Since making his MMA debut almost a decade ago, Iranian born stand-up wizard Gegard Mousasi is one of the more decorated fighters to never step foot in the vaunted Octagon of the UFC.
Having cut his teeth in the Japanese organizations of PRIDE FC and DREAM in the early part of the current millennium, Mousasi finally made his stateside debut for the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion in 2009. He scored a first-round TKO victory over former UFC title challenger Renato “Babalu” Sobral, capturing the company’s light heavyweight championship.
This Saturday, “The Dreamcatcher” makes his long awaited promotional debut at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in Stockholm. Mousasi was originally slated to meet light heavyweight powerhouse and hometown Swede Alexander Gustafsson in the night‘s main event, but “The Mauler“ was forced to pull out due to a cut suffered in training. Gustafsson has been replaced by countryman and sparring partner Ilir Latifi.
Although Latifi doesn’t present the same threat as Gustaffson, this fight still marks the UFC debut of one of the most accomplished fighters to never fight for the company, and for Mousasi, the pressure is mounting.
“There’s some pressure because this is the first fight (in the UFC). You want to do well. It’s the biggest organization,“ Mousasi told MMAweekly.com. “It’s a big opportunity for me. Sometimes you get opportunities and you just have to take them, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Despite a stellar career overseas, the opportunity the UFC represents for Mousasi is undeniable. With a rabid worldwide fan base and ample opportunities to fight, Mousasi now finds himself at the center of the MMA universe. He even admits to, on occasion, thinking about what his early career might have been like if he had joined the world’s premiere fighting organization a bit sooner.
“Sometimes I wonder if I had spent my career in the UFC a lot earlier, then maybe I would have went a lot further with everything,“ he stated. “But I started my career in Japan, and I have different roots.
“I could’ve reached a lot more if I would have done things correctly in the past, but so far I cannot complain. I have a good record, but maybe if I did things better in the past, I’d be further in my class, higher in my career.”
Prior to fighting in the UFC, Mousasi amassed an impressive record of 33-3-2, while picking and choosing how much he would put into any given training camp. Outside of the UFC, motivation became a daily struggle as he battled a lack of organizational consistency and job security.
“Every fight that I had, nothing really actually changed in my life. I’m not getting richer or poorer; it’s the same thing,” he commented.
“With the UFC, I feel like there’s big opportunities. It kind of excites me to be where these other guys are, at the top of the division. These things motivate me, now. Maybe in the past I lacked in that because of… some frustrations. I feel like now I’m getting the opportunity to make something out of it.
“I’m more serious. I have coaches in all areas now. In the past I would just train myself. So, I’m taking things more serious. I’m more professional. I train right; that’s what I feel I haven’t done in the past. And mentally I think I’ve grown. I’m more mature.”
During his time overseas, Mousasi was the victim of unwavering critique and was accused of possessing a “padded” record filled with sub-par opponents; something he is quick to discuss, and dismiss.
“This is a popularity contest I think. I think the guys who are promoted well get more credit,” said the 27-year-old.
“When I fought some guys, they were at the top and now they’re going down. This is fighting; even an opponent who is not so good can defeat you. I’ve fought at light heavyweight, middleweight, heavyweight. I fought Mark Hunt, who everyone said wasn’t that good and now he’s possibly fighting for the heavyweight title. I fought Jacare. He became the Strikeforce champion. I fought Melvin Manhoef; maybe he’s not the best, but he’s a guy who can beat anyone. Even if you put him against the number one guy, he has a big chance of winning because of the way he fights. So to the people who don’t think I’ve fought top competition, they probably don’t know the sport that well.”
If there is any knock on the well-rounded Dutch transplant, it’s his inability to promote a fight. So when Mousasi speaks about the fight game being a “popularity contest,” he speaks from experience.
In an era where entertainment has become paramount to a fighter’s career arc, Mousasi acknowledges that he might not be the slickest of tongues, but hopefully his fighting speaks for itself.
“I’m just being myself,” he said. “It’s entertainment and people like to be entertained. So, it makes sense to talk more. But as long as you fight well, and everything goes well, you don’t need to worry.”
Currently riding a five-fight winning streak, Mousasi is one of the hottest prospects in MMA – ability to inspire trash talk or not – in one of the most talent-rich divisions the sport has to offer. Now, with his UFC debut just days away, Mousasi sees nothing but opportunity on the road ahead.
“I know for sure I can fight any of these guys and beat them,” he declared. “Now it’s a matter of fighting them. I can talk all I want, but now I have to go out and perform against these top names.
“I feel like I belong at the top, for sure.”