Gegard Mousasi: The one that got away?

Gegard Mousasi isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He has a reputation for saying things other people only think. More than that, though, he has a propensity to act on these statements, do something about it, make a stand not with words but actions and moves. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll let you know about it. Then he’ll go about getting it changed.

For better or worse.

This Friday (October 20) in Uncasville, Connecticut, Mousasi makes his debut for Bellator MMA, having fled the UFC and sought pastures new. He decided to do so not because he was on a losing run, nor because he had his contract terminated. In actual fact, Mousasi was fed up with waiting for what he believed was a well-deserved shot at the UFC middleweight title and subsequently decided to explore free agency and find a better deal elsewhere. This led him to Bellator and Scott Coker, a CEO he knows only too well having once been Strikeforce’s light-heavyweight champion.

It all seemed amicable enough. Mousasi didn’t shout and scream, nor telegraph the move by falling out with UFC brass or going on strike. He just considered his options, expressed his impatience, and then looked to do something about it. He had options. He knew he had options. The UFC would have been more than happy to retain the services of a man widely considered one of the best middleweights in the world (some will even go so far as to label Mousasi the best middleweight without a belt currently around his waist) and Bellator, too, would have been eager to exploit Mousasi’s personality, and his penchant for travelling (not to mention seeking out what’s right for him), in the form of an offer he might not get elsewhere.

A life-changing offer is all well and good, but, above all else, you sense Mousasi simply wants to be loved. Made to feel important. Be the centre of attention. At Bellator, this will happen. Beat Alexander Shlemenko on Friday and, chances are, a shot at the Bellator middleweight title is his if he wants it. If he doesn’t, if he wants to wait another six months and take a fight or two in the interim, that’s okay, too. For Mousasi, there are no rules. No pecking order. He can come and go as he pleases. He can construct a career trajectory on his terms. He can be his own boss. He’s earned the right.

Now, more than ever, this is the end goal for most fighters. Small window of opportunity and all that, they see what the likes of Conor McGregor are doing, they appreciate the level of control, the power and the leverage, and they want some of that for themselves and their own career. Fighting, thanks to the likes of McGregor, is no longer just a means to make money and survive. It’s a way of building a brand and a better life.

Mousasi realises this, just as many others realise this. Some will be good enough and bold enough to explore this newfound potential; most won’t. Certainly, though, Mousasi’s move, and confidence in his ability to pull it off, speaks to the character of a man who has never been afraid to stand up for what he believes is right.

What’s right for him, by the way, is a stint in Bellator. What isn’t right, he says, is the thought of watching Michael Bisping, the UFC’s middleweight champion, effectively cherry-pick challengers.

“Who doesn’t want to see GSP (Georges St-Pierre) vs. Bisping? I think it’s a great fight. But, as a fighter, it doesn’t make any sense,” Mousasi told Gareth A. Davies of The Daily Telegraph. “I felt I should have at least fought for the interim belt. They gave it to Robert Whittaker. He proved himself.

“Even if I’d stayed with the UFC I would probably have to fight somebody like Luke Rockhold and then have to fight another fight, maybe Whittaker. But then it’s all about injuries. Who is going to be injured? Whittaker was injured, GSP was injured, Bisping was injured after he fought (Dan) Henderson.

“You have to have structure. I know people want to have a great fight, these super-fights and whatever, but, at the end of the day, you still have to have structure. You will end up with a load of interim champions. I don’t understand that.”

In vanishing from the UFC’s rankings many feel Mousasi has inadvertently relegated himself from the major leagues to the minor leagues, from the premier division to the first division. They might have a point. After all, fights with the likes of Bisping, Whittaker, Rockhold, Yoel Romero and ‘Jacare’ Souza are no longer available to him. Not now, perhaps not in the future. Instead, Mousasi must contend with Shlemenko this Friday, a 33-year-old Russian who has won his last seven fights but previously been beaten by Brandon Halsey, Tito Ortiz and Hector Lombard. What’s more, eleven years ago, ‘Jacare’ submitted Shlemenko inside a round.

“He’s tough as nails,” is how Mousasi has described his next opponent. “They don’t come tougher than him. I’ve seen him rather get choked out than tap. He fights until the end. He tries to come to win. He’s tough, he’s experienced. That’s a guy I can’t underestimate.

“That being said, I feel I’m the better fighter. It’s as simple as that. But I do respect the guy a lot. I know he’s going to come to fight and it’s going to be a great fight for the fans.”

Shlemenko would appear to be a showcase of sorts for Mousasi. Their fight on Friday offers Bellator the chance to introduce Gegard to the Bellator fans, most of whom will already be familiar with him, and also gives the Armenian the opportunity to tune up ahead of what many feel is an inevitable shot at Bellator middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho.

“That’s definitely going to happen after I beat Shlemenko,” said Mousasi. “But I don’t mind proving myself. Shlemenko is a former champ. If I want to prove I’m the champ, I have to be able to beat the former champ. After this, it’s 100% the title shot.”

If Gegard Mousasi says that’s the plan, who are we, and who are Bellator, to argue?