The High-Flying Dutchman

Inside the lobby of the Marriott in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, is a scene common to fight-card gatherings everywhere. There are the usual cornermen, journalists, television production slaves, executives and their hookworms, promoters, hardcore mixed martial arts fans, and, of course, the fighters themselves. Everyone poses for pictures with fans and with each other. They walk in herds and talk in huddles. You’ve never seen such a show of interactive loitering until you’ve stumbled into a host hotel’s lobby before a big card.

But this one is at least a little bit different. M-1 Global and STRIKEFORCE have brought an international house of fighters to this sleepy Chicago suburb. Inexplicable. There are suspicious-looking Russians everywhere, part of Fedor Emelianenko’s traveling crew for his big nationally aired fight with Brett Rogers. Both priests accompanying him wear their beards longer than Dostoyevsky’s, and they are just a small part of his human phalanx. Yes, Fedor travels with his priests. Shit is crazy.

And you talk about a polyglot room: Japanese, Russian, Dutch, English—both the broken and posh varieties—Armenian, Spanish, and Portuguese are all being spoken. There are umlauts everywhere, diacritics and accents, a dozen forms of slang, and guttural names. This is truly a global affair that Scott Coker has put together. Tall Jerry Millen can be seen in every pan shot, a head above the rest, handling Fedor with the same delicacy those guys in white gloves do at the Stanley Cup. Roxanne Modafferi talks with Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal. There’s Bas Rutten, Dan Henderson, Jason “Mayhem” Miller in furs, and Midwestern local boy Clay Guida. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou is Cameroonian, and he stands out like a hulk in a red jumpsuit with the words “The African Assassin” blazoned across. Whereas Fedor might not look it, there’s no mistaking that Sokoudjou’s a fighter.

And then there’s Gegard Mousasi.

Mousasi is wearing a brown newspaperboy hat circa 1933, answering questions from a group of Japanese journalists about whatever little thing they want to talk about. His face is naturally drowsy and expressionless, but he smiles and laughs frequently enough. He looks like Peja Stojakovic, though with a little more nose.

“Which would you rather have, yourself in a video game or as an action figure?” they ask.

“Ah, I don’t know,” he says. “I think I would like a video game.”

“What do you think of your opponent, Sokoudjou?”

“I think people really underestimate him, and that he’s a tough guy.”

His English is really very good, though his Dutch, Persian, and Armenian are better. He runs the Sokoudjou line a million times. People are underestimating him. He is very dangerous. Mousasi himself is not underestimating Sokoudjou. At least he doesn’t think he is. No, he isn’t.

Mousasi talks to whoever comes up and discusses whatever’s on his mind. Small talk, big talk, well wishes, a few words about women. “I don’t like them too thin,” he says, seeing a group of a half dozen svelte American girls. “I like them chubbier. Not too chubby, but with curves. Of those, eh, only maybe two are attractive.” He is single and young. He is a champion. They whisk him into a banquet room for a photo shoot, and then into another room for a sneak peak at the new EA Sports video game, and then into another banquet room, where the CBS guys do a pre-fight round table to figure out — for all of America — just who the hell he is.

“What was your favorite fight,” Gus Johnson asks.

“There was one fight I did in Japan that lasted only 10 seconds,” he says, referring to the Tsuyoshi Kurihara bout back in 2005. “I liked that one a lot.” He tells them he is lazy, that he hates work. Frank Shamrock laughs. He tells them that he was once a bouncer in Holland. That one of the driving forces behind his run at becoming the greatest fighter in MMA is, well, money. If these things were uttered by your average American, they might have sounded ugly. But in a Dutch accent, presented with such soft undertones, it all sounds delightful pouring out of the coy Mousasi. And he is a well-rounded light heavyweight who could challenge the best in any promotion. Everybody laughs.

“You’re the hottest fighter out there,” says CBS lead voice, Mauro Ranallo. He lets it hang in the air for a minute, and blinks through his glasses. “That’s what they’re saying—that you’re The Next Big Thing in mixed martial arts. What do you think of that?”

