Two very differing fighting styles will clash tomorrow night (April 6, 2013) as former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Gegard Mousasi makes his UFC debut against late injury replacement Ilir Latifi in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 9 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Mousasi is a terrific technical striker with a solid submission skillset in his arsenal. "The Dreamcatcher" packs a punch and proved it in his last fight, a dominant first round stoppage against Mike Kyle. He was slated to face Alexander Gustafsson but will instead face his teammate on short notice.
Latifi is a stocky wrestler with nothing to lose. "The Sledgehammer" was willing to fight one of MMA's scariest light heavyweights on less than a week's notice, having to cut 26 pounds in just a few days but he did it anyways. Now, he's looking to come out of nowhere and surprise everyone with a solid debut.
Record: 33-3-2 overall, 0-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: Muhammed Lawal (Strikeforce: Nashville)
How he got here: Still just 27 years old, Gegard Mousasi has fought professionally in MMA 38 times and he's also 5-0 in professional kickboxing bouts. He got an early start with martial arts, training in judo, boxing, kickboxing and eventually MMA.
Originally competing at middleweight, he would catch the eyes of Pride talent scouts, who enlisted him in their welterweight (185 pound) tournament. Although he would be upset by Akhiro Gono in the quarterfinals, "The Dreamcatcher" would score one of the most impressive victories of his career with a unanimous decision against Hector Lombard in the alternate bout.
After bouncing around several promotions, Mousasi signed up for the Dream middleweight tournament, defeating everyone in his path including Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef and eventually Ronaldo Souza in the finals to be crowned the Dream middleweight champion.
Mousasi moved to light heavyweight for his Strikeforce debut, knocking out Renato Sobral to claim the title but his reign would be short-lived as he would be upset by "King Mo" Lawal at Strikeforce: Nashville in April of 2010. Since then, he's been successful fighting in Japan but fought to a controversial majority draw against Keith Jardine in his lone fight on US soil. He was fed prospect Ovince St. Preux in his last bout over a year ago and walked away with a decision victory, although he left something to be desired.
After injuries and potentially contemplating competing in the Olympics, he returned to the cage against Mike Kyle and put a hurting on the American Kickboxing Academy fighter, earning a first round submission this past January in the final Strikeforce event. He was set to make his UFC debut against Alexander Gustafsson but will have to settle for his teammate after an injury.
How he gets it done: Mousasi has so many weapons, that's what makes him very dangerous. They key for him will be to find a rhythm in his striking. His stand-up is as lethal as any fighter at light heavyweight in the world due to his K-1 kickboxing background. He's got tremendous power and he is very technical and precise on the feet.
They key for "The Dreamcatcher" is to avoid getting clinched or wrestled by his opponent so footwork and spacing are going to be vital. He'll likely have to avoid throwing kicks so as to not give Latifi a free opportunity to take him down and he can't go too crazy looking for power strikes because a simple level change could put him in a bad spot.
Mousasi will have to be selectively aggressive, finding openings on the feet and try to pick Latifi apart with his jab until an opportunity arises to really lay into the Swede with a heavy shot to end it.
Record: 7-2 1 NC overall, 0-0 in UFC
Key Wins: Tony Lopez (United Glory)
Key Losses: Emanuel Newton (Shark Fights 17)
How he got here: Latifi has been fighting for nearly five years now. "The Sledgehammer" did not have an easy start to his career, battling tough sambo fighter Blagoi Ivanov in his professional debut to a no contest when the ring broke.
The stocky slugger continued on, undeterred from the rough start and would win four of his next five bouts although he would bite off a bit more than he could chew when he took on former MFC light heavyweight champion and current top Bellator title challenger Emanuel Newton, losing a decision.
Since then, Latifi has not lost, most notably defeating Tony Lopez at a United Glory show in Sweden. When his teammate Alexander Gustafsson was forced out of the fight with an injury, he stepped up to the plate to take on Gegard Mousasi on extremely short notice.
How he gets it done: Latifi is the complete opposite of Gustafsson and this could be to his advantage. Where Gustafsson was a 6'5 lanky striker, he's a 5'10 stocky wrestler and this has caused Mousasi problems in the past.
Look for Latifi to try to close the distance and really hurt Mousasi on the inside with short compact strikes in the clinch. If he can get up close and personal, he'll definitely be looking to utilize that physical strength to dump "The Dreamcatcher" on his back and keep him there. Mousasi has been outwrestled before and that was actually how he lost his Strikefroce title to Muhammed Lawal so it's not completely out of the question that Latifi could follow a similar gameplan.
What he can't afford to do is get stuck on the outside where he'll get picked apart on the feet by the significantly more technical striker.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is the transition for Mousasi from the fighter with nothing to lose against one of the UFC's top title contenders in Alexander Gustafsson to the fighter with everything to lose against an opponent no one knows. Ilir Latifi is unheralded by the casual audience so a loss for Mousasi would be devastating. The pressure to perform has increased exponentially for him while Latifi now enters the bout with an entire country behind him in the underdog role.
Bottom Line: This fight is a complete question mark. Latifi has some good wrestling credentials and could stifle Mousasi's dynamic striking game but I'm not sure how entertaining that would be to watch. The most exciting part of this fight is Mousasi's highly technical stand-up attack and if he can keep Latifi at the end of his jab, he could really put on a boxing display. While I'm underestimating Latifi's wrestling a bit, he could perhaps surprise with an aggressive attack in the clinch or even on the ground. We won't know for sure what will happen until the cage doors close tomorrow night.
Who will come out on top at UFC on Fuel TV 9? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!