Maybe Gegard Mousasi used to care, back when the noise was at its loudest. Back when he pillaged through DREAM's middleweight grand prix then effortlessly seized his Strikeforce light heavyweight title. Maybe he cared when people began to whisper of a mini-Fedor, an emotionless machine of destruction hailing from the Netherlands, whose reign seemed inevitable.
Maybe he cared about the opinions because that's what you do when you're young in the fight game; when you don't know any better, and all this hype seems like it'll last forever. But that's the thing. It never does. Success breeds public unrest, and it often takes just one moment of weakness for an aura of invincibility to be ripped away. Perhaps Mousasi used to listen to the critics back then, but he no longer does. Two years of marginalization will do that to a man.
"Maybe [because I was overseas]," Mousasi mulls, his thick accent hardly hiding his frustration. "I don't know. I see some fighters lose very badly, but still they get more praise or they're not overrated. They're just good fighters in a lot of people's eyes. But I feel like one loss with King Mo, it made me a very bad fighter somehow.
"When I first fought in the U.S., there was a lot of attention. And then after that loss, there wasn't actually that much interest. I see now, it's experience. I get [more] mature. I understand now things how work."
Catch Mousasi in the right mood, and the date pops up in conversation more than often than not. April 17, 2010, Strikeforce Nashville. One night that will forever live in infamy, if only for an inane brawl on network television and the first uttering of the phrase, "Sometimes these things happen in MMA." But for Mousasi, the memory signifies something else entirely.
It's the night he got exposed, according to the noisemakers. The night a 2-to-1 underdog, Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, exploited a fatal flaw in his game, outwrestled him for 25 minutes, snapped a 15-fight win streak, and kickstarted a narrative that still lives strong. Though it's that last part that hurts the most.
Yes, to call Mousasi's performance against Lawal listless would be generous. At times he looked as bored and indifferent as a man fighting off unrelenting takedown attempts in a cagefight could conceivably look. But once word spread that Mousasi was, how to say, motivationally challenged, there was no going back. Over the ensuing few years, his stock plateaued, and the narrative became somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fights, which were once special to him, became simply a means to an end. "I felt I accomplished my goals," Mousasi admits. "I won in DREAM. I got the belt in Strikeforce.
"You're a top contender, and [suddenly] you are just a fighter, basically fighting just to fight. I understand how things go. It can go very fast. It comes fast and it goes fast."
So understand that when Mousasi calls the knee injury that sidelined him for all of 2012 a positive, he actually means it, even if it may be the first time in the history of professional sports a knee injury could be described as such. Sure, it was difficult to do little for a year besides sleep, rehab, and get lost in his own thoughts. But the world changed in a mighty way while he was out. "This is the time to be more professional," Mousasi vows. "And that's what I'm doing now. I feel like I have a lot of potential, and I feel like I can beat anybody.
"The prospect of going to the UFC and maybe fighting one day for the belt, it's motivating. It's something new. So every fight I see now is more important to me because I have a goal, going for the UFC belt."
Mousasi bowed out of 2011 with little motivation, languishing in a floundering promotion and half-heartedly committing to his training. Now things are quite different. Strikeforce has days to live. The prospect of competing against the best in the UFC has changed every aspect of Mousasi's regimen. His mind is refocused and he has rededicated himself to his craft. No longer surrounded by enablers, Mousasi has immersed himself in the first real training camp of his career, and is eyeing a move to the United States to train in California following his bout against Mike Kyle at Strikeforce's farewell event. And yes, he swears to have drilled takedown defense until his body was past the point of exhaustion.
Put everything together, and there is a fire in Mousasi's voice that hasn't been there in some time. "I have it in the back of my head," he measuredly explains. "This fight is a very important fight. It's a very important fight for my future and career.
"I see a lot of fighters getting knocked out, but they still, they praise them a lot more than me. I haven't been beaten badly in any fight. I just lost one fight in, I don't know how many fights. I think people underestimate me. And I feel like now, with the good training I have, why shouldn't I be able to fight these UFC fighters?"
Mousasi admits it's tough not to look ahead when such a colossal opportunity is so close. If he had his wish, he'd fight Shogun Rua, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida, or Alexander Gustafsson for his Octagon debut, though really anyone in the top-10 would suffice. Mousasi knows he's small for the division -- he walks around barely above 210 pounds -- but he's confident his technique, speed and conditioning will neutralize any weight advantage his opponents may have. And if things don't pan out like they should, Mousasi would be open to a move down to middleweight.
But things will pan out, he's sure of it. He can feel it. For too long his critics have thrown around that damnable word. Overrated. Everything has built to this moment. And now it all begins with Kyle. "I'm almost to my goal," he promises.
"This is the time. If I don't do it now, maybe I won't get a second chance. I feel like everything is falling into its place."