When Gegard Mousasi and Austin Vanderford step inside the cage for the main event of Bellator 275 on Friday in Dublin, Ireland, the Bellator middleweight championship matchup will represent far different career mileposts for each fighter.
For Vanderford, the title challenge is unquestionably the biggest fight of his life. He is 11-0 as a pro, but he has yet to be in the cage against anyone of championship caliber. Until recently, he was best known not so much for being a fighter as for being the husband of a fighter.
Vanderford, who is married to popular former UFC strawweight Paige VanZant, took the fans’ “Mr. VanZant” ribbing in generally good spirits early on in his career. But once he signed with Bellator in 2019, he set out to make a name for himself. He won his first five fights inside the circular cage. And this weekend Vanderford can set himself up with a fancy new moniker: Champ. So yeah, this fight is his biggest ever.
For Mousasi, the Bellator middleweight champion, this title defense is just the latest big fight in a career full of them. The 38-year-old is in his second reign as a Bellator belt holder, and over the course of 57 MMA fights plus another five in professional kickboxing, he has competed in a dozen championship bouts — and he’s previously held titles in three other fight promotions.
Those promotions in which he struck gold do not include the UFC, though, and that is a big reason why Mousasi is often overlooked in discussions about the greatest middleweights in history.
Mousasi did fight for the Alpha of MMA promotions for four years and was on a championship track there. Back in 2017, Mousasi was on a five-fight winning streak inside the Octagon after knocking out Chris Weidman. It was his fourth KO in a row. Two of them had come against former UFC champs.
It appeared that Mousasi, who at the time was No. 4 in the UFC’s middleweight rankings, was going places.
The place he was going, somewhat surprisingly, was to Bellator MMA.
Gegard Mousasi dominates Rafael Carvalho to win the Bellator MMA middleweight title via first-round TKO.
The Weidman victory was the final fight on Mousasi’s UFC contract, and company president Dana White quickly drew a line in the sand. “Gegard Mousasi isn’t selling out arenas,” White said when asked about the contract negotiations.
That stance only intensified the contrast Mousasi saw between the UFC boss and Bellator’s CEO, with whom he had worked at Strikeforce. “I have never heard a fighter complain about Scott Coker — not in Strikeforce, not in Bellator,” Mousasi said when he signed with his new employer. “I’m going to get treated well, that’s for sure.”
Mousasi’s move to Bellator was the UFC’s biggest free-agency talent loss to date — at least in a competitive sense. He owned victories over former UFC champions Weidman and Vitor Belfort as well as past Strikeforce champs Dan Henderson, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Renato “Babalu” Sobral. He knocked out every one of them.
MacDonald had lost his last two fights in the UFC. Henderson had moved to welterweight to reinvigorate his career. Mousasi, on the other hand, was very much at the top of his game as a title contender when he walked out the Octagon door for good.
And sold-out arenas or not, the UFC’s middleweight division sure could have used him.
At the time Mousasi left, the division was ruled by Michael Bisping, whose only successful title defense was a decision win over Henderson. Mousasi had knocked out Hendo a year earlier in the first round. After Mousasi opted not to re-sign, the UFC was left to hand a middleweight title shot to a retired welterweight — the greatest welterweight of all time, it’s true, but Georges St-Pierre was a 170-pounder all the same, and he had not fought in four years.
Meanwhile, over in Bellator, Mousasi became middleweight champion in less than a year.
His reign was interrupted by a majority-decision loss to Rafael Lovato Jr. in 2019, but after Lovato retired for health reasons, Mousasi competed for the vacant title in October 2020 and became a two-time champ.
Now, in the second title defense of his second reign, Mousasi is looking to solidify his legacy by taking on the undefeated Vanderford, who was brought into the cage for a faceoff following Mousasi’s victory over John Salter last August. That nose-to-nose moment enabled the champ to immediately size up his next challenger.
“He hasn’t tasted defeat yet, so I’m pretty sure he’s confident,” Mousasi said at the postfight press conference later that night.
But confidence is one of Mousasi’s own greatest assets. That’s what more than 60 pro fights will do. He has been in with everyone from savvy veterans and hungry young climbers. He was an amateur national champion boxer in the Netherlands. He has a black belt in judo. He beat a reigning world champ in kickboxing.
Mousasi has seen it all. He can do it all — except maybe trash talk his way into the hearts of the drama-loving among us.
As Mousasi spoke quietly to reporters back in August after knocking out the wrestling-heavy Salter, it was pointed out to him that he wasn’t done facing opponents who are right at home rolling on the mat. Vanderford won the 2012 NAIA national championship while wrestling for Southern Oregon.
Mousasi just shrugged, as he seems to do at everything. “If they take me down,” he said, “it’s not like they’re gonna hurt me.”
Friday’s Bellator 275 fight card
Showtime, 4 p.m. ET
Middleweight championship: Gegard Mousasi (c) vs. Austin Vanderford
Women’s featherweight: Leah McCourt vs. Sinead Kavanagh
Men’s featherweight: Ciaran Clarke vs. Abou Tounkara
Featherweight: Khasan Magomedsharipov vs. Jose Sanchez
Bantamweight: Brian Moore vs. Jornel Lugo
YouTube (via Showtime and Bellator), 1 p.m.
Bantamweight: Khurshed Kakhorov vs. Brett Johns
Lightweight: Charlie Leary vs. Davy Gallon
Strawweight: Danni McCormack vs. Stephanie lelo Page
Lightweight: Junior Morgan vs. Darragh Kelly
Lightweight: Daniele Scatizzi vs. Vladimir Tokov
Heavyweight: Gokhan Saricam vs. Kirill Sidelnikov
Men’s featherweight: Nathan Kelly vs. Scott Pedersen
Men’s featherweight: Lee Hammond vs. Jamie Hay