Just a couple of weeks ago while Gegard Mousasi was training for his UFC debut, thieves broke into his home and stole a few things were rightfully his, earned by his hard work, and when he reported it to the authorities, no one seemed to care. The story is analogous to his professional life as a fighter, where his past seems to have been ripped away from him with no regard for the effort it took to build it.
Ten years and multiple titles into his career, Mousasi is, in the eyes of many, just another guy making his octagon debut, an overhyped, serial can-crusher about to face his first real dose of reality.
Paired up with surging Swede Alexander Gustafsson on his home turf at UFC on FUEL 9, Mousasi was ostensibly set up as the last hurdle on the way to an eventual date with Jon Jones. Right off the bat, oddsmakers made the local star a -260 favorite, and the number only deepened in Gustafsson's favor until news of his fight-threatening laceration leaked out.
It was as if all the stuff that came before didn't matter.
Mousasi has on his hit list brand names like Hector Lombard and Melvin Manhoef, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Renato "Babalu" Sobral. Even Mark Hunt -- yes, that Mark Hunt, the Samoan smasher now in UFC title contention -- went down to the Dreamcatcher, in 79 seconds, no less. Mousasi's beaten middleweights and light-heavyweights and heavyweights. He's captured championships in Strikeforce and DREAM. He's finished 29 of his 33 career wins, and has an .895 win percentage.
Somehow, that is the resume of a sizable underdog.
Somehow, in our short-memory sport, that history is soundly trumped by a couple of decision wins over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Thiago Silva.
MMA isn't as simple as what's come before, of course, but on some level, this shouldn't make sense.
"I don't pay attention to those things," he told MMA Fighting. "I really don't care. I’d rather have the underdog position than the favorite because I've been the underdog for a long time. I don't mind fighting that way. It’s not going to change the result of the fight."
It's a matchup that Mousasi likes, even though in a way, he feels like he is being set up. The way he sees it, the UFC is in the business of building credible contenders. Gustafsson is young and good, and he connects with an emerging European market. Most importantly, he is home-grown, a talent found early on who has blossomed under the Zuffa banner. His progress was deliberate and measured to give him his best chance of advancing to title contendership.
Mousasi doesn't necessarily have a problem with this. In his eyes, Gustafsson has proven his mettle and his worth, even if his path was somewhat guided.
"Sometimes they bring a fighter to a certain level, and with some fighters they throw you against the toughest competition, and if they lose, they're never the same," he said. "I think they're building him up the correct way. Other than that, he won his fights, so you can't say anything bad about that. But they’re building him up towards a title shot."
Mousasi believes he is part of this plan, a former champion with credibility to the sport's observers but little name recognition to the wider UFC world. Asked if he believes the UFC expects Gustafsson to beat him, he doesn't hesitate.
"I think so," he said. "But I asked for this fight also myself, so I can't say the matchmaking isn’t good or whatever. It’s a good matchup, it's an exciting matchup. I feel like we are both top 10 so it makes sense to fight each other."
It's hard to pinpoint why exactly Mousasi finds himself in this situation, as an ultra-successful fighter deemed certain to lose. Most likely, it is due to the lingering memories from his fights with Muhammed Lawal and Keith Jardine. In the first, he was out-pointed by Lawal largely due to the takedown game. Mousasi actually out-landed Lawal 171-124 over the course of the five-round bout and did the majority of the damage, shutting Lawal's left eye, but Lawal's 11 takedowns swayed the judges. Against Jardine, the final strike tally was far more lopsided in his favor, by a 146-21 count, but an illegal upkick cost him a point, and he ended up with a draw.
Somehow, those performances seem to count more than say, Gustafsson's submission defeat to Phil Davis, which happened one week before Mousasi lost to Lawal.
It has been two years since Mousasi's last bad performance, yet it still taints perception of him even though he has overhauled his training. In the past, he said, he had only one coach that he'd see "once or twice a week," but now he has separate coaches for kickboxing, boxing wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and strength and conditioning.
"I think my training wasn’t bad," he said. "I was doing a lot of sparring. Maybe I wasn't perfecting my skills but I was able to fight. It got me to a certain level but when you reach a high level, you realize every detail counts. Back then I was doing running and a lot of sparring so I felt I was prepared and seasoned. But now I'm looking at the details and technique, the way I punch and fight. I think I got smarter, more mature."
Another possibility is his stoic nature, a trait that can make him seem aloof or disinterested. He often enters the cage appearing as though he just woke up from a nap, fights with an efficiency of energy and closes out his performance without ever breathing hard. For the entirety of any appearance in the limelight, his expression hardly changes.
Like everyone else, he says he feels nerves before a fight, but that in the cage, "everything else goes away." There is no anxiety or fear or even joy. The time for emotion is before and after fights, away from the camera. In the immediate moments after his wins, he doesn't feel like celebrating because he says, "it's not very sportsmanlike," particularly if his opponent is still lying on the mat. He often acknowledges his wins with a simple fist pump or raising his arms in victory for a moment. Nothing more.
"It's not a game," he said. "Someone can be hurt and you're jumping around and jumping on the cage? It's just stupid."
That empathetic side of Mousasi contrasts from the images of him as an emotionless cage assassin, but judging from the odds, that's not a portrayal that's ingrained among the broader audience.
Like everyone else, Mousasi acknowledges that Gustafsson is good. He has spent a considerable amount of time watching him, analyzing the way he moves and attacks. It is, he says, a good style match for him. Because Gustafsson is so tall -- 6-foot-5, he will have to try to get underneath the 6-foot-1 Mousasi to attempt a takedown. Despite the height differential, their reach is almost identical, 76.5 inches for Gustafsson, 76 for Mousasi. And if Gustafsson wants to clinch, well, he's happy to oblige.
The training is done, the matchup is to his liking, now all he can do is hope that Gustafsson shows up on Saturday. Even though UFC president Dana White insists the fight is still on, there remains a question about whether the Swede will be cleared to compete. For his part, Mousasi has stated that he is game to fight a replacement if necessary, but he's holding out hope for Gustafsson. After that, he'd like to fight Lyoto Machida and then compete for the championship.
Maybe then he'd get back what he already earned. Mousasi always wanted to finish his career with the UFC, and at just 27 years old, no one is suggesting he's near his personal finish line, but there is doubt about where exactly he is. A multi-time, multi-division champion, none of it matters any longer. Gegard Mousasi has been forgotten and set up to fail, but there is nothing he can say with words to remind them of who he once was, who he still is.
"With me, somehow because I've been fighting outside the UFC, I still have to prove myself," he said. "What can I say? What can I do? Even if I beat Gustafsson, I'm pretty sure people will say against a good wrestler, he's going to lose badly. I don't know who's on the other side of the internet writing something. It can be a kid of 12 years old or a guy who's 40 eating potato chips. People always talk. People say rude stuff. It bothers you but I'm not losing sleep on it. I don't care. I know I'm underrated."
[Editor's Note: Shortly after the publication of this story, Gustafsson was ruled out of the bout by the Swedish MMA Federation.]