When UFC president Dana White announced that relatively unknown Swedish fighter Ilir Latifi was stepping into the main event at UFC on Fuel 9 to face former Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi, a general groan echoed throughout the MMA community.
Instead of watching Mousasi battle another top-10 fighter in Alexander Gustafsson, fans are now about to be treated to one of the best 205-pound fighters on the planet facing off with someone most people had never heard about until White tweeted his name earlier this week.
One person who was very familiar with Latifi was his former training partner Rashad Evans, who first worked with the Swedish-born fighter with his team, the Blackzilians, a couple of years ago. Evans sparred and worked with Latifi a lot in those early days, and says that while he's a newcomer to the UFC, he's no walkover inside the cage.
"One of the biggest things is that he's super strong. He's very strong and very explosive and he's a good wrestler," Evans said when speaking to Bleacher Report. "He has pretty good stand-up as far as he hits pretty hard, and so he's not so technical in the striking, but he's a powerful striker."
While he did train with Latifi, Evans won't push his former teammate just for the sake of selling a fight this weekend. He says there's nothing easy for any fighter to take a matchup on three days notice, much less one against a top-10 light heavyweight like Mousasi.
"It's very tough because it takes your body some time to actually peak to get ready to compete. Especially the way we compete and the level we compete at it's not something you take on short notice if you've got an opportunity to," said Evans. "So for him stepping in on three days notice, it's definitely tough. He has a huge upside and the upside definitely outweighs the downside."
The upside is that Latifi has the chance to write his own ticket in this fight. No one is expecting him to win, and if he goes down to Mousasi, that's what is supposed to happen.
On the flipside, however, if Latifi can shock the world and pull off an upset or even drag Mousasi into deep waters and put on a three-round classic in the main event, his stock immediately rises while his opponent's drops like a stone.
Mousasi went from fighting a competitor on the cusp of a title shot in Gustafsson to a complete unknown in Latifi. Anything short of a first-round knockout will almost certainly come back to bite Mousasi after the fight is over.
"That really is the biggest thing of this whole fight is this whole story. Here you've got this guy Gegard trying to make his debut in the UFC, and he's been having so much steam coming over from the other organization and then to have a chance to fight a top guy like (Alexander) Gustafsson and then having to fight somebody completely different," said Evans. "Completely different strengths all together. Not only that but (Latifi) is 5'8" and he's got totally different strengths. He's a wrestler, he's going to try to take you down and he's tough. He's a tough unknown guy.
"Now if he goes out there and has a hard fight with a tough, unknown guy now it looks like he's not on the level, he shouldn't really be in the UFC anyways. He's in a no-win situation. The only thing that can save this for him is to have a complete, dominating performance the whole fight. He's in a tough position, I don't envy Mousasi at all."
Evans isn't picking a winner in the fight, but he's seen these types of situations happen before. One of his best friends has been involved in two of these fights, as a matter of fact.
Former UFC contender Keith Jardine was a rising star fresh off a win over former Ultimate Fighter season 1 winner Forrest Griffin when he faced an unknown fighter named Houston Alexander at UFC 71. The fight lasted 48 seconds and ended with Jardine lying in a heap against the cage, a victim of a first-round knockout.
Jardine also saw the other side of this coin when he stepped up on just a few days notice to—ironically enough—face Mousasi while the fighters were in Strikeforce. It was supposed to be a one-sided beating with Mousasi crushing the former UFC fighter, but instead the two engaged in a war of attrition that ended in a majority draw.
Evans knows that Mousasi is in an impossibly tough spot now against Latifi, just like he was against Jardine, and as the old saying goes, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
"It has the biggest recipe for disaster written all over it," said Evans. "At the same time, you've got to take your hat off to Mousasi who says 'I'm going to fight this guy, I'm going to keep this show going and I'm going to fight this guy.' It's a big huge risk to fight a tough, unknown kid like Latifi. I'm telling you this kid is tough."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.
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