For years Gegard Mousasi was one of the best fighters in the world who was not competing under the UFC banner.
The talented Armenian-born striker was one of the few athletes in mixed martial arts who had managed to build solid momentum despite plying his trade outside the Octagon. He accomplished this task on the strength of several impressive runs in various promotions around the globe, including championship stints in DREAM and the now-defunct Strikeforce organization.
In a three-year period between 2006 and 2009, "The Armenian Assassin" notched a remarkable 15-fight winning streak that spanned a variety of weight classes and added several elite names such as Hector Lombard, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and heavyweight knockout machine Mark Hunt to his resume. With his unique blend of boxing, muay thai and K-1-level kickboxing, he proved to be a difficult riddle to solve inside the cage, and MMA fans were eager to see him work his craft against the presumed best of the best in the UFC.
Those stars finally aligned in 2013, when the Pride veteran took his place on the UFC roster after Strikeforce closed up shop.
When his Octagon debut was announced against Alexander Gustafsson for UFC on Fuel TV 9 in April, it became clear that the former Strikeforce champion was going to have the opportunity to be a major player in the light heavyweight fold right off the bat. Nevertheless, "The Mauler" dropped out at the last minute after suffering a cut in training, and the 28-year-old would go on to defeat fellow promotional newcomer Ilir Latifi in the main event tilt in Stockholm, Sweden.
Immediately following that win, Mousasi announced he would be dropping down to 185 pounds to make a run at the middleweight title. A knee injury and the surgery that followed would delay his first showing in the weight class for several months, but he made his return this past February against Lyoto Machida at UFC Fight Night 36 in Brazil.
While Mousasi came out on the business end of the highly anticipated matchup between two of the premier strikers in the game, the former DREAM champion took away several positives from the experience.
"That fight taught me that I can compete at the top of the middleweight division and I feel I belong there," Mousasi told Bleacher Report. "With a different game plan and strategy against Machida, maybe I could have done better. But it is what it is. Machida is a difficult opponent for anyone. If there is one positive I can take from my last fight it is that I can compete with the best fighters in the division and I belong in the top 10 at 185."
The loss to "The Dragon" may have cooled off the momentum Mousasi had been building, but he will look to reignite that fire in his next outing on Saturday. He will step in against Mark Munoz in the main event at UFC Fight Night: Berlin, in a fight that will determine which of the two men will remain in the division's competitive upper tier.
Although Mousasi and Munoz are polar opposites on the stylistic scale, the savvy striker isn't all too concerned with the Team Reign leader's wrestling. He's well-aware that the former NCAA Division I national champion wrestler will be looking to take the action to the canvas, but Munoz will have to close the distance to do so, and Mousasi doesn't believe that option will be available for his opponent.
"This is not a wrestling fight," Mousasi said. "He is going to try to brawl and get inside to close the distance and take me down, and obviously I'm going to try to keep the fight standing. Everyone knows what we are both going to try to do in there. But it's not a wrestling match. He needs to catch me and make contact before he can take me down and I'm not going to let that happen."
A big part of Mousasi's confidence when faced with the potential of Munoz's wrestling prowess comes in his unique ability to control the spacing in the cage. Throughout his career, he has shown the ability to close distance rapidly with a variety of attacks. His "coiled up" stance is a hybrid between boxing and kickboxing and has proved to be a difficult offense to defend against.
Yet, while quite a few opponents have failed to figure out the puzzle, Mousasi doesn't feel he's doing anything all too mysterious inside the cage.
"I don't think my style is one of the most difficult to solve, but I'm difficult to hit," Mousasi said. "I can always protect myself no matter where the fight goes, even when I'm on the ground. It doesn't matter if I'm on my back or if I'm standing up; it's not like I get hit a lot. I feel like I have good defense and I can always protect myself.
"Boxing and kickboxing are very different from MMA as far as spacing goes. When you are facing a wrestler you can't be too aggressive and follow behind your punches because it is easier for them to shoot and take you down. A guy like Machida—who is always moving and has a karate stance that always keeps him at a distance—is good for MMA because it is very hard to take him down.
"I need to keep the distance in this fight the way Machida does and fight Munoz like that. The spacing is very different from boxing and kickboxing, though."
While Mousasi may have been dealt a setback in his first showing in the middleweight fold, he sees his upcoming bout against Munoz as a perfect way to get back into the divisional mix. The 185-pound class is more competitive than it has been in years, and there is no room for error for those fighters who are looking to remain relevant in the hunt for a future title opportunity.
He may not be in the ideal position at the current time, but Mousasi believes a victory over Munoz in Berlin would help him establish his footing and put him exactly where he needs to be in the larger picture.
"I'm not sure where I stand right now," Mousasi said. "I think a good performance and a win over Mark Munoz will put me in a good place, but I don't know how far I am in the UFC right now. I have one win and one loss in my two fights and it is too early to say right now. Fighting in a main event is going to be great because more fans will get a chance to see me fight and know who I am.
"I feel that the middleweight division is the most stacked division right now in the UFC. Everyone in the top 10 is going for the title. If I win this fight, I need one or two more wins before I can maybe talk about a title shot, but I'm definitely going to be in the mix."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.