Gegard Mousasi did exactly what he needed to do on Saturday, picking apart late replacement opponent Ilir Latifi with a healthy diet of jabs with a side of right straights over the course of three rounds.
This was a clinic, and while his performance fell short in the eyes of the ever-so-hard-to-satisfy set who wanted more carnage and a spectacular finish from the former Strikeforce champion, it was an understandably cautious, yet completely one-sided display that keeps Mousasi in position in the light-heavyweight division.
With his first UFC win under his belt and a tailor-made match-up with his original opponent, Alexander Gustafsson, looking like an obvious and easy next step, you have to believe the organization was deflated to find out that Mousasi was competing on a bad wheel Saturday and will need to have knee surgery in the near future.
The 27-year-old former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion missed all of 2012 after requiring surgery to repair a torn ACL. At the moment, the extent of the injury — and therefore the duration of his time on the sidelines — is unknown, but anything more than an arthroscopic procedure will likely put Mousasi out of action until after we turn back the clocks this fall.
Figuring out where he fits in the divisional picture with that kind of uncertainty hovering around him is a difficult task. Getting the win Saturday keeps him in the upper echelon of the division, but a lengthy hiatus will mean Mousasi will have some ground to make up when he returns.
The real question now is what’s next for Gustafsson? A pairing with Mousasi would have made perfect sense, but with the rest of the division’s elite already scheduled for spring and summer competition, “The Mauler” might have to wait his turn or take a high risk/low reward fight in the interim.
After waiting this long for Mousasi to make his debut, it’s unfortunate that we’re now going to have to wait a while longer for his sophomore appearance.
Here are the rest of the fights I would make for Saturday’s winners:
Ross Pearson vs. Jamie Varner
This would be a pairing of two fighters who have resuscitated their careers over the last year, and have made it back to the fringes of contention in the lightweight division.
Pearson has looked very good since moving back to the 155-pound ranks after a two-fight foray to featherweight, and needs a stiffer test than an unproven Ryan Couture next time out. He has excellent boxing, good striking overall, and very good finishing instincts, as we’ve seen in his last two outings.
Varner, meanwhile, has gone 2-1 since coming back to the UFC, with his only defeat being his wildly entertaining battle with Joe Lauzon last summer. He handled Melvin Guillard back in December, but needs to string together wins in order to make a move in the UFC’s deepest division.
These two would trade shots across every inch of the Octagon, and would be a perfect opening act on television or pay-per-view.
Matt Mitrione vs. Stipe Miocic/Soa Palelei Winner
Mitrione needed just 19 seconds to dispatch Phil De Fries on Saturday evening Sweden, catching him with a short left hand as he dipped for a takedown, and then pounding him out on the floor. It was a great bounce-back victory for the former Ultimate Fighter contestant, who had lost two straight coming in.
Having returned to the win column, Mitrione should next be paired with the winner of the upcoming bout between Stipe Miocic and Soa (The Hulk) Palelei, who throw down this June in Winnipeg.
Miocic hasn’t fought since losing to Stefan Struve last September, and Palelei is returning to the UFC for the first time in more than five years. He’s won eight straight dating back to his loss to Daniel Cormier, but there is nary a legitimate, name-brand opponent in the group, unless you count Bob Sapp or Sean McCorkle as legitimate.
Heavyweight has a solid core in the top 10, so there is no need to rush Mitrione back into a less-than-favourable match-up. Get somebody on a two-fight winning streak, and then move them to the fringes of contention.
Brad Pickett vs. Brian Bowles
There are a lot of “ifs” attached to this one, so hear me out.
Pickett looked solid defeating Mike Easton in what was Saturday’s most evenly-matched, compelling contest, and has proven himself to be a legitimate top 10 bantamweight. What he hasn’t done, however, is cleared that next hurdle that makes him a true contender. Beating a former champion is always a good way to make that happen.
Now, all this hinges on two things: (1) Bowles getting through George Roop at UFC 160, and (2) Bowles coming out of that fight healthy. The former isn’t a huge stumbling block, but the latter has proven to be throughout the former WEC champion’s career. If those two things happen, this is the fight I’d like to see next for both fighters.
Diego Brandao vs. Manny Gamburyan
Brandao showed improved composure in notching his second consecutive win on Saturday by forcing a tap from Pablo Garza midway through the opening round. The former Ultimate Fighter winner seems to be learning to harness his immense potential, and looks ready for a step up in competition.
Gamburyan fits that description, if he can ever stay healthy. The former TUF finalist and one-time WEC title challenger has been bounced from successive fights due to injury, and hasn’t fought since beating Michihiro Omigawa last August. He’s in need of a reset, and a good performance against someone on a run, so pairing him with Brandao would make sense.
If you’re not keen on running the risk of setting the surging Brandao up with the oft-injured “Anvil,” maybe you see if former WEC champ Mike Brown is still interested in competing, and match those two up together instead? Brown has won two straight, but hasn’t fought since last May.
Akira Corassani vs. Rani Yahya
Both have won consecutive contests, and both have shown improvements in those two outings.
Corassani looked very good defeating Robbie Peralta on Saturday, showcasing the trademark Mark Henry footwork that has helped make Frankie Edgar so effective over the years. He has good power, a solid chin, and the right amount of resiliency to turn most of his fights into entertaining affairs.
Though he tired noticeably in the third round of his last appearance, Yahya, a grappling ace, showed much improved wrestling in his win over Mizuto Hirota. He was always a fringe contender in the WEC, never managing to put together enough wins to make a real run at things.
Three consecutive wins moves either of these guys up a notch in the surprisingly deep featherweight division, so why not pair them off and see what happens?