By the time Gegard Mousasi steps back in the cage on Feb. 15, it’ll have been ten months since he fought Ilir Latifi in Stockholm. Back then he was supposed to be fighting Alexander Gustafsson in a bout with light heavyweight title implications, yet the Swedish fighter suffered a cut above the eye that forced him out. Gustafsson became the little known Latifi, who also hailed form the region.
Mousasi won the bout via decision, but realized something in the process -- namely, that the 205-pound division was maybe a little too big for his frame.
Just a little under two weeks out of making his long-awaited middleweight debut against Lyoto Machida at UFC Fight Night 36 in Jaragua do Sul, Brazil, Mousasi appeared on The MMA Hour and talked about feeling a little too light to stand in against those monsters.
"Sometimes I didn’t even need to cut weight, I was at 205," he told host Ariel Helwani. "The last fight I felt the size difference, so, being in the UFC, I want to go for the title shot, and I think the best way to get to the title is at middleweight."
In his long-awaited return, after battling through a knee injury that kept him essentially sidelined the rest of 2013, the one-time Strikeforce light heavyweight champion will take on the former UFC light heavyweight champion Machida in a battle of enigmatic styles. Mousasi, a kickboxer who is so relaxed and poised as to almost come bored at times, against the karate kid Machida, a backwards leaning punisher of aggression.
Machida made his own debut at 185 pounds back in October against Mark Munoz, and didn’t take long to make his presence felt. He knocked Munoz out with a head kick at the 3:10 mark of the first round without having absorbed a single significant strike.
"He is a very different fighter from a typical stand-up fighter, he’s more of a counter-puncher," Mousasi said. "But he comes he’s vulnerable for counter-punching himself.
"I understand better now how he fights [after having watched him]. I would say he is much more of a smart fighter. He lures you in, he feints, so I studied him very well. I can deal with it."
To help train for the elusive Machida, Mousasi said he brought in a karate champion to emulate the action. He’s also been training with Katoshi Ishii, who is familiar with Machida from having trained with him at Black House in Los Angeles.
When Mousasi last appeared on The MMA Hour, he was discouraged by the nagging injuries that had kept him out of action, and at the general state of things in the UFC. Now he says he’s 100-percent and ready to roll, particularly if it means there’s a chance to fight the winner of Vitor Belfort and Chris Weidman looming in the balance.
"I’m getting the chance to fight Machida," he said. "I’m excited, you know, because maybe I can get a title shot after this. There’s not many contenders at middleweight at this moment I believe. This is a fight I must win. With that mentality I’m going to go into the fight. I’m more relaxed than I was a year ago."
As UFC president Dana White has gone on record saying that Machida would be the forerunner for a title shot with a win, Mousasi said he’s under the same impression.
"I heard from my manager that it could definitely be for the next No. 1 contender," he said.
To get it won’t be easy, but it will be compelling. Mousasi has lost only once in the last eight years, which occurred against Muhammed Lawal in Strikeforce back in 2010 when he lost his belt. He did have a draw against Keith Jardine, but there were circumstances -- Jardine was a late replacement for Mike Kyle, and Mousasi was docked a point for an illegal upkick which knotted up the scorecards. Otherwise, that fight was completely one-sided, with Mousasi landing nearly seven times more strikes in the bout (146-21, according to Fightmetric).
Machida, on the other hand, is the fight game’s Rubik’s Cube. He’d be back in title contention right now in the 205-pound class if it wasn’t for a controversial decision against Phil Davis in Rio de Janeiro.
Given that both fighters like to play with distance and angles, Mousasi anticipates it being an interesting challenge.
"You have to be smart and make no mistakes," he said. "He’s dangerous if you lose your control and you get too aggressive or leap into your punches -- that’s when he’s most dangerous, so you have to fight smart."
Asked if he had any reservations about fighting in Brazil, which has been notoriously difficult on visiting fighters going up against natives, he said besides the food and humidity, not really. And ditto goes for cage rust, which is always a concern when a fighter misses extended time.
"I think I’ll do fine," he said. "I did a lot of sparring for this fight, five rounds, five minutes per. I tried to replicate the fight. Of course, it’s going to be in Brazil with a hostile audience, but other than that I just need to be smart and keep my cool and everything will be just fine."