There's a good chance Gegard Mousasi's name won't be familiar to many casual UFC fans when he steps in the Octagon on Saturday night.
That's assuming, of course, that the UFC finds a replacement opponent for Mousasi, since original opponent Alexander Gustafsson will likely not be cleared to fight after suffering a cut on his head in training.
But though Mousasi isn't a household name, he brings plenty of experience into the cage. Sure, he's making his debut on the biggest stage in the sport, but Mousasi has plenty of world-class fighting experience to draw from.
Today, I'll take you down memory lane, through Mousasi's life and mixed martial arts career. We'll leave kickboxing for another day. If I miss anything important, please let me know in the comments below, and please do share your favorite Mousasi moments as well.
Mousasi was born on August 1, 1985 in Tehran, Iran to Armenian parents. This was during the Iran-Iraq war, a conflict that lasted from 1980 to 1988. They couldn't have been easy times for his family, and so when Mousasi was four, the family moved to the Netherlands.
He started taking Judo classes at eight years old, followed by boxing at 15. To say that he adapted easily to boxing would be an understatement; Mousasi became a Netherlands national amateur boxing champion, running up a 12-1 record while displaying tremendous skill and potential. But he was still interested in the martial arts as a whole and not just boxing, and so Mousasi soon switched to mixed martial arts.
Mousasi fought on various European cards after making his professional debut on April 27, 2003. He faced Daniel Spek and scored a TKO victory at 3:40 of the first round. Off to a good start.
Mousasi was 21 years old when he signed a deal with Japan's gigantic PRIDE organization to take part in their 2006 welterweight grand prix. At PRIDE Bushido 11, he faced Japanese fighter Makato Takimoto and won by knockout after breaking Takimoto's eye socket in the first round. Two months later, Mousasi lost to veteran fighter Akihiro Gono by armbar in the tournament's second round at PRIDE Bushido 12.
The loss to Gono was just the second of Mousasi's professional career, but he rebounded at PRIDE Bushido 13 by earning a unanimous decision over Hector Lombard. It was to be his last PRIDE fight, however, as he left the organization and signed with Russian promotion M-1 Global. Mousasi also fought for Cage Warriors and the short-lived Bodog fight organization.
In 2008, Mousasi returned to Japan, signing with DREAM, a promotion created out of the ashes of PRIDE following Zuffa's purchase and shuttering of that company. He debuted in the first round of the DREAM middleweight grand prix, beating veteran fighter Denis Kang by triangle. Mousasi then defeated Yoon Dong-Sik and excellent striker Melvin Manhoef to move into the grand prix finals, where he defeated future middleweight star Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, capturing the first-ever DREAM middleweight championship in the process.
Mousasi's next move was an intriguing one: he entered the DREAM Super Hulk tournament, a grand prix without weight classes that mostly featured smaller fighters facing much larger heavyweights. The tournament was a throwback to the old days of PRIDE when Bob Sapp or other giant heavyweights would face much smaller men, drawing huge ratings in the process. Mousasi beat heavyweight (and future UFC contender) Mark Hunt by submission in just 1:19.
He stuck around DREAM, but also signed a non-exclusive deal to fight for Strikeforce in North America. Mousasi's contract allowed him to continue fighting in both DREAM and kickboxing bouts while making Strikeforce—then the No. 2 MMA promotion behind the UFC in North America—his exclusive home for fights in the United States.
In his first Strikeforce bout, Mousasi beat Renato Sobral to capture the Strikeforce light heavyweight title, then defended it against Rameu Thierry Sokodjou before journeying back to Japan and beating heavyweight Gary Goodridge at Dynamite 2009, a year-end event that featured fights from DREAM, Sengoku, K-1 and K-1 MAX.
Disaster struck for Mousasi in his next Strikeforce bout, however, as he lost his title to rising super-prospect Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal at "Strikeforce: Nashville" in April 2010. Though Mousasi outstruck Lawal in the fight, it was Lawal's wrestling that made all the difference, allowing him to keep Mousasi on his back for much of the fight.
After the loss, Mousasi went back to Japan for two more DREAM events, beating journeyman Jake O'Brien and Tatsuya Mizuno.
When Mousasi came back to Strikeforce, it was against UFC veteran Keith Jardine, who took the fight as a late replacement and made a remarkable showing for himself in taking Mousasi to a draw. Mousasi would have won the bout by decision if not for being docked a point due to an illegal upkick, but in reality the fight was much closer than it should have been given the late notice for Jardine and the different in talent levels between the two fighters.
Mousasi fought once more in DREAM, defending his title against Hiroshi Izumi. After that fight, Mousasi was essentially exclusive to Strikeforce, fighting two more times (and scoring two more wins) against Ovince St-Preux and Mike Kyle.
After his fight with Kyle, Strikeforce was shuttered, and Mousasi signed with the UFC. He was scheduled to face Gustafsson at UFC on Fuel on Saturday night, but that appears to be out the window as of press time, and there's no guarantee that the UFC will find an opponent willing to step up on short notice for a fight against a dangerous opponent like Mousasi.
What are Mousasi's prospects in the UFC? There is no question that he's an ultra-talented fighter, and the story of his career thus far bears that out. But he also has a tendency to not show up mentally for his biggest fights, and that could cost him in the UFC's light heavyweight division.
Another aspect of Mousasi's game that could cost him dearly is his takedown defense. Thus far in his career, Mousasi has defended just 51 percent of takedown attempts, at least according to the data measured by FightMetric. That doesn't bode well for his chances against top-level light heavyweights, especially UFC champion Jon Jones, who seemingly would take Mousasi down at will.
Will Mousasi even step in the cage with Jones? I think there's a good chance that he will. He had a chance to beat Gustafsson despite being the underdog, and the UFC will be hard-pressed to find a quality opponent with just five days' notice. He'll likely face another lower or mid-tier light heavyweight, or a middleweight already on the card (like Tom Lawlor) who would agree to step up for a chance to be featured in the main event. That means Mousasi's chances of winning his UFC debut should rise exponentially. A big win could put him one fight away from a title shot, especially if Jones is in need of a fresh challenger later this year or early in 2014.
Hardcore MMA fans have long wanted Mousasi to get his chance against the best in the world. For a period of time, he was considered one of the pound-for-pound best fighters on the planet. He was young and skilled, with all of the talent in the world, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he ascended to the top of the mountain.
He hasn't reached those heights yet, but can Mousasi still do it? Can he become one of the greatest light heavyweights on the planet? That remains to be seen, and it's a question that's hard to answer right now. But there's no doubt that he's an intriguing addition to the UFC light heavyweight division, and it's going to be fascinating to watch him make his debut and try to stake his claim as one of the best young stars in the sport.