Former Strikeforce strap-hanger, Gegard Mousasi, will participate in a pivotal showdown against former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) light heavyweight titleholder, Lyoto Machida, this Saturday night (Feb. 15, 2014) at Arena Jaraguá in Jaraguá do Sul, Brazil.
Already 30-something fights into his professional mixed martial arts (MMA) career, Mousasi was set to make his UFC debut last April against top light heavyweight contender, Alexander Gustafsson, but a small cut derailed the scrap about a week before. Instead, Mousasi was paired with the unheralded Ilir Latifi, who Mousasi easily picked apart for a decision win.
After the bout (and a long-delayed knee surgery), Mousasi spent his time calling out potential opponents and dropping a weight class. For the first time since 2008, the Armenian will challenge at middleweight, where he looks to add UFC gold to his already impressive resume. But can he slay "The Dragon?"
Let's find out.
Mousasi, whose talent can vary from extraordinary to mediocre depending on the fight, has an abundance of experience on the feet. He started boxing in his teens and eventually became Netherlands' amateur boxing champion, before transitioning to kickboxing.
In his UFC debut against Latifi, "The Armenian Assassin" put his best weapon on display. That is to say, he jabbed Latifi until the Swede's face was destroyed. To fully utilize his jab -- and help prevent takedowns -- Mousasi kept his lead hand low, allowing him to add a sneaky upward angle to his punch. He also switched up how he threw his jab often, mixing in a hard stepping jab with his quick flicking ones.
One of the reasons Mousasi's jab is so effective is that he feints very well.
By the end of the second round, Mousasi's endless stream of jabs to the face and body had Latifi flinching at his every move. Once Mousasi had him reacting, he would feint with uppercuts, stand Latifi up taller, then pierce his defense with another jab. After landing his jab, Mousasi would take a small step back, easily avoiding "The Sledgehammer's" looping counter punch.
The rest of Mousasi's boxing game, both with counters and leads, is smooth and effective. He puts together combinations and goes to the body well. However, he seemed reluctant to expand upon his jabs with left hooks or his right hand in his last bout, which may have allowed him to secure a finish.
When Mousasi stalks his foe, he often uses a powerful outside leg kick. This halts his opponent's movement, pinning him in place, where Mousasi can attack with a combinations of punches. Mousasi also likes to land the leg kick as his opponent backs away from his jab. Against a movement-based fighter like Machida, both of these techniques could be very effective.
Another important kick in Mousasi's arsenal is his teep kick. "The Dreamcatcher" has an effective teep that helps him control range, as well as push his opponent around.
Finally, Mousasi has a strong inside game in addition to his rangy boxing. As he gets in close, Mousasi will drop his jab in favor of hooks and uppercuts. While working from the inside, he is very good at finding openings in his opponent's defense and choosing the best punch to exploit that. If his opponent tries to latch onto a clinch to prevent punches, Mousasi will break away and land a knee.
Though he switches up how he holds his hands fairly often, Mousasi is a pretty defensively sound fighter. If his hands are high, he manages to block a majority of punches while still slipping some. If they're low, like in his last bout, Mousasi stays far enough out of range that most of his opponent's punches are never even a threat.
Mousasi is a Judo black belt and has trained with strong wrestlers like Fedor Emelianenko throughout his career. Though defensive wrestling is the cause of Mousasi's most recent loss and is likely the weakest area of his game, he's far from incompetent.
If Mousasi is going to shoot, it's for a double leg. In the center of the ring or Octagon, Mousasi will add a trip into his drive. Should Mousasi pin his opponent against the cage, he will lock his hands together and suck in his opponent's hips before dragging him to the mat. In his fight against Mike Kyle, Mousasi set up his double by frequently dipping his head to avoid punches. Then, he dropped down like normal, except this time he shot in on the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)-trained fighter.
Most of the time, Mousasi relies on his Judo experience to take his opponent down. Mousasi is really good at pushing his foe around before switching directions for a trip. Although Mousasi doesn't usually step across his opponent's hip for a toss, he will use a hard whizzer to stop the takedown attempt and use it to secure top position.
After Mousasi establishes said position, his ground striking is very dangerous. His grappling and posture are strong, allowing him to break out of guard. Once he breaks his opponent's grasp, Mousasi will rain down punches until the fight is over. If Mousasi can't posture up, he'll work smaller punches and elbows as he works toward a dominant position or submission.
There are two main ways for fighters to develop truly great takedown defense. Some, such as Chad Mendes, go very far in the collegiate circuit, where either technique, athleticism, or both make them nearly impossible to drag to the mat without an absolutely perfect shot.
Less credentialed or non-wrestlers, such as Renan Barao, are instead forced to develop excellent distance control as well as solid wrestling skills, forcing their opponent to shoot from farther out, which gives them the extra half-second needed to gain the advantage.
