Posted 02/12/2014 by Mike Fagan in Untethered MMA

UFC Fight Night 36 Preview

Gegard Mousasi makes his UFC debut on Saturday. What’s that? He fought last year? Huh. Really? Fuel…TV? What the fuck is a Fuel TV? Fox Sports 2? There are two Fox Sports channels? Why would you need two Fox Sports channels? OK. Well, who did he fight? Ilir Latifi? Isn’t he a Samoan pro wrestler? He’s from SWEDEN? You’re shitting me. But, seriously, TWO Fox Sports channels? I don’t understand.

You get the idea. If it’s felt like a long time since you’ve seen Mousasi fight, you’re right. He actually fought twice in 2013: against Mike Kyle on Strikeforce’s final card and the infamous Latifi fight on Fuel TV in April. You’d have to go back to April of 2011 to find a Mousasi opponent with any sort of name, and that’s only if you consider Strikeforce-brand Keith Jardine a name. Past that, it’s Mo Lawal in 2010, and boy does that loss look awful in retrospect. (Lawal’s best win since is Roger Gracie with losses to Rafael Cavalcante, Emmanuel Newton twice, and a Nevada commission drug test.)

Mousasi entered 2008 a 22 year old with an 18-2-1 pro MMA record. By the end of 2009, he improved his record to 28-2-1, with wins over Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, and Sokoudjou. Some of those names sound out of place in 2014, but that’s an impressive run for a prospect outside the UFC back in the day. (Oh god, 2008-09 is back in the day, kill me now.)

His career stalled out from there despite staying mostly active. His best win is either Jake O’Brien or Mike Kyle or Ovince St. Preux, and it doesn’t matter much which hair you want to split. He lost 2012 to a knee injury, though it’s unlikely Zombie Strikeforce had more than a single fight for him anyway.

So, here we stand. Mousasi fights, by far, the toughest opponent of his career after the busiest 3-year break of any fighter’s career. That “time off” may prove fortuitous: at 28, Mousasi still has a lot of prime left to make a serious run at the title.

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Mousasi has the skill set and athleticism to beat anyone at 185 pounds, but his fight IQ might hold him back. He’s so talented that it doesn’t matter for most of the level of competition he’s fought so far, but it arguably lost him the fight with Mo Lawal. Mo gassed early, but Mousasi ceded takedowns throughout the fight, and felt too comfortable fighting off his back.

It’s a part of his makeup that will cause problems against the elite of elites in any division, and especially against someone as cerebral as Lyoto Machida. This is Machida’s second middleweight fight, and if the Mark Munoz fight is any indication (and I’m not sure it’s a great indication given Munoz’s abilities and obvious tentativeness in that fight) he hasn’t lost much – or anything – in the move down from light heavyweight.

At 35, Machida is hitting a point in his career arc where most fighters start to take a noticeable slide. He’s a young 35, though: he has 15 fewer fights (24) than Mousasi, and his counterattack karate style has prevented the damage that most fighters accumulate through this point in his career. Any style built on elusiveness and counterattack eventually diminish, and Machida’s success from this point on will depend on how well his timing and reflexes hold up and how he evolves as those skills fade.

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No. 3-ranked Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza is a 5-1 favorite over eighth-ranked Francis Carmont, which speaks to the gap between the top and bottom of the division. The tiers behind champion Chris Weidman look something like this:

 Tier 0

Anderson Silva

Tier I

Vitor Belfort
Lyoto Machida

Tier I/II

Gegard Mousasi

Tier II

Jacare Souza
Luke Rockhold
Michael Bisping

Tier III

Francis Carmont
Mark Munoz
Tim Kennedy
Tim Boetsch

Silva’s a wild card at the moment, and Mousasi’s slot depends on Saturday night’s result. Jacare’s actually in between Belfort and Machida in the rankings, though his level of competition and 2011 loss to Rockhold make it hard to slot him in that tier. The first and second tiers, however, are much closer together than tiers two and three. Jacare, Rockhold, and Bisping all make for interesting fights for Belfort and Machida (and Mousasi), and each of them would be significant favorites over anyone below them.

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The UFC announced a new bonus system that goes into effect with this card. Fight of the Night stays, but two “Performance of the Night” awards replace the Knockout and Submission bonuses. It makes some sense. The UFC can award both bonuses without a qualifying knockout or submission.

But you might ask why it matters anyway. There’s no collective bargaining agreement, so the UFC isn’t bound here. (Unless it’s part of the standard fight agreement, which seems…odd.) There was no Submission of the Night awarded at UFC 169, but the UFC could just as easily have awarded that $50k to someone on the card and named it something arbitrary.

And if the UFC really wanted to promote finishes, they could offer it as part of the purse: $25k to show, $25k for a win, $25k for a finish. Or whatever. The post-fight bonuses do provide an incentive to finish, but only to an extent: a finish essentially enters you into a lottery where the balls aren’t so random. Throw that into the bout agreement, though, and, baby, you’ve got a stew going.

Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter.

Mike Fagan