Gegard Mousasi strolls into the Artemis Hotel in Amsterdam, Netherlands, sporting a simple blue zip-up jacket, a matching baseball cap and two black eyes.
You would think that the Dream middleweight champion would have an entourage surrounding him like most champions do these days, but the lanky 6-foot-1 fighter is alone.
He sits down on the lobby’s lipstick red couch with a slightly anxious gaze. Unassuming and a tad shy, Mousasi isn’t what one would expect from a guy who made the majority of last year’s “Fighter of the Year” lists. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know how gifted he is at what he does in the ring.
That doesn’t mean Mousasi isn’t confident, though. As he explains in a calm and steady voice, he has no fear when he fights.
“I feel always that I’m physically stronger than my opponents. I feel like my opponents can’t hurt me because I’m always comfortable in stand-up and there hasn’t been a fighter that’s ground-and-pounded me,” he says. “I feel like I can hurt them, but they can’t hurt me.”
Mousasi got a taste of his potential early on.
The youngest of three children, Mousasi was born in Iran to Armenian parents, who later fled the war-torn nation for a “better life” in Holland.
“I started to believe in myself. My trainers gave me confidence, and I knew I hit hard,” says Mousasi. “I knew I could fight, so why not?”
His first professional fight came in April 2003 with Holland’s leading promotion, 2 Hot 2 Handle, where the young talent caught the eye of M-1 Global’s Apy Echteld, who still manages him today.
Still only 23 years old, Mousasi has amassed an impressive track record in just under six years without the muscle of any “big name” school or trainers behind him. In his 27 fights, he’s lost only two times, both by armbars to Petras Morkevicius in 2005 and Japanese showman Akihiro Gono in 2006. He made his Pride Bushido debut in 2006 and fought three times for the now-defunct promotion.
But Mousasi really jumped onto the radar in 2008, when he submitted favorite Denis Kang with a triangle choke in the opening round of Dream’s middleweight grand prix. The slick Armenian took out hard-nosed Korean Dong Sik Yoon, hard-hitting Dutchman Melvin Manhoef and the hard-to-catch Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in quick succession, with what looked like the greatest of ease.
“I think Yoon Dong Sik was probably the toughest fight because it went to the decision,” says Mousasi of the whirlwind run. “The other fights I didn’t go to the extreme. He didn’t give up. I was punching at his head for five minutes. The other fights could have also been very tough fights, but they ended all in two, three minutes.”
If that were not enough to sway the undecided, Dream matched up the Armenian against four-time K-1 Japan kickboxing champion Musashi on New Year’s Eve in a stand-up-only affair. Mousasi bested the kickboxer at his own game in 2:32.
“After the first right that I hit him with, I thought that I needed to finish him now,” he says. “I knew I hurt him, and it all went automatic[ally].”
The victories secured Mousasi a place among the very few that sit atop the middleweight ranks, though he believes his days at 185 pounds are now behind him.
The decision to move up in divisions was made out of necessity, he says.
“After the tournament, I took a break for 10 days to see my family in Armenia,” says Mousasi. “I decided, ‘Let’s put on some weight.’ I just start eating and I didn’t train, and after that, I was 96, 97 kilos [216 pounds]. I gave my body a little bit [of] rest, and my body grow because of my age. I didn’t let my body grow and now it grows naturally. I need to go up.”
The growth spurt probably hasn’t thrilled Dream executives, who had just crowned their first-ever middleweight king and a good one at that, but Mousasi says a weight cut at this point would be unhealthy for him.
“They wanted me to defend my belt one more time, but going from 216 to 185, it’s not possible for me anymore,” he says. “I have to move up.”
While names like Jason “Mayhem” Miller were proposed for that title defense, Mousasi plans to fight for Dream in March or April in the 205-pound division.
“Maybe the others can fight for the Dream middleweight [title],” he says. “I think Jacare is a good candidate and deserves it.”
Light heavyweight is only a pitstop for Mousasi, though.
“To be honest, I want to go to heavyweight,” he says. “I think if it’s something you do and you win, people will be surprised, and I like that. It was always my dream to be the best. If you say, ‘I’m the best heavyweight’ it feels like you’re the best heavyweight in the world. If you say, 'I’m the best middleweight,' there’s always a couple of guys above you that could beat you.”
If all goes as planned inside his cool but calculated mind, Mousasi will make his U.S. debut at Affliction and M-1 Global’s third event in June or July carrying 225-230 pounds on his frame the natural way.
“I can use steroids or stuff like it, [but] I want to fight in America, and the only way is to do it naturally because you will get caught in America,” he reasons.
Mousasi said his Dream contract allows him to fight outside Japan and Korea, where he had garnered quite a following among fans and could thrive quite nicely. Still, Mousasi wants more.
“MMA was born in Japan,” he says. “I have a good base [there] –- I can always fight in Japan, and I love fighting there. They always treat me well, but to show the world I’m the best, I think I need to go to America.”
Mousasi has also been influenced by Fedor Emelianenko, who has made his last two appearances in the States and trumped two former UFC champions, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, in a combined 3:50. Emelianenko and Mousasi are both managed under the Red Devil International banner and have worked out together.
“Training with him, that’s also one of the reasons I thought I can be a heavyweight,” says Mousasi. “Standing next to Fedor, I feel so much bigger than him. When you train with him, he feels like a middleweight. He’s as strong as a heavyweight but as fast as a middleweight, so I think that makes him special. If I can take my speed as a middleweight, have that explosiveness and mobility and move up to heavyweight, I think that’s something a lot of them don’t have.”
He doesn’t believe he’s ready for the Josh Barnetts and Arlovskis of the world, but Mousasi does have an idea on where he’d like to start in the division.
“A type of guy like Paul Buentello,” he says. “Big, tall –- some guy like him, because I think I can beat those guys. Big guys.”