There was a time when Gegard Mousasi entered the UFC that he heard boos and whispers.
He's in over his head.
For anyone who had watched him in the past—say, before the spring of 2013—those kinds of statements were downright head-scratching.
The man who came into the UFC with a gaudy 33-3-2 record was suddenly not that good? The middleweight who once knocked out Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, the fearless one who stepped into the cage with and submitted heavyweight Mark Hunt—MARK HUNT!—in Dream's Super Hulk Grand Prix tournament, that guy was unexciting?
If it all seemed like nonsense, that’s because it was.
Sure, there was a learning curve for Mousasi, who suddenly found himself in the thick of a division with a good number of wrestlers and with a deeper talent pool, but when he arrived, he still had youth on his side—he was 27 years old—and his skill set still had the ability to dazzle.
Fast-forward a few years, and the now 31-year-old Mousasi is surging in the way that those who'd long followed him had expected. He's won four fights in a row in dominating style, and a win over former middleweight champion Chris Weidman at UFC 210 Saturday will move him closer to a title shot in a crowded division.
It also may provide him with a sweet payday...or a ticket out of town.
Mousasi has become a subspot of his own at UFC 210 due to the major stakes in play for him, as well as his sudden willingness to candidly discuss his present and future.
Last week, the No. 5 ranked middleweight confirmed to SiriusXM radio host Luke Thomas that he would become a free agent after fighting Weidman.
Given his history of working with Bellator President Scott Coker—Mousasi was the light heavyweight champion in Strikeforce when Coker ran that organization—he is almost certainly going to be the next free agent to go to bid with a likely suitor waiting. And his price will be largely impacted by his Saturday night result.
For Bellator, his utility may bring with it a premium. His willingness to fight in more than one division would allow him to slot into both middleweight and light heavyweight bouts. Coker has continually shown an interest in fighters with that kind of versatility.
UFC President Dana White is known to like Mousasi, but the organization has been surprisingly laissez-faire in letting go of other fighters who in the past likely would never have reached the free-agent stage. If Mousasi goes to bid with a five-fight win streak, he will be among the most coveted free agents to reach the open market.
"Vitor Belfort makes a lot more, Dan Henderson makes a lot more; Michael Bisping, let's be honest, I would be favored in that fight," Mousasi told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani in a recent interview. "Now he's champion, but even before he was champion, he was getting paid a lot more. So I should get what I deserve. I don't have extreme demands. They should pay me what's fair."
Relatedly, the UFC matchmakers have long noted that their job is to set up matches that create contenders. If they do that with Mousasi and the promotion lets him go anyway, well, that makes a statement about the state of the UFC in 2017.
For reference, Mousasi's last publicly disclosed payday, at July 2016's UFC 200, was $110,000 ($75,000 fight purse and $35,000 win bonus). In discussing his current contract, Mousasi told Helwani he was being "screwed."
He can change the negotiating dynamic, but it is all dependent on winning. Oddsmakers currently peg the fight as a pick 'em.
Mousasi, with 34 finishes in 41 career wins, certainly has the finishing instincts to close out Weidman or anyone else in the division. If there is any question about his ability to win this fight, it comes with wrestling. There's little doubt he'll be tested in that department against the former collegiate All-American, who has lost two straight fights and has been stopped in both. In the midst of that streak, Weidman will have to consider a more conservative approach that emphasizes his background, particular given Mousasi's reputation.
"I think he underestimates me a little bit," Mousasi told Helwani during their interview. "He's seen my previous fights where I get taken down and relies too much on that. But I know what I can do on a given day when my mind is right, and it is right. And I've worked a lot on my defense. I'm not a wrestler, I'm just working on my takedown defense."
#UFCFacts: @Mousasi_MMA has the 2nd-highest takedown defense currently in the MW division - defending 82.8% of attempts! #UFC210 https://t.co/GZZle7uldp2017-4-5 16:30:04
He went on to suggest that Weidman would not get a single takedown against him, and there are reasons to suggest that his confidence in gamesmanship might be rooted in factual basis. According to FightMetric statistics, he hasn't been taken down a single time in his last seven fights, with opponents going a combined 0-of-11 against him.
That's a far cry from the 2010 fight that gave him his reputation, when Muhammed Lawal took him down 11 times during a Strikeforce bout.
His win probability will almost directly correlate with takedown defense success. On his feet, Mousasi is a terror, with a disciplined approach that is heavy on a jab that emphasizes distance control but with enough power to punish anyone who tries to wade past it. He also smells blood in the water and capitalizes as well as anyone in the game.
Whether that plays against the rugged Weidman will make or break not just the fight, but his next career move.
Mousasi said he "100 percent" wants to stay in the UFC, but money is known to change minds.
The stakes are high for Mousasi, and if his two goals are to make more money and to contend for the UFC belt, there is a clear roadmap to get there, and it goes through Weidman. And if he wins, the man who entered the UFC with so much promise may finally get both what was expected and what he wants.