“Yeah, but that’s because I am winning,” Mousasi says. “You can win and win and win, you go up and up. But the moment you lose, everybody forgets about all the wins.” He motions a stock plummeting with a down-turned hand. He is reminded by everyone that a lot of “eyeballs” will see him this weekend, that, though he might’ve made it through O’Hare as an anonymous traveler coming in, his return trip might prove that he’s become a pretty famous man, indeed. He likes the sound of it, but he takes it with a grain of salt. It’s just that nobody can wring his withers. Mousasi knows he needs to keep winning. He has dreams of earning enough money to own a farm some day, one big enough for his whole family. Dreams are presumably his business.

Which is a sore spot, actually. In the big dumb pantheon of fighterly nicknames, Gegard Mousasi’s is “The Dreamcatcher.” He freaking hates it. The story goes that a friend gave it to him because, while most fighters dream about winning, Gegard had made those dreams something of a reality, winning both the DREAM Middleweight belt and the STRIKEFORCE Light Heavyweight title by the time he was 24 years old. Lame, lame, lame, he thinks. But, in accordance with the lackadaisical nature of youth, he doesn’t do anything about it. He lives with it.

Gegard’s brother, Gewik, is with him wherever he goes. They live together in Holland, and they look a lot alike. “I am the older Myooshashi,” he says, introducing himself. Gewik would like to know who’s out there that can challenge Gegard. “Who? Mo Lawal? He’s only had five fights. Tell me who?” There’s no cockiness in the question, just general curiosity. I’m curious, too. Göksel Sahinbas, one of Gegard’s trainers from Holland, is also hanging about, as is the venerable Apy Echteld, the tactician. They speak Dutch to each other. Also with Mousasi is Jacob Schaap, M-1 Global’s publicist, a guy who looks much too young to be traipsing about with Fedor and Gegard tucked under his arms. He tells a story about the time, while with Mousasi, he swept Jean-Claude Van Damme’s legs in a Paris nightclub, took him down right there under a disco ball. Van Damme wasn’t totally sober at the time, it is appended. But no matter. He did it.

And there’s another guy, a Dutch “friend who doesn’t have anything better to do with his money, so he comes to the fights.” Before you know it, he gets into a clinch with Mousasi. Pretty soon they are crashing into things—into a potted plant, a stanchion. Next they’re toppling over a couch. The receptionist looks on in bemusement at first, and then in something like horror. Mousasi can’t get top position. They are upside down. Surely, this would be a stupid way to get hurt, I think, right before a nationally broadcast fight. Never crosses Mousasi’s mind. They are red-faced and struggling, rolling over one another, limbs hanging out everywhere. Just then, the friend gives Mousasi’s balls a tickle, maybe just a little reassurance, and that sets off another battle over the hotel furniture, which looks as if it had never been through a ruckus. The men are grunting and laughing. After what seems an eternity, Mousasi gives it up.

Anyway, that was the Thursday before the fight featuring Gegard Mousasi, the most intriguing champion in the world.

Gegard Mousasi was born in Tehran, Iran.

His parents were Armenian, and they moved his family to Leiden, Holland, when he was eight years old. He is a Christian, and he prays a little bit before stepping into harm’s way. He is sort of shy. He doesn’t like that his face has pimples. And there are myths about him that he wants to debunk. For starters, contrary to popular reports, he and his family were not war refugees

.

“I read on the Internet that we ran because of the war, but the war was already over,” he says at a Claim Jumper restaurant after making weight. He has in front of him a glass of water, a Coke, a thick ribeye steak, a potato, a salad, and a bowl of spaghetti. He will come back to this same restaurant in two hours and do it all again. “I had a good life in Iran. We weren’t rich, we were an average family. I enjoyed life there. We moved because basically there’s no future there. My parents wanted us to have a future. I would have maybe been a mechanic if we’d stayed.”

His father is a mechanic, there’s no shame in it, but Leiden is where Rembrandt came from. Presidents of the Netherlands have come from Leiden, so did Cornelis Engebrechtsz. Great men, important artists. And now it’s where Holland’s greatest fighter comes from, too. Sort of. When asked what country he represents, Mousasi surprisingly starts throwing darts at an imaginary map on the wall.

