The UFC is the world’s biggest MMA promoter, and thus, home to the best fighters in the world. Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Georges St. Pierre, and B.J. Penn all go to work in the legendary Octagon. The UFC has greedily grabbed up almost every top fighter in the sport. Yet two stand beyond their reach-the best fighter in the business, Fedor Emelianenko, and the top prospect in the world, his protege Gegard Mousasi.
Mousasi has all the tools to become a mainstay on the pound-for-pound best lists. His grappling is superb and he pairs it with devastating striking power. Of his 26 wins, 24 have been finished decisively. Combined with his handsome looks and respectable English, and you have a star in the making. But he’s not there yet.
“A celebrity?,” Mousasi said. “I don’t think I am one.” Maybe not. But it is coming, and sooner than he thinks.
For Mousasi, the rise to fame and potential fortune has been an arduous process. For every fighter like Brock Lesnar who walk immediately into main event spots, there are hundreds just looking for a chance. Mousasi spent two long years fighting in Europe, perfecting his skills and just hoping someone would notice him. His home is there, but he knew his fighting career could never be.
“In the Netherlands they like sports like cycling, darts and ice skating, there isn’t any interest in MMA.There is a big difference with countries like the USA and Japan,” Mousasi said. “It won’t be big in Europe. Maybe in countries like Great Britain and Germany because the combat sport is popular there, like boxing.”
He was spotted by talent scouts in the Netherlands, always looking for that next standout prospect in a nation that brought the world superlative fighters like former UFC champion Bas Rutten and K-1 superstar Semmy Schilt. With a fearsome combination of judo and boxing, packaged with the good looks that help bring Japanese women to the shows, Mousasi was a natural in the land of the rising sun. Once he made it there, the sky was the limit.
“I won my fights in the Netherlands so I got invited to Deep,” Mousasi said. ” I had to fight twice and I won them both so I was allowed to fight in PRIDE. It was new for me to fight in front of so many people but I am used to it now.”
Like many, Mousasi was caught off guard by the new level of competition. He lost an early match to the cagey veteran Akihiro Gono in 2006, the last loss of his career. It was a learning experience that helped him grow as a fighter. When you’ve finished eight opponents in a row, all but one in the first round, it’s easy to get complacent and even a little cocky. Gono showed Mousasi that there was still work to do.
“I am more in control of my emotions and I feel I fight smarter now,” Mousasi said. “I do everyday sparring and I feel that that had made me a much better fighter. You learn the most if you do the real thing.”
After two years as an MMA nomad, taking fights where he could find them after the sudden demise of PRIDE, Mousasi found his way to DREAM, PRIDE’s replacement as the leading MMA promoter in Japan. He was almost an afterthought in their Middleweight Grand Prix, stacked to the brim with better known fighters like Paulo Fihlo, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, and Kazushi Sakuraba. Mousasi outlasted them all, submitting Melvin Manhoef, the most feared striker in the tournament and knocking out Ronaldo Souza, the most feared grappler in the tournament. Suddenly he was among the top fighters in the world at middleweight. It was also the last time he would fight at that weight. Still in his early twenties at the time, Mousasi simply couldn’t make the weight anymore. He was growing bigger and stronger-and more confident. Much of that has to do with training alongside the best fighter in the world.
“Standing next to Fedor, I feel so much bigger than him,” Mousasi said. “When you train with him, he feels like a middleweight. He’s as strong as a heavyweight but as fast as a middleweight, so I think that makes him special. If I can take my speed as a middleweight, have that explosiveness and mobility and move up to heavyweight, I think that’s something a lot of them don’t have.”
He was ready to move full time into the light heavyweight division, but first wanted to test himself against a true heavyweight. Of everyone he’s faced, Mark Hunt was the opponent he feared the most. The 290 pound kickboxer had done well against Fedor. Fresh from the 185 pound weight class, Mousasi had second thoughts, wondered whether he had bitten off more than he could chew.
“I think because he was much more heavier, Mousasi said. “I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to take him down but the closer the fight came the more confident I was getting that I could do the job. ”
He submitted Hunt in just over a minute, but his foray into the heavyweight division was over, at least for the time being. His goal, eventually, is to walk among the giants.
“Yes, in the future,” Mousasi said. He even has a plan to make it a successful transition. “(I need to) Gain weight but still be explosive and fast. I feel that I would have an advantage as a smaller heavyweight.”
That time is still some ways away. He doesn’t intend to move up into the heavyweight division as long as Emelianenko is still fighting at a top level. “We won’t fight each other,” he explains. “I am still a light heavyweight and he is the best heavyweight. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
For now he is content, both at 205 pounds (where he is the Strikeforce champion) and in Strikeforce. Mousasi made some waves earlier this year and discussed his desire to fight in the UFC. Today, he dismisses the controversy out of hand. “I am happy with M-1, Strikeforce and CBS, it doesn’t matter who I fight,” he said, diplomatically diffusing any remaining tension and focusing on the test at hand, a November 7th fight against a dangerous Ramaeu Sokoudjou on CBS.
Sokoudjou was once exactly where Mousasi is today – the top prospect at 205. He should serve as a warning for all young fighters. After shocking upsets over Ricardo Arona and Antonio Rogerior Nogueira in PRIDE, Sokoudjou was the hottest thing going at light heavyweight. Then he lost three of four fights in the UFC and, at 25, has already been dismissed as a serious contender. It was the classic case of too much, too soon. But Mousasi doesn’t see a washed up prospect. He sees a fighter that is still very capable of handing him, or anyone, a loss.
“He is a dangerous opponent,” Mousasi said. When asked about Sokoudjou’s dangerous judo background, he surprised by saying he wouldn’t avoid the clinch with the more decorated judoka. “I won’t mind to clinch with him because, unlike judo, you can throw knees and punches to setup the takedown.”
With Sokoudjou, problems generally begin after the first round. He’s had a hard time developing his cardio and often runs out of steam long before the fight is over. Mousasi can’t, however, afford to assume that Sokoudjou will come in unprepared again.
“I am training for three rounds,” he said. “I am training for someone who can fight three rounds in a high pace so I am not thinking that the longer the fight goes the better it is for me. I am going to be myself and fight the way I always do and hopefully people will enjoy the fight.”
It’s hard to get fighters to talk much about the future beyond their next fight. A tunnel vision tends to develop, with only their next opponent at the end of a long road filled with hard training. Mousasi, who’s name has been linked to a possible fight with free agent star Dan Henderson (who just happens to be Sokoudjou’s coach at Team Quest) says he isn’t opposed to taking that fight. It all comes down to the same thing that it boils down to for every professional prize fighter.
“If the money is good I am interested,” Mousasi said.
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