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The cult of Gegard Mousasi, MMA’s great unchanged

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Chuck Mindenhall

Nearly nine years ago, just a day before he was to fight Sokoudjou in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, Gegard Mousasi sat down to a rib eye steak, a baked potato and a bowl of spaghetti and talked about what he wanted to accomplish in mixed martial arts. I know because, along with his older brother Gewik, I happened to be his dinner guest that night at the Claim Jumper, and watched him eat not one but two such meals while putting together a feature for Fight Magazine.

The “Moose” said he wanted to be a great champion, of course, and at the time he already had Strikeforce’s light heavyweight belt in his possession. He wanted to make some money, too, and was already feeling underappreciated in pay. At some point, he wanted a wife — and not some willowy model type, but one with plenty of hillsides and curves.

But what he most wanted, more than anything, was a farm. A little plot of earth to cultivate in his native Holland. With chickens, cows, goats, dogs. Vegetables. A yard to mow. A place for his brother to call home. And his mother, whom he referred to as the “most important figure in the family.” Mousasi — the deadly assassin who upkicked Jacare Souza into oblivion and nearly tore Mark Hunt’s arm off — dreamed of was chewing a stem of grass on a lazy afternoon.

This was back in 2009. By that time, Mousasi had already lived multiple lives. He had fought as an amateur at 15 in the Netherlands; he had competed in Japan in both Pride and Dream, having won middleweight title in the latter; he had tried kickboxing; he had come to Strikeforce and not only won the 205-pound title, but gave the world its most precious gif. Sokoudjou was his 30th professional fight, and it was somewhat inexplicably a non-title fight because…well, that’s how Strikeforce rolled back in the day. If he was worried about Sokoudjou, he never led on. It was just something to deal with, the same as the rib eye he was jabbing a fork at.

He ended up winning via second-round TKO.

Since then he has traversed every landscape. He has fought on four different continents, eight different countries and six different states. He coughed up his Strikeforce title to Muhammad Lawal, only to snap up the Dream light heavyweight title five months later. He was absorbed in the Zuffa purchase, and fought a dozen times in the UFC. He won nine times, and lost three — he got caught against Uriah Hall, and lost the rematch against Jacare in a small cage in Mashantucket. He took out Ilir Latifi in Stockholm in his first UFC fight, and won controversially against Chris Weidman in his last just this past April.

Somewhere along the way, as a great fighter that didn’t feel totally respected, he stopped giving f**ks. Or more accurately, he started offering opinion. The politics of the game drew out his honesty. The honesty — in conjunction with his emotionless aplomb…the bedhead hair…the unnervingly easy way in which he navigated the hurt business — made people see him differently. He morphed into a personality so at odds with bombast and bluster that he came into focus for people who paid attention. He became the anti-hype, the rare import — the fighter who never changed.

Gegard is still Gegard.

He’s no longer holding any titles, and still doesn’t have a wife. But as he arrives to Bellator, he has five hard-earned words that tell you everything you need to know about his self-realization: “I am who I am.”

Eight years later, he got himself that farm.

**

He got it in January, in his childhood home of Leiden, just a few months before his UFC swan song fight with Weidman. It doesn’t have chickens or cows (yet), but it’s just a mile from his previous house, and it’s everything he envisioned for his family. He didn’t fight for a UFC title, but he got where he’s been going.

“It’s a nice house, actually, everything I wanted in a house is there, so I got lucky,” he says, this time just two days before he’s to face the Russian Alexander Shlemenko in his new digs. “I like the quiet. I’m near the city, I’m not very far. I didn’t move very far, because I don’t like big changes. It didn’t feel like moving, it felt like fate, like I’ve always been there.”

On sunny days, Mousasi says he likes to mow the grass. Gewik’s wife tends to the vegetables in the garden. Right now there are no animals because Gegard’s mom, “doesn’t like dog hair much.” The previous owner tried to include a flock of sheep with the purchase of the farm, but Mousasi reluctantly passed on the offer, because right now he’s still in the business of punching people for a living.

“I like animals,” he says. “The old owner had sheep that he wanted to give us, but I made the gym — so where the sheeps go, I made the gym. I train there, so I don’t have any space.”

Mousasi is now 32 years old. His bout with Shlemenko, which takes place at the Mohegan Sun in Friday night’s main event at Bellator 185, will be his 51st professional fight. He has stood in against the very best in the world, snatched up primes to arrive at his own. He remains bright and articulate — one might even say free, after moving on from the UFC — in the midst of his five-fight win streak. He’s been knocked out just once in his career, a flying knee against Hall in his return to Saitama. Otherwise he has minimized damage, while dishing out plenty.

Nima Safepour

Still, as he enters the next phase of a globetrotting career that has taken him to so many rings and cages worldwide, he is acutely aware that his time in the sport is winding down. It’s weird to hear Mousasi preempt his own eventual failing, but that’s how realistic he is — he saw things from all sides eight years ago in Chicago, too.