“I fight with the flag of Holland, but I feel like I want to represent my own country of Armenia, and Iran also, because it’s part of me. I feel connected to all three countries,” he says. “And to Japan also, because I feel like that’s where my career took off. Those four.”

He’s just that multinational. And how he got started in the laying on of hands is a fairly common story: a confrontation with bullies who were “annoying my friends.” That led to more organized pugilism. He began as an amateur boxer when he was 14 years old, racking up a 12–1 record before moving on to kickboxing and eventually MMA. “Boxing is not very big in Holland,” he says of the switch. “There wasn’t any money in it.” He first competed in MMA when 17 years old, against Daniel Spek in Amsterdam in 2003, and won by TKO in the first round. Since then, he has fought nearly 30 times (26-2-1), and only three of his fights have gone the distance—a draw against Brazilian Gilson Ferreira in his third pro fight (which he calls his toughest bout ever), a win over Hector Lombard in PRIDE, and a win over Dong Sik Yoon. He has lost twice, first to a cat named Petras Markevicius in Finland very early on, and then against Akihiro Gono in PRIDE in 2006. “Inexperience,” he says of the latter. “I was just wild, and I wasn’t confident, but those things have changed.”

Yes, those things have changed, and it’s a provable fact. Mousasi has beaten each of the next 13 opponents put in front of him, a list that includes Denis Kang, Ronaldo Souza (DREAM Middleweight title), Renato “Babalu” Sobral (STRIKEFORCE Light Heavyweight title) and Melvin Manhoef. He finished 11 of them. Now his name is mentioned among the top light heavies on the planet. When the UFC’s president Dana White was asked, on a scale of 1–5, how badly he wanted Gegard Mousasi to challenge his elite 205ers, he tossed out a pregnant 7. Mousasi’s quick, nonchalant destruction of Sobral in his American debut is etched in his mind—and, it would appear, on everyone else’s.

But UFC stands for “Ugly Freaking Conversation” right now, because Gegard is pleased with STRIKEFORCE. At this moment, on the eve of his fight with Sokoudjou, he’s enjoying the food on the plate in front of him. It’s a non-title bout because (it is whispered) … can you imagine the marketing mess if Sokoudjou were to win? Just the same, Mousasi feels underpaid. He has one fight left in his contract with STRIKEFORCE after Sokoudjou. Nobody knows what will come next, but Mousasi does have a sense of loyalty.

“As long as STRIKEFORCE treats me well, I don’t have any reason to go to the UFC,” he says. “I don’t feel like I need to fight this guy or that guy to prove something. I don’t have that. I just fight whatever tough opponent they bring me.”

There are eggshells at Mousasi’s feet, so to speak, and he must tread lightly. So I try to draw two straight lines to see if there’s anything to be read between them. Granted, he has never declared any intention of going to the UFC. But, hypothetically speaking, how would he feel about fighting a guy like Lyoto Machida? “If the opportunity is there, I’d like to fight him, but it’s not a goal of mine to fight Machida. Not really. Of course, I’d like to fight him, but it’s not something where I want to challenge him or say I want to fight him, or something like that.”

The truth is Mousasi feels for Machida, who won his fight against Shogun Rua— his 16th in a row—but lost a good deal of mojo and mystique in the process. “See how quickly they turn?” he says. Mousasi talks like a man who really understands that the trapeze act of raising your marketability and your hype all goes back to winning. Winning, and winning decisively. His soporific face never changes. It’s like Kipling’s old line about meeting up with triumph and disaster, and treating those two imposters just the same. That’s what Mousasi—at 24 years old—has already come to. He has been influenced by a very practical mother, whom he refers to as “the most important figure of the family.”

“Everybody loves you when you win,” he repeats, “but when you lose, they forget all about you.” In other words, Mousasi has no faith in a fickle fan’s selective memory. The only way for him to buy a farm for his family—“ with two horses, maybe a sheep and a cow, two dogs, and a couple of chickens for fun”—is to win a bunch more fights. That’s why his mother encourages him to put money away and save. You never know how long it’ll last. It’s no wonder he’s constantly tapering expectations.

