One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Gegard Mousasi, who squares off with Lyoto Machida at UFC Fight Night 36 in Brazil on Feb. 15.

Both men enter the main event with a possible title shot on the horizon.

It may be only the former light heavyweight champion’s second appearance at middleweight, but his quick finish of perennial contender Mark Munoz was a statement of intent. It has led UFC President Dana White to publicly state that Machida could be just one win away from the title.

Whilst Mousasi may not have had the opponent he expected for his UFC debut, nor the performance that really set the MMA world alight, his name recognition has carried over from his Strikeforce days. As such, it could be expected that an impressive win over Machida puts him into title contention with an impressive win here in his return to middleweight.

For all the title ramifications in the main event, the co-main event features two other prominent middleweights who, with a show-stopping performance, could leapfrog their colleagues competing in the headlining fight and assume the mantle of next in line at 185 pounds.

When trying to predict who might get the next title shot in the UFC these days, it is safe to say there is a recipe for success which relies heavily on marketability. The UFC seems to value the selling point of how long a fighter has been on a winning streak when giving them the promotional push ahead of a title shot (Glover Teixeira is a perfect example). The men involved in the last two fights of the night can consider themselves in a healthy position when it comes to the marketing aspect. All they need to do now is put on a performance, which is easier said than done.

In terms of winning streak, these two fights can boast the records of Francis Carmont (unbeaten since April 2008), Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (unbeaten since September 2011) and Mousasi (unbeaten since April 2010).

Despite being the most well-known of the four, Machida is only undefeated since losing to Phil Davis in August 2013.  However, it is fair to say “The Dragon” has faced the best competition of any of the above and is the only former UFC champion, which carries with it its own prestige.

The Breakdown

Machida has made a living in recent years by being somewhat of a puzzle inside the Octagon. His opponents have a very difficult time solving that puzzle. He controls the distance with his karate style, utilizing kicks that don’t require the step you might see from a Muay Thai-trained fighter. Machida makes a habit of capitalizing on the smallest opening left by his frustrated opponents.

In his fight with Ryan Bader, we saw a gun-shy Bader very unsure of what to do when faced with Machida’s unusual style. Overall, this made Bader freeze and not trust his abilities. In the second round, he eventually did look to commit to some form of offense and paid the price, getting caught running full steam into the right hand of the Brazilian.

The ability of Machida to nullify his opponents’ attacks and make them tentative is not just confined to opponents relatively new to the sport, like Bader. When facing Dan Henderson, we saw that “Hendo” had similar problems, despite having some success with an inside leg kick.

On the whole, Hendo’s experience did allow him to trust his skills more than we saw from Bader, but the result was pretty similar in that neither fighter managed to figure out the karate style of the Brazilian. When Hendo did find success in the third round by taking the fight to the floor, Machida controlled his posture and eventually got back to his feet before resuming control with varied kicks to the head, body and legs.

In his last fight at light heavyweight, Machida lost a narrow and controversial decision to Davis, a top contender. In that fight, one thing which may have cost Machida was his perceived lack of action. His stand-off style may not endear him to the judges, and they may have scored the fight in favor of Davis as a consequence.

Now, we see Machida fighting in a weight class in which he was perhaps always destined to fight, and one we may have seen him compete at a lot sooner had Anderson Silva not been around. In Machida’s debut in the division, he made short work of his longtime friend, Munoz, in the very first round via head kick.

In contrast to Machida’s storied past in the UFC, this is only Mousasi’s second fight in the UFC and his first within the promotion as a middleweight. That does not mean that he is new to the sport or the division. Mousasi has fought some of the very best whilst outside the UFC, and he will not hold the same fear of Machida as some the Brazilian has faced.

We saw in Mousasi’s fight with Keith Jardine that his stand-up skills are pinpoint accurate and can lead his opponents into desperately seeking a takedown. In that fight, Mousasi’s takedown defense was somewhat questionable, but Machida is not especially known for his takedowns in the traditional sense, so this is not necessarily a weakness we can expect Machida to exploit too much.

In Mousasi’s UFC debut, he was perhaps too conservative for many fans’ liking, but he comfortably jabbed his way to a victory against an opponent he knew little about and against whom he had little to gain from beating, in truth. That conservative strategy clearly didn’t do his standing too much harm either. He now finds himself in the main event against a former champion, who is acknowledged to be just one win away from another title shot.

The Strategy

Mousasi has recently stated that he felt the need to drop back down to middleweight in the UFC in order to make himself a viable contender for a title. His reasoning was that those in the light heavyweight division routinely make a weight cut from well over 220 pounds in order to make the 205-pound limit.

Therefore, it would be expected that Mousasi would be a lot more comfortable with the strength of any opponent he faces at middleweight. It is ironic, perhaps, that in his first middleweight fight in the UFC, he is coming up against a man who has made the move to middleweight for similar reasons.

The key for Mousasi in this fight is to adopt a strategy in the early going that closely mirrors the one which we saw him utilize against Illir Latifi in Sweden. Mousasi needs to get in Machida’s face early on with a quick jab.  He needs to establish a pace and rhythm from the very beginning to let Machida know that he won’t freeze in front of him as many others have previously.

Another weapon that Mousasi can look to rely upon is his kicking arsenal. Leg kicks were seemingly a key component of Henderson’s strategy against Machida.  By landing those leg attacks, Hendo was able to move forward with a greater sense of ease, knowing that Machida was thinking about the legs and not just the traditional “H Bomb.”

Mousasi is perhaps fortunate that Machida is not well-known for his wrestling ability. Nevertheless, Mousasi will still need to be vigilant of Machida clasping his hands together in a clinch situation, as this often leads to Machida either tripping or dragging his opponent to the floor.

Overall, if Mousasi is to upset the odds in Brazil, then he must put on a crisp striking display which won’t allow Machida any openings to capitalize upon. If he can land a few shots early on, then it could set the tone. Mousasi certainly has the finishing power, which he may need if he is to make the kind of statement required to warrant a title shot in what would be only his second UFC appearance at middleweight.

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.