Former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, Gegard Mousasi, looks to earn his first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight victory by taking on Division-1 national wrestling champion, Mark Munoz, who is looking to rebound from a head kick loss to Lyoto Machida, when they collide this Saturday (May 31, 2014) at the O2 World Arena in Berlin, Germany.
Though they started their mixed martial arts (MMA) careers in different ways, these two men are currently ranked right around the top 10. In addition, both men are coming off losses to "The Dragon" and looking to build towards a run at the title.
For Mousasi, the reality of his hype is still being questioned. Can the Dutch kickboxer justify his high ranking and prove to be a threat to elite members of the division?
On the other hand, Munoz wants to show that he is still in fact a top fighter. He's lost two of his last three via brutal knockout, and his only win in that time period was a struggling Tim Boetsch. If Munoz wants to remain in the top 10, he desperately needs this win.
Which man has the skills to stay relevant in the UFC title hunt?
Let's take a closer look.
Gegard Mousasi is an experienced kickboxer first and foremost. While boxing in the Netherlands, he became an amateur champion in the sport before eventually transferring to kickboxing.
While on his feet, Mousasi uses an excellent jab to keep his opponents at range. When Mousasi is focusing on the jab, he does a couple of things very well. First, Mousasi is constantly feinting with the jab, making it more difficult to predict or counter. In his fight with Latifi, Mousasi forced the Swede to react every time he raised his shoulder even slightly.
Second, Mousasi does a very good job mixing up how he throws the jabs. At some points, Mousasi will throw a flicking jab with little movement. Then, he'll switch it up by stepping in hard with a jab. These different ways to deliver the jab further make it easier for him to land the jab.
Outside of his jab, Mousasi puts together some nice combinations. He can counter and lead well, allowing him to smoothly fight anywhere the match takes him. In addition, Mousasi will often go to his opponent's body with punches.
Munoz's boxing has quite a bit less polish than Mousasi's attack, as he's actually more of a brawler than boxer. Nevertheless, Munoz will use the jab to set up his right hand, which he also leads with well. More often than not, Munoz likes to pressure his opponent with a series of hooks.
It's less than pretty, but Munoz's offensive boxing can be quite dangerous. When he pins his opponent against the fence, Munoz does a very good job of hitting his opponent inside the clinch then breaking away to land harder shots. This, when combined with his wrestling against the cage, is where Munoz is at his most effective.
Though Mousasi can work his boxing well in the clinch, he prefers to fight at range, where he can utilize his kicks effectively. With his powerful leg kicks, Mousasi can pin his opponent in place and attack with punches. Plus, Mousasi likes to use a strong teep kick to push his opponents away from him and maintain his distance.
On the feet, this fight will very much be determined on whether or not Munoz can close the distance with Mousasi. While he tries, Munoz must do a better job of keeping his head back, as "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" has a problem with leading with his face. If he does that against Mousasi, he will absorb many straight shots.
As a two-time D-1 All-American wrestler and national champion, Munoz is likely to have the takedown advantage in this matchup. On the other hand, Mousasi does possess a black belt in Judo and some nice trips of his own.
Munoz is very much a determination wrestler, meaning his shots often fail, but he is not discouraged. Munoz is very talented with his primary takedown, the blast double leg. When he shoots, his initial explosion is impressive and usually enough to finish the shot when timed well. If his opponent can defend the shot, Munoz will turn the corner. Finally, Munoz will switch to a single leg takedown if his first two transitions fail.
Although he usually relies on his shots, Munoz is very effective from the clinch. With his sneaky inside trip, Munoz managed to force Boestch to the mat after securing a body lock. "The Barbarian" is a talented wrestler in his own right, making this an impressive accomplishment.
Mousasi does not often turn to his wrestling, but he has an effective if ugly double leg takedown. Far better are his clinch takedowns, in which he subtly controls his opponent's momentum before switching directions with a trip. Plus, his expert use of the whizzer to turn takedown attempts from the clinch into an opportunity for top position shows a lot of experience with clinch grappling.
Years of training with Fedor Emelianenko will help with that.
Should Munoz take Mousasi down, "The Armenian Assassin" had best be careful. Munoz is famous for his "Donkey Kong" punches from top position, in which he stands above his opponent and drops haymakers.
Immediately after getting the fight to the mat, Munoz begins to work to clear himself of his opponent's grips and posture control. From that point on, Munoz will attack with long punches and hammer fists, using the power of his punches to keep his opponents away. Once Munoz begins his ground striking assault, it's can be quite difficult to escape. However, Munoz sometimes gets carried away and abandons positional control in favor of landing a few shots.
That aggression can be a positive or negative depending upon his opponent's ability to absorb damage and how tough it is to get him down in the first place.
