. Unfortunately for them, muscling around professional fighters is hard work and extremely tiring. Latifi's style and build put him at a high risk for fatiguing, which is only accentuated by the lack of a proper training camp.
Best chance for success
Latifi knew getting into this fight that it wouldn't be easy, and he's right, Mousasi's precision striking is going to hurt. To avoid this, Latifi needs to get to the clinch and work takedowns early and often. Unfortunately for the Swede, Mousasi is a Judo black belt, which will make clinch work rather unpleasant.
If Latifi can get Mousasi down, he has to work on advancing position while controlling Mousasi. "The Dream Catcher" is very good at snatching submissions and getting back to his feet, both of which mean a another loss on Latifi's record. If Latifi can pin down Mousasi for three rounds, he might be able to sneak away with a huge victory.
If Latifi is unable to contain Mousasi -- or can't take him down in the first place -- he is out of options. I'd recommend he throw everything he has at Mousasi and try to finish him with a big punch. If he somehow knocks out Mousasi, then he gets a huge boost in ranking, popularity and bonus money. If he doesn't, well, he went out swinging, fans will respect his heart, and the UFC always has a home for guys who step up and scrap.
Will Latifi proves the odds wrong and upset Mousasi, or will Mousasi prove he is on another level?