“When I was barely 21, I was making my Pride debut,” he says, recalling his bout with Makoto Takimoto at Pride 11. “That was at the beginning of my career. Now it’s more at the end of my career, so it’s phases of life you go through. For me, I believe after this six-fight deal with Bellator — and I assume I’m going to win them all — and then I’ll decide whether to continue or not.

“I want to be healthy when I quit, and I want to quit while I’m on my top. A lot of fighters continue because probably they need the money. My goal was invest, get out of the game healthy and secure. I feel like that’s a real champion. Not someone who gave it all in the ring, and then at the end of his life, they don’t have anything.”

One thing that Mousasi has always had is the conviction of his actions. Considered one of the biggest free agents of the past year, he had tremendous leverage having won five fights in a row in a division that needed new blood — especially with so many of the UFC’s top middleweights tilting to the wrong side of 35. Yet he says his decision to leave for Bellator came down to compensation, politics, and — ultimately — accepting that who he was didn’t jibe with what the UFC covets.

“I heard a little bit about how much all the middleweights were making,” he says. “What I wanted was reasonable, it wasn’t at all over the top or anything. I think it’s more about where you’re from, or you’re a trash talker. I’m not suddenly going to be a different person. I’m not going to act to sell something.

“I am who I am.”

Somewhere along the way, back around the time when he fought Thales Leites in London (when he called Lyoto Machida “greasy,” before trailing off with a “and yeah…f**k him”), Mousasi’s persona began to dawn on people the way a dry comic’s jokes settle in on a crowd. Somewhere along the way people began to get Mousasi, even if it flew over the UFC’s head, and his brand stayed stubbornly mired. His air of bemusement and bewilderment at the stupidities going on around him — from title politics, to PEDs, to the Reebok deal all but killing the sponsorship market — became refreshing, and at times comical.

There’s something about the resignation in Mousasi’s voice that communicates succinctly what so many others can’t (or won’t). Maybe it’s the idea that he isn’t lying.

“I can’t put on an act, so I try to be one of the best fighters so at least I get paid,” he says. “Let’s say Michael Bisping, he wasn’t that great. He was losing, winning, but he was making a lot of money, and that was because he was outspoken and from the U.K. But not everyone can be like that. So, I tried to be the best I could. I was in the top 4, top 5, and I was like, okay, now at least I should get paid. That was the deal. I don’t want to put on an act. Some fighters do and I feel like it’s lying, it’s too fake. That’s not me.”

Mousasi says this while signing stacks of promotional posters for Bellator 185 in the quiet halls of the Mohegan Sun Arena, a swooping cursive that is as fluid as it is illegible — nothing but a pompous G and some squiggles. But he’s tired, because this is the most media he’s ever done before a fight, including through all those fights in the UFC. Monday he was in New York, doing the rounds. Earlier in the day, he visited the ESPN campus in Bristol, and hit several of these platforms there. Even as one of the more prolific fighters of his times, he says if a fight were just a fight, he’d do it a lot more.

But a fight is never just a fight.

“I was thinking just that today, the thing is — fighting is easy, and I do it every day,” he says. “I could fight Shlemenko right now it would be easy. It’s just the things that come with it. It’s the money, the interviews, the fans. All those things. The fighting is easy, but the things that come with it make the pressure high.”

The pressure will be there Friday night, too, when he gets to the end of it and faces the former middleweight champ Shlemenko in a non-title bout. Though Mousasi comes in as a prohibitive favorite, he’s seen too many other UFC guys come over and completely underwhelm — and in some cases, get wrecked. Therefore he stiff-arms any notion of an easy fight, yet he’ll tell you just as plain-faced as you please that his hit list goes like this: Shlemenko, the middleweight title, a fight with Rory MacDonald, then the light heavyweight title.

What he likes is the simplistic nature of his deal. His contract is free of dares and gambles, the kinds of things he felt he was dealing in when negotiating with the UFC. And he likes the state-of-the-art set-up at Bellator, in that he doesn’t have to contemplate his salary as a hypothetical pinned to win bonuses. He sees UFC contract structure as a broken, archaic thing based on “what if’s.”

“For the UFC conversation, it was, ‘do you believe in yourself? Do you believe you’re going to be champion? If you believe why are you doubting, just sign,’” he says. “They’re like, gamble on yourself. But there are ten guys that also want to do the same, and who has the belt for a very long time? I’m not a gambler. I’m not going to gamble to make money just to beat the champion or not. I could beat all the best guys and then the championship fight I lose, so…”

So he bolted for Bellator, which welcomed him with open arms.

“I don’t know if I would have had the same feeling coming to Bellator if it was the old guy that was running the show,” he says, referring to Bellator’s former head Bjorn Rebney. “I talked to Scott [Coker] and right away it felt legit, honest, truthful. It was very easy.”

If Mousasi has changed over the course of his career, it’s in the thought-to-voice exchange. These days he doesn’t leave things unsaid. He wants people to know what’s going on, and to understand the battle of motivations.