Even after forty professional fights, Mousasi's takedown defense is still a bit of an enigma. He relies very much on his range control to avoid being dragged to the mat, but the extremely powerful -- and at the time, uninjured -- "King Mo" Lawal managed to push right through that and force takedowns. Whether Munoz, who is smaller and less athletic, can replicate that performance is the biggest question of Saturday's bout.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Since Munoz has yet to really do anything offensive with his jiu-jitsu inside the Octagon, it makes a lot more sense to look at Mousasi's jiu-jitsu first and foremost. Considering the matchup, it makes even more sense to analyze Mousasi's bottom game, which is without a doubt one of the finest in the sport.
Mousasi relies on a number of guards to remove his opponent from top position or the fight. While searching for both submissions and sweeps, Mousasi has utilized the open guard and butterfly hooks.
One extremely impressive and recent sweep in Mousasi's game is the butter-half sweep he hit against Machida. From the butterfly guard, Mousasi raised Machida into the air and then reached under Machida's leg. From there, he shifted his body towards the half guard while controlling Machida's leg in a cradle. Then, he switched his guard to a butter-half, meaning that he was using a butterfly hook from his half guard to elevate, and rolled "The Dragon" to his back.
In order to do anything from his back, Mousasi has to create space, which is a requirement to create the necessary momentum or leverage for a move to succeed. To avoid 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.
Plus, it'll be much harder for Munoz to let loose with ground strikes if he's fighting off a sweep attempt.
The more often that Mousasi makes his opponent fight his transitions from the bottom -- the more time Mousasi forces his opponent to play his game -- equals a greater number of opportunities that "The Dreamcatcher" can take advantage of. To create these opportunities, Mousasi has become an expert at landing strikes from his back.
Regardless of whether he's using his upkicks or punches, Mousasi is constantly peppering at his opponent. This is uncomfortable and distracting. It also slightly evens up the advantage that the fighter on top usually enjoys. Once his opponent is reacting to his ground strikes, Mousasi is free to attempt a variety of sweeps, submissions, or stand ups.
When his opponent stands over him and looks to dive in with punches -- a favorite technique of Mark Munoz -- Mousasi may be at his most dangerous. Improper timing may result in an upkick knockout, such as the one "Jacare" Souza suffered at the foot of the Armenian.
More commonly, Mousasi uses the tripod sweep. After distracting his opponent with the threat of upkicks, Mousasi uses a position similar to the De la Riva guard to sweep his opponent. The upkicks also force his opponent to stand upright and often lean back. With one hand on his opponent's ankle, a foot on his opponent's hip (all on the same side), and his other foot taking out the far leg, Mousasi can knock his opponent to the mat. Against Sokoudjou, Mousasi pulls Sokoudjou's ankle with his left hand, kicks out his hip with his left leg, and trips him with his right leg.
For Munoz, he'll have to be wary of all these attacks that Mousasi uses from his back, grappling or otherwise. Luckily, "The Filipino Wrecking Machine" has very solid submission defense, as he's survived bad positions and attacks from Demian Maia and Chris Weidman.
While on the feet, Mousasi needs to get his jab and kicks working immediately. In particular, his teep kick would be very effective at forcing Munoz back. If Mousasi frustrates and damages Munoz with his strikes from the outside, Munoz will eventually try to aggressively push forward with strikes or a takedown.
Either way, Mousasi will have a chance to capitalize on Munoz's aggression. If Munoz charges with strikes, Mousasi simply needs to stand his ground and fire off punches. Should Munoz look for a desperation takedown, Mousasi can either attempt to reverse position or catch him coming with strikes.
Since there's a decent chance Mousasi will end up on his back, his focus needs to be on doing damage and sweeping. Munoz is not an easy man to submit, but his attempts to finish from the top require him to move a lot, which makes sweeps much easier. Plus, if Mousasi is constantly damaging Munoz across five rounds, the finish will come.
On the other hand, Munoz needs to avoid striking exchanges as much as possible. He must to cut off the cage and close the distance while moving his head. Most of all, he cannot try to close the distance with wild combinations. Getting sniped at by jabs is hardly fun, but it's much less damaging than a counter punch knockout because he tries to rush the grappling.
Once he gets a grip on Mousasi, it will be very clear whether or not Munoz has a realistic way to win the fight. If he cannot take Mousasi down, he's almost certainly doomed. Mousasi is just a much better striker with too solid of a chin for anything wild to happen.
Assuming he can get the fight to the mat, Munoz needs to focus a bit more on control. He still needs to land punches, but Mousasi is insanely difficult to finish. Ask Machida, who kicked Mousasi in the face at least three times, causing "The Dreamcatcher" to stare blankly at him. Instead, Munoz has to focus on winning a decision based on control and some ground striking damage. Plus, Munoz can't afford to gas himself trying to pound out Mousasi.
That's a wrap.
Can Mousasi solidify his place in the UFC as an elite fighter, or will Munoz retain his top 10 ranking?