All eyes will be fixed on the world championship main event in Buffalo at UFC 210, but preceding it is arguably an even more important bout between two of the best middleweights in the world.
Before Daniel Cormier puts his light-heavyweight title on the line against Anthony Johnson in the headline bout, former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman and former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champ Gegard Mousasi go head to head in a bout that may well prove pivotal to both fighters’ respective careers.
That’s because #4-ranked Weidman heads into the bout looking over his shoulder as he bids to right the ship, while #5-ranked Mousasi is on a tear with his eyes fixed on a title shot.
The carrot versus the stick
For Mousasi, Saturday night’s bout represents an opportunity to capitalise on the best form of his UFC career and propel himself towards the middleweight title.
If he can put Weidman away in the sort of fashion he’s dealt with his previous three opponents — he polished off Uriah Hall, Vitor Belfort and Thiago Santos, all by KO/TKO — he’ll likely find himself one win away from a shot at the belt.
The fight also represents the final bout on Mousasi’s current UFC contract, and with a UFC event scheduled on the Dutchman’s home soil in Rotterdam, he’ll be looking to not only secure another deal, but come away with a heavier pay packet and a fight on home soil. A win on Saturday would certainly help strengthen his hand at the negotiating table.
If victory is a must for Mousasi to position him as a legitimate championship contender, defeat for Weidman is unthinkable. The former champ is riding a two-fight losing streak, with a third likely to prompt a rethink about his future plans.
Victory would see Weidman tossed back into the mix at the top of the division, but a loss could see him drop to the role of high-level gatekeeper in the 185lb division. In that case, the New Yorker may opt to move up to 205lbs, where he would become an instant contender in a relatively thin weight class.
He may not be prepared to admit it, but Weidman has his back against the wall this weekend and knows victory is non-negotiable if he’s to continue as a leading middleweight contender.
He’ll take some encouragement from his performance in his two recent losses. Against both Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero Weidman started well and looked to be winning the fight. But on both occasions he made an individual error that saw the bouts turned on their heads and resulted in him falling to stoppage defeats.
Against Rockhold it was an ill-advised wheel kick attempt that spelled the beginning of the end, while against Romero it was a case of unfortunate timing as he ducked into a single leg takedown attempt just as the Cuban unleashed a flying knee.
Positivity is key
Accentuating the positive will be of the utmost importance for Weidman against the wily Mousasi, who will provide few openings for the American to launch into his bread-and-butter wrestling game.
Despite the must-win nature of the contest, it’s crucial Weidman avoids any sense of desperation, however the fight is progressing.
The shorter three-round course will heighten the need for success early in the fight, and if Mousasi can establish his jab early and keep Weidman at arm’s length there’s the danger that anxiety and panic could set in with the former champion.
Weidman will have to be as strong mentally as he is physically to deal with the heightened sense of urgency in the bout. The fact it’s a three-rounder, the fact Weidman is on a two-fight skid and the knowledge that his career may need a rethink if he loses will all be on his mind as he approaches fight night. But once that cage door closes, his mind must be clear of all those worries if he’s to prevail on Saturday night.
Bring experience to bear
Mousasi, of course, will be well aware of all of this. The Dutchman is a cerebral assassin — arguably the most cerebral of all the UFC’s middleweights — and has a colossal experience advantage.
Remarkably, his UFC 210 bout with Weidman will be Mousasi’s 50th professional contest, but he’s still chasing that elusive middleweight title shot.
Losses to Lyoto Machida, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and Uriah Hall all halted Mousasi’s momentum as he looked to ascend towards championship contention, but now he’s in the form of his UFC career. Four wins in a row, including avenging his loss to Hall, have put the Dutchman right in the title picture.
But with champ Michael Bisping set to take on Georges St-Pierre, the rest of the top dogs at 185lb are left jockeying for position, which gives Mousasi the opportunity to make some serious ground on his fellow contenders.
Victory over Weidman in Buffalo would set up a potential title eliminator with either ‘Jacare’, Romero or Rockhold, possibly as the headliner in Rotterdam in September, with a title shot potentially on the horizon during one of the UFC’s big Q4 shows in New York or Las Vegas.
If Mousasi can control the page and range of the fight early on, he can use the shorter three-round contest to his advantage and force Weidman into a less-controlled, more-panicked approach as the fight moves into the second and third rounds. That would then open up Weidman to Mousasi’s slick striking and underrated power and potentially create the possibility for a late stoppage win.
It’s a fascinating contest, a near 50–50 matchup and one that could produce one of the fights of the night.
The bookmakers here in the UK have Mousasi the favourite and I think that’s a fair assessment of the contest. The momentum is undoubtedly with the Dutchman and that, combined with his well-rounded skillset and the experience that comes with 49 previous contests, should stand him in good stead against Weidman.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see this go all the way to the scorecards, but I’ve got a sneaking feeling Mousasi might just be able to get it done inside the distance.