When the UFC announced Ilir Latifi as the official replacement for Alexander Gustafsson in the main event at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in Sweden, the MMA world immediately set about scouring the internet in hopes of answering the question as to just who is the man that will be fighting Gegard Mousasi.
To further the point, in addition to the masses trying to find out more information on "The Sledgehammer," Mousasi's camp had to be in a similar position.
While the Swedish-born fighter has collected a respectable 8-2-1 record as a professional mixed martial artist, that work has come fighting on smaller stages throughout the sport, making Latifi a relative unknown to those fighting at the highest level of mixed martial arts.
Where the Dutch-Armenian fighter was originally slated to face an opponent who was sitting on the cusp of title contention in Gustafsson, he will now step into the Octagon to trade leather with Latifi—a fighter who brings little to the table where reward is concerned.
In the original scenario against "The Mauler," Mousasi was the underdog looking to prove he belonged among the top 205-pound fighters in the UFC's premier weight class. But with the sudden shake-up and change of opponent, now "The Dreamcatcher" will bear the majority of the pressure heading into Saturday's fight in Stockholm.
Not only will Mousasi face an opponent with a much different physical style than the one he had prepared for, but the circumstances surrounding the fight have changed as well.
If the 27-year-old were to find success against Gustafsson, the victory would have validated him as one of the division's best and put Mousasi one step closer to a future title opportunity. Not only is that reward off the table in the fight against Latifi, but should Mousasi suffer a defeat against the underdog Latifi, it would be a substantial setback for the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion.
While the scenario is somewhat of a rarity at the highest level of mixed martial arts, last-minute replacement bouts are not uncharted territory. Judging from how the fighters involved handled the situation when it was put on their respective plates, and the aftermath of how their decisions played out, it shows what a tricky and unique situation changing the players involved can be.
Upset in the Steel City
When the bout between Latifi and Mousasi was made official, the first fighter who came to my mind was Charlie Brenneman.
The Pennsylvania-native had gotten off to a solid start in his UFC career by winning two of his first three showings inside the Octagon.
"The Spaniard" was looking to build further momentum when he was slated to square off with Canadian T.J. Grant at UFC on Versus 4. Unfortunately for Brenneman, illness forced Grant to withdraw from the bout, and without an opponent, the AMA-trained fighter was removed from the card as well.
While the news was undoubtedly upsetting for Brenneman, the disappointment wouldn't last long. In a strange turn of events, Brenneman would be called back into action when Nate Marquardt was pulled for his bout with Rick Story due to failing a pre-fight physical.
Marquardt was removed. Brenneman was in. And 24 hours away from the fight, Rick Story suddenly had a new opponent.
The opportunity was certainly beneficial where Brenneman was concerned, but the stakes of the bout drastically shifted for Story. When the Brave Legion fighter originally took the bout with Marquardt, he was stepping up on short notice to replace an injured Anthony Johnson.
Story was coming fresh off a big victory over Thiago Alves at UFC 130 and was looking to kick his quest for a title shot into hyperdrive by defeating another high-profile opponent in Marquardt.
But with Marquardt gone, and a new fighter standing across from him inside the Octagon, Story was unable to adjust to the chaos of the moment. Despite having a strong wrestling background, Story couldn't stop Brenneman's relentless grappling attack and came out on the business end of a unanimous decision on the judge's scorecards.
Brenneman's win in Pittsburgh served to boost him to the front of the MMA media headlines, while the loss extinguished the fires of Story's surge toward contention. "The Horror" would go on to lose two of his next three outings, and it wasn't until he scored a victory in his most recent outing against Quinn Mulhern at UFC 158 that the Vancouver-based fighter appeared to finally get back to form.
In the aftermath of the bout with Brenneman, the question serves to be asked just how different Story's career would have been had he decided not to take the fight. While stepping up to the plate and taking the fight on less than a day's notice certainly earned him points with the UFC brass, the loss knocked Story's trajectory off course, and it has taken him the better part of two years to recover.
Bones Says No to Sonnen, Takes Heat for UFC 151 Cancellation
The need for a last-minute replacement in a main event certainly kicks up the panic level for everyone involved in a UFC event, but one fighter who wouldn't be swayed in those matters was light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones.
The youngest champion in UFC history was put directly under the hot lights when his original opponent, Dan Henderson, suffered a knee injury and was forced out of their dust-up at UFC 151 last September.
With "Hendo" unable to fight, the UFC attempted to find multiple replacements, but those efforts were ultimately fruitless. It appeared that none of the organization's top 205-pound fighters wanted anything to do with the champion, and the card's main event looked to be in serious jeopardy.
That was until former middleweight No. 1 contender Chael Sonnen threw in his bid to face Jones for the light heavyweight title, and just like that, a new fight was on the table.
But while a bout between Jones and Sonnen would have made for a solid main event for UFC 151, "Bones" wasn't willing to face "The Gangster from West Linn" on eight-days notice and decided to turn down the fight. Without a fight to headline the card, for the first time under Zuffa ownership, the UFC made the decision to cancel the event entirely.
The news brought a storm of scorn onto the young champion's shoulders as UFC President Dana White lashed out at Jones and his camp during a media conference call where he officially announced the cancellation of the event.
White blasted the champion for refusing to face Sonnen and placed the blame for having to cancel the event squarely on Jones' shoulders. White also famously labeled Greg Jackson as a "sport killer" during the call, for his part in Jones' decision to pass on fighting Sonnen.
The heat would eventually quiet down, and Jon Jones got back to ruling the light heavyweight division when he defeated Vitor Belfort at UFC 152. After he bested "The Phenom," Jones agreed to face Sonnen for his next challenge at UFC 159 in addition to both men taking opposing coaching roles for the 17th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
While Jones deciding not to face Sonnen at UFC 151 drew a monsoon of negative press, the champion refused to yield from the fight not being on his terms. Surely, it proved to be an unpopular decision, but ultimately one Jones had the right to make.
Taking a bout against one of the best pure wrestlers in mixed martial arts on short notice is a dangerous roll of the dice. While Jones will take that risk later this month, having time to prepare for Sonnen's skill set will take away the element of surprise which would have been apparent had they locked up at UFC 151.
There are no titles on the line for Saturday's main event at UFC on Fuel TV 9, but the fight is still Mousasi's first appearance under the UFC banner.
Despite being recognized as one of the best strikers in mixed martial arts, Mousasi remains largely underappreciated by the UFC fanbase. This is the result of a career spent competing outside of the Octagon, and those fortunes could easily change with a strong showing at tomorrow's event.
But where facing a surging contender in Gustafsson would have served to catapult Mousasi into the upper tier of the light heavyweight division, now he is in a position where he must win simply to remain on the radar.
Had Mousasi decided to refuse a new opponent, the results would have been disastrous as the card in Sweden is relatively thin and lacking high-profile matchups. On the other hand, with Mousasi remaining on the card and facing an unknown opponent in Latifi, the pressure and risk is now his to carry.
The fight is Mousasi's opportunity to make a lasting impression on a new fanbase. And if he is able to handle the pressure and risk of the moment, UFC fans will be excited to watch him compete again.
At the same time, should Mousasi wilt under the weight of the moment at hand, the decision to face an unknown opponent on short notice will undoubtedly sting him for some time.
Just how he handles this unique set of circumstances remains to be seen, but the MMA world will have the answer to this question in short order.