And another thing: Though he and Fedor are both M-1 Global teammates, and are seen together for promotions like the exhibition they did in Kansas City, they do not train together. They are two completely separate entities.

“I’ve trained with Fedor three times maybe,” he says. “Every time they said I should go to Thailand to train, it didn’t happen. They said he would come to Holland to train, but he didn’t come. I was supposed to go to Russia once or twice, but I didn’t go because I don’t like foreign countries. People think now that because I trained with Fedor I got better. No.”

Just another myth that Mousasi wants to dispel. Here’s one more: He has no fear of losing to Sokoudjou.

Have you ever watched Gegard Mousasi fIght?

I mean, really watched? Echteld, his manager, will make you feel as if you haven’t. He will make you rethink the whole goddamn fight game.

To the naked eye, Mousasi’s fighting style is something completely natural, so fluid and easy … and different. “My back has a bump in it,” Mousasi says. “I am like Quasimodo.” It’s true that his back bends like a question mark. It makes him appear casual yet coiled at all times. His kicks, which are as brutal as they come, benefit from that bump. He bends his whole back and moves his hips upward when he kicks, all in unison. His arching posture changes striking coordinates, both for himself and for his opposition. It’s also true that, according to FightMetric, Mousasi lands 54% of his strikes, which is well above the average of 35%. And he takes very little in return. In his STRIKEFORCE debut in San Jose, he hit Babalu a dozen times and absorbed only two shots. The fight was over in a minute. Against Damir Mirenic, he landed 47 strikes, and absorbed four. Tsuyoshi Kurihara doesn’t remember a thing. Against Steve Mensing and Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos, he landed 26 and 19 respectively, and absorbed zero. Nothing. Two whole fights without so much as eating a punch.

There are evasive fighters like Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva, and, like them, Mousasi dishes out punishment with full force and exacting precision, while hardly getting touched. His résumé is full of instinctive moments, and they’re not always easy to explain. Take the bout with Ronaldo Souza, when Mousasi landed a perfectly timed upkick just as Jacaré went swinging for the fences; or the times at the Middleweight Grand Prix when Mousasi latched a triangle choke onto Kang and Manhoef while seemingly in a hypnotic state. His timing seemed to be near perfect in all instances.

So, what the hell is it?

Echteld has an idea, and he rolls it out like a sacred scroll of virtues.

“You want technical? Let’s talk technical then. Gegard has a very, very good taste of the distance. Of closing the distance,” he says. “We call it the principle of ma-ai.”

The principle of ma-ai. The Japanese word for “harmony of space” or, more literally, “spatial distance.” Largely regarded by teachers as something that cannot be taught, ma-ai essentially means using the neutral area of a fighter’s distance as a pendulum of space over time. It is—in essence— the spiritual root of angles. In simpler terms, it means that Gegard can stay distant enough to be out of harm’s way, yet close enough to land strikes of his own. Whether a fighter is conscious of it or not, the one common thread uniting all great fighters—and separating them from the merely good ones—is the space-time relationship between attacker and defender. That’s ma-ai.

That’s why, no matter who is put in front of him, Mousasi always looks like a predator in lockstep with his opponent.

“He can keep a distance, he can close a distance, and he is difficult to hit, all because he moves so quickly on this principle,” Echteld says. “It’s like if you put a belt between the two of us, and you stretch it out, it would stretch out all the way; and if you move back, I move forward. It’s a constant closing of the distance.”

It doesn’t make him unbeatable, but it certainly makes him less beatable. Echteld adds that, like his other pupil, Fedor, Mousasi has infinite patience. It’s something Mousasi has had since he was a teenager, when Echteld first laid eyes on him.

“He has great patience. He has strong legs, he has submissions. But he and Fedor both have great patience. They stick to the plan: What doesn’t work in the first round will likely work in the second.”

Or does he even need patience? Of the previous 12 fights, only one has made it past the first round. None of his previous four fights have made it past the three minute mark. Just saying.

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