“With the UFC it’s like, you make okay money, and only if you’re the champion do you make good money,” he says. “So they’re keeping the fighters deliberately poor so they’ll keep fighting. Carlos Condit just came back and he said, ‘I need to fight.’ He said I have a family to feed. If that guy would have made a million, two million for his title fights, probably he could have said, okay guys, I’m going to retire. But that’s not the way it works. They want you to need the UFC so you keep fighting.

“We’re not animals. You’re making money on us, but on the other hand you’re keeping people poor so they’ll keep fighting. We’re risking our health.”

When the new ownership group is brought up, Mousasi stops signing posters for a minute.

“They could have given the fighters a small percentage [after the sale],” he says. “Every company…Porsche last year made a huge profit, and all the employees got money. The UFC didn’t give a penny to the fighters. It’s like the EA games in Strikeforce — we got paid, distributed to the fighter and then throughout the promotion. But in UFC, you don’t get anything.”

When asked if the new owners at WME-IMG knew who he was when they took over, he says they did, but that they didn’t know enough about the sport on whole. Only he conveys it a little more brazenly.

“These people don’t know anything about fighting,” he says. “They’re entertainment. But I think they’ll get it eventually.”

Eight years ago, Mousasi might have thought these types of things, but resisted the urge to voice them. He says he’s just older now, too old to play dumb games and keep things bottled up. It’s not just the UFC, or a given fighter, or any specific subject that he’s talking about — but everything.

“When I wasn’t speaking out people where saying stuff about me, and now that I’m more vocal people have their opinion about me — you never can please everyone,” he says. “Back then I was trying to be the good guy. But now it really doesn’t matter. I’m older. Who cares? Who cares what they say? That’s life. I got different interests at different times in life.”

Gegard Mousasi will tell you that this has always been Gegard Mousasi, with the only difference being that the old Gegard Mousasi might not have told you that.

“I’m not suddenly a different guy, I’m just more vocal and giving my opinion more,” he says. “Back then, I was trying not to say anything to disrespect my opponent or be rude, but of course if you want to give your real opinion, sometimes you’ve got to be a dick.”

Mousasi is sometimes a dick. Of course him admitting it is part of his evolving charm.

**

Is there a burgeoning cult of Gegard Mousasi just in time for his Bellator debut? Some people believe so. Some find his zero-emotion, no-f**ks-to-give demeanor perfectly suited to a game with so much B.S. at its core. Some like a winner, which Mousasi definitely is. Some like the truth, no matter how low the energy level is. Mousasi is a candidate to give you the truth.

And yet some say he’ll never move the needle; that his demeanor is the pan-shot of a full-body yawn. Some just don’t like Dutch fighters, including the Dutch themselves.

“I still don’t get recognition in Holland,” Mousasi says. “It’s not like I’m not a celebrity there. I never get invited for a TV show or whatever. But then again, they don’t show the fights on TV. Eh, it is what it is. It’s coming, I feel like.”

The fact is, Mousasi is what you want him to be as a fan, who just happens to be one of the game’s most frequent ass-kickers. Aside from an ACL tear that kept him on the sidelines for 2012, he’s been one of the more prolific fighters going, having fought 13 times since 2013. His irreverence for highly-trained monsters and indifference to chaos is still fun; his no-nonsense way of dealing with fight game politics and all the B.S. that comes with navigating a career for 15 years somewhat legendary.

Heading into Bellator, Mousasi has subtly come into his subtle own, even if “his own” artfully remains under the radar.

“I’ve seen a switch lately with the attention I get,” he says. “I hear more of the fans, I feel more appreciated throughout all these years. I didn’t feel that sometimes I would get the credit I deserve, it was always he will lose to so and so, he’s not that good, he’s overrated or whatever, they always make that. That was always my case.”

Mousasi’s not done yet, in fact he’s enjoying one of the more successful patches of his career. But just like eight years ago, winning streaks and titles are just a slight variance in his smile and nothing more. When he smiles in full, it’s when he thinks about what all that afforded him.

“I was fortunate to be able to achieve through MMA the house in Holland, my farm, so my brother can live next to me and my family is always there,” he says. “Those are things that I was able to fight for and reach what I wanted.”

Eight years ago Mousasi wanted a farm. Now he’s got one. All the punches he’s thrown and dodged, the faces he’s kicked (and made), the continents he’s traveled to compete, the politics he’s dealt with, the liars and straight-shooters and training sessions in hotel banquet rooms, the weight-cuts and endless airplane rides over one body of water or another — it’s all provided him a means to bring his family together.

Now it’s onto Bellator.

“Sometimes I look at the highlights and I recollect all the things that I’ve been through, all the memories,” he says. “Sometimes you see them and they show a highlight reel of your career — like I was in Russia and they showed one — and you realize how far back it goes, and you think about it.

“But normally you just go through your day. Every time it’s a fight, and then the next fight, and it’s not until you’re all done that you can look back and you see your whole path.”