Gegard Mousasi makes the second title defense of his Bellator MMA middleweight championship this Friday when he faces John Salter at Bellator 264.
Mousasi is considered to be one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world. Yet he finds himself under pressure to put on a show in this bout. He was criticized for his performances in his last two fights. Many fans felt they were underwhelming. Can Mousasi remind the MMA world why he is one of the most dynamic fighters in the sport?
Mousasi’s recent lackluster performances can be attributed to complacency. He faces a lack of threats at middleweight. The only fighter to beat him in six Bellator appearances is Rafael Lovato Jr, who has since vacated the title and was forced to retire due to health issues.
Following his loss to Lovato Jr, Mousasi took on former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. This would turn out to be a tedious, uneventful contest where neither fighter engaged very often. After three slow rounds, Mousasi secured the victory by split decision. His performance frustrated fans, who expected him to deliver a more dominant display against the 41-year-old Machida.
In Mousasi’s defense, Machida has a reputation for being a boring fighter himself with his patient, elusive style. He is a man who makes it difficult for opponents to look impressive against, even at his age. This is something which Ryan Bader also found out this year. Mousasi did not play into Machida’s strengths by rushing forward. Instead, he threw very few strikes and limited the opportunities for the Brazilian to land his patented counters. This was a calculated, yet risky strategy as the lack of action gave the judges very little to score.
Following the Machida fight, Mousasi took on then-welterweight champion Douglas Lima for the vacant middleweight belt. The 36-year-old took Lima down early into the first round and controlled him for almost the entire five minutes. He managed to land some solid elbows and looked set to secure a finish. This did not come to fruition, largely due to Mousasi’s conservatism.
He failed to replicate this dominance on the ground in the remainder of the fight. On the feet, he was relatively reserved for the second consecutive bout. This was understandable, considering that Lima is a slick striker who carries knockout power. However, the Brazilian backed himself up against the cage for the majority of the fight and hesitated to throw his own offense. The fact that Mousasi hesitated to be more aggressive indicated that he was content to get a decision win.
The Dutchman scored effectively with his jabs and leg kicks throughout. His distance management helped him evade Lima’s power punches. Lima belatedly increased his output and had particular success with his leg kicks in the final two rounds. Ultimately, this was not enough as Mousasi secured the victory by unanimous decision to become a two-time champion.
The 36-year-old’s failure to impose his will on a man who has fought his career at welterweight open the door for more criticism. The fact that Mousasi had previously successfully competed at light heavyweight reinforced the feeling that he should have won in a more devastating manner.
Perhaps Salter will be the opponent who brings the best out of Mousasi. Salter is an outstanding wrestler and also has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In his Bellator tenure, Salter has demonstrated that he is a submission threat, has strong top control and physical attributes that allow him to wrestle for long periods. In recent bouts, Mousasi has been used to holding the grappling advantage. It will be intriguing to see how he fares in this department.
Mousasi’s ability to supplement his striking with his wrestling has been one of the biggest strengths of his career. Even if he has the capacity to take Salter down, choosing to engage in this mode of attack may not be the best idea, considering the submission threat of the American.
Salter has momentum behind him, but will be facing a big step up in competition from his recent opponents. If Mousasi is able to keep the fight standing, then he could use it as an opportunity to remind the MMA world of his ability to entertain. Salter is durable and will not be the easiest opponent to put away. However, he does have a sizeable technical striking deficit against Mousasi.
Salter has solid fundamentals but does not have a diverse striking arsenal. As a result, Mousasi should be confident in showcasing his array of strikes. In his last couple of outings his preoccupation with the potential threats of his opponents seemingly inhibited his own stand-up game.
This Friday, Mousasi can silence his critics with an impressive finish of Salter. Fans will find out whether “The Dreamcatcher” still has the desire to win in style or if he is simply content to pick up victories and remain champion. Mousasi has one of the most impressive resumes in all of MMA today. At Bellator 264, he can remind fans of why at his best, he is one of the most must-see fighters in the game.
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