When Gegard Mousasi and Rory MacDonald walk into the cage for the main event of Bellator 206, they may be entering into the most significant fight in promotional history. For nearly all of the time the organization has existed, it has played a long-distance second fiddle to the UFC. Even as ex-Bellator fighters such as Eddie Alvarez have crossed brands and found success; even as ex-UFC stars such as Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin have discovered the impressiveness of Bellator’s depth, the results have mostly been washed out by the UFC’s continued dominance.
But Mousasi and MacDonald are different. Both current champions in their respective divisions – MacDonald as a welterweight, Mousasi at middleweight – each can make a legitimate claim as the best fighter in the world in his respective division, regardless of promotion.
Mousasi left the UFC on an impressive five-fight win streak, capped off by a knockout win over former champion Chris Weidman. After back-to-back wins in Bellator, he’s now won seven straight. MacDonald, a longtime top-5 welterweight, captured his Bellator belt in January and boasts a win over reigning UFC kingpin Tyron Woodley.
These are two studs.
The matchup between them, which puts Mousasi’s belt on the line, is an intriguing one, starting with the many similarities they share. Both fighters place value on strategy over improvisation; heavily rely on the finesse of feints, traps and jabs in their standup; show patience in creating openings; have suffocating grappling; and are vicious finishers. And on the surface, their demeanors are practically mirror images. Quiet, unexpressive, terrifying.
That’s no small amount of stuff.
A main difference: size. Mousasi, who stands 6-foot-2, has spent most of his career as a middleweight, and has even moonlighted as a light-heavyweight and heavyweight. As a 205-pounder, he captured the Strikeforce and DREAM championships; in the sport’s highest weight class, he stopped the Kiwi wrecking ball Mark Hunt. Mousasi (44-6-2) is used to pushing around a lot of beef, and has found success doing so.
By contrast, MacDonald (20-4) stands 6-feet even, and while he has previously discussed the possibility of moving up to 185 pounds, he has never before fought above 170.
While MacDonald gives up height, according to the official stats, he has the same 76-inch reach as Mousasi. While that may seem like a wash, it may still actually serve as a bit of an advantage for Mousasi, who has loads of experience keeping distance against opponents that are bigger and longer than MacDonald. Faced with essentially a mirror image of himself, the degree of difficulty may seem less.
That said, both fighters are generally quite masterful with distance, marking the first point of contention in the bout. Both fighters key their offense off feints, jabs and movement. MacDonald is occasionally a slow starter, preferring to input information before unleashing, while Mousasi changes pace from fight to fight. Sometimes, he throws very few strikes in the opening minutes of a bout as he works to overload his opponent with fakes and footwork. Other times, he will show more aggression with stiff jabs in a concerted effort to create meaningful openings. It will be telling to see who leads the way between them. Given his experience fighting bigger men—and the confidence that comes with it—I would expect Mousasi to take that role.
That won’t be the end of the fight within the fight though. Because they are both technically proficient, there should be plenty of on-the-fly adjustments as the fight progresses.
But if the fight is mostly contested in the striking realm, it is a clear advantage for Mousasi, for sheer power alone. Mousasi has 24 career knockouts and has hurt and stopped huge men. MacDonald has seven career KOs, but only one in his last 10 fights.
MacDonald’s best opportunity might be to take the fight to the ground. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, MacDonald has a heavy mount, pounding strikes and slicing elbows. While he had only a 47 percent takedown rate during his UFC run, he has the capability to put Mousasi on the ground. He put Woodley on his back during their 2014 fight, and pulled off four takedowns against Robbie Lawler the year prior. When MacDonald uses his wrestling, he’s at his best, because it allows him to mix up his looks and builds unpredictability into his game.
It plays especially well into this fight because if Mousasi has one trouble spot in his brilliant game, it has (at least historically) been his takedown defense. Throughout his career, his takedown defense rate has hovered around 60 percent, which is about average.
While he’s still susceptible to the takedown, he has also improved in the area. Frustrated by a 2010 fight against Muhammed Lawal in which he was taken down 11 times, Mousasi worked hard to shore up his defenses and has mostly been successful. If Mousasi does get taken down, he’s still an excellent fighter, with 12 career submissions, but he has been trapped for long periods of time, or spent too long hunting submissions rather than trying to return to his fight.
If the two stall in the clinch, they’re both well-armed in the area. MacDonald, in particular, has done some strong work in the position, including in his January title win over Douglas Lima. In that fight, he was able to take Lima down from the clinch and also to muscle him in the corner for long stretches that helped him earn a decision.
Mousasi has said such a strategy won’t work against him because of what he believes to be a massive advantage in strength. That outcome seems quite probable, meaning that if MacDonald wants to get the fight to the ground, he’s going to have to do it with quick level-changes. He’s capable of that, but it will be a hard task to pull off for five rounds.
If there is one other major thing to note here, it is the finishing instincts of both men. MacDonald doesn’t boast quite the horsepower of Mousasi, but he’s still stopped opponents in 14 of his 20 career wins; Mousasi has earned TKOs or subs in 36 of his 44 victories. Both of these men can smell blood.
These veterans should put on a brilliant fight that matches its significance. MacDonald is going to have to use his cunning to overcome Mousasi’s firepower. The problem for him is that Mousasi is just as cunning as he is. They are athletes with similar fight IQs, profiles and skill sets, and in that kind of fight, it stands to reason that the bigger and stronger man will win. Mousasi by late stoppage.