The whole idea behind magic is the guise of misdirection. It’s to have the observer focus on something over there so they don’t see what is going on right in front of their very eyes. Sometimes it’s easy to spot the trick, whether it’s hiding something up a sleeve or a trick pan or what have you. In the end, the “magic” before your eyes continues to have the shock and awe factor, especially when you know what happened but you just can’t figure out how.
Take that same concept and apply it to MMA. Tito Ortiz’s game plan was never a secret. His opponents knew that he was going to attempt a takedown and ground-and-pound until the ref or unconsciousness stopped the fight. It didn’t matter that a fighter prepared for this or spent extra time training, it still happened. The same could be said of Tito Ortiz 2.0 and self-proclaimed baddest man on the planet Joe Warren, whose game plan is simple: smother and destroy. It was shortly after Warren’s performance at Bellator 181 on July 14 that the promotion decided it was time to announce some upcoming fights, including that of former featherweight champion Daniel Straus taking on Emmanuel Sanchez and former middleweight champion and seasoned veteran Alexander Shlemenko taking on recent Bellator MMA signee Gegard Mousasi.
It’s not hard to see what Bellator is trying to do here. Instead of starting Mousasi off against someone like Hisaki Kato, which would have been a great first fight, Bellator is using a form of misdirection. The instant outrage that came from the possibility of Mousasi getting an immediate title shot was felt around the Twitter-verse. So Bellator decided on the next best option: its former and longest-reigning middleweight champion, the aforementioned Shlemenko. It’s a genius plan. If Mousasi can secure a win over a former champ, then that easily catapults him into a title shot that can then be justified.
Shlemenko fell on hard times when he lost to Ortiz at Bellator 120 in his light heavyweight debut. It was his first time tasting defeat in four years, with his last loss coming to former champion and UFC middleweight Hector Lombard. Shlemenko then lost his belt in a mere 35 seconds to Brandon Halsey just four months later. Since then, Shlemenko has rebounded with six victories, with his only blemish being a knockout finish that was overturned to a no-contest when the Russian tested positive for anabolic steroids against Melvin Manhoef at Bellator 133 in 2015. Only one of his victories took place inside the Bellator cage due to a suspension, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out for both the casual fans and the diehard ones.
Let’s look at some numbers: Mousasi and Shlemenko have a combined 106 MMA bouts, with only six losses by Mousasi and nine by Shlemenko. These two have fought men all over the world, and there really isn’t much either of them hasn’t done. It’s a stylistic match-up that really favors neither man, and it’s an exciting one at that. Of the two men, Mousasi has clearly faced the higher-caliber fighters, such as former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, Vitor Belfort, Dan Henderson (controversial, but still a win), Mark Hunt, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and the aforementioned Manhoef, just to name a few.
Here’s a “bold” prediction: Bellator will have a new middleweight champion by mid-2018, and it will be Mousasi. He has the skill set and experience to be an intelligent fighter and smart champion. He takes risks when he feels the reward outweighs that very risk. If Mousasi can defeat Shlemenko, which I feel he will, then he will be a real test for reigning Bellator middleweight titleholder Rafael Carvalho, whose only title defenses have come against the Manhoef, who sports a grim 1-3 record with a no-contest in his last five bouts.