Mousasi, though inconsistent, took the obvious second choice. Although a truly great wrestler, "King Mo," managed to overpower Mousasi's distance control, a good one in Latifi utterly failed to replicate those results. Mousasi kept Latifi so far from him that a takedown would be impossible on someone with even a decent sprawl, effectively eliminating his chances of a takedown.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Despite being a striker at heart, Mousasi has accumulated eleven submission victories, some against talented grapplers. A unique factor in Mousasi's game is his ability to mix striking into his grappling from the bottom, something he does better than perhaps anyone else.
When Mousasi is on top, he primarily tries to finish his opponent with strikes, working diligently to pass his opponent's guard. Mousasi's passing skills are quite apparent, as he'll bust up his opponent with strikes before slicing through his guard with a cut pass and getting to side control. From there, he'll look to either isolate an arm or move to mount.
Mousasi doesn't force submissions, he just waits for his opponent to fold underneath his punches or offer up an easy tap out.
Although he's much too comfortable in terms of judging, Mousasi has one of the best bottom games in the sport. Often utilizing either the butterfly or open guard, Mousasi constantly searches for both submissions and sweeps. Mousasi does a very good job tying the two together and mixing up his attacks.
In order to sweep a talented grappler, it's vital for the bottom man to create space. Otherwise, he'll never be able to get the momentum or leverage necessary to change positions. To prevent getting trapped underneath his opponent, Mousasi never allows his foe to settle down, as he's always attempting to elevate his opponent, kick out his hips, or at least land some strikes. Destabilizing a wrestler who's locked into a position is incredibly difficult, so Mousasi ensures that his opponent is never comfortable, but is forced to constantly fight off his attempts.
The more his opponent is forced to transition, the more opportunities open up for "The Armenian Assassin."
In particular, I'd like to focus on Mousasi's use of strikes to open up grappling opportunities. Whether it be punches or upkicks, these strikes force Mousasi's opponent to split their focus between his grappling and getting smacked in the face. This slightly evens up the advantage that the fighter on top normally enjoys, as now both fighters have to be seriously concerned about getting hit while grappling.
Mousasi has absolutely brutal upkicks, probably the best in the sport.
Whenever his opponent tries to stand over his guard, he can expect a steady diet of upkicks. Mousasi doesn't just kick to the head, he often kicks at his opponents knees or hips. As his opponent tries to close the distance once more, Mousasi goes toward the head. This same exact thing happens when Mousasi kicks his opponent off him from guard, as jiu-jitsu master and fellow "Fight Night" fighter Ronaldo Souza found out when he tried to dive into guard after being kicked off.
Another fantastic, if less brutal, example of Mousasi's upkicks is his tripod sweep of Sokoudjou.
The tripod sweep is a used from a position similar to the De La Riva guard, as Mousasi controls his opponent's ankle with his hand. Instead of hooking around his opponent's knee, Mousasi rests his left foot on Sokoudjou's hip, the same side that he controls the ankle. After forcing Sokoudjou upright with two right upkicks to the chest, Mousasi's right foot drops down behind Sokoudjou's other knee. From there, Mousasi pulls Sokoudjou's ankle with his left hand, kicks out his hip with his left leg, and trips him with his right leg.
Finally, Mousasi will use the upkick to transition to a triangle choke. He managed to finish the choke against jiu-jitsu black belt Denis Kang in DREAM and nearly did the same at the end of his last bout against Latifi.
Although Mousasi has solid grappling, he has an apparent weakness to armbars. Two of the early losses in his career are via armbar, which normally doesn't mean anything, but he was also caught in an armbar in 2011 by Keith Jardine. Even though he defended it, "The Dean of Mean" is hardly a submission specialist and was half dead at the time of the armbar attempt, so this may be a flaw that Mousasi needs to work on.
Best chance for success
Mousasi needs to take Mauricio Rua's game plan that the Brazilian used to beat "The Dragon" (arguably twice) and adapt it to his own style of striking. Rather than hiding leg kicks by rushing forward with aggressive combinations like Rua loved to do, Mousasi needs to kick behind his jab. Limiting Machida's movement, or matching it like Phil Davis attempted to do, is the key to defeating him, and Mousasi's leg kicks pack the power to do just that.
Unlike a vast majority of Machida's opponents, Mousasi is not outgunned at range. With his jab, teep, low kick, and intelligent footwork, Mousasi can duel with Machida from a distance, rather than chase him. Machida is at his best when his opponent runs after him, but most of his opponents have no choice. Their options include getting picked apart from range or rushing into a knockout with the slim hope of landing a big punch.
Mousasi has more choices and should capitalize on them.
It's vital for Mousasi to be the more active fighter than Machida, or at least match his activity. Like it or not, Machida's style of striking is not exactly a favorite of the average UFC judge, meaning he can be out-pointed. If Mousasi, who's bound to be the one moving forward a majority of the fight, throws the same amount of similarly effective strikes as Machida, he will win the decision. Or, he'll force Machida to adjust his style and get more aggressive, which would certainly make things interesting.
Does Mousasi have what it takes to take a huge leap towards UFC gold, or will Machida earn his title shot?