Single sentence summary:
Phil: The King of the BJJ Guys With Suspect Gas Tanks goes hunting for Moose
David: The King of Nominal Middleweight Relevance Battles the King of One-Time Middleweight Relevance.
Gegard "The Dreamcatcher" Mousasi 37-6-2
Thales Leites 25-5
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Say this for Mousasi, for all the increasing perception of him as a gatekeeper, he sure is in a lot of main and co-main events. One of those guys that I feel we've written about a lot. His main problem here is that for the first time in a long time he's coming off a fight which he was really, really expected to win and didn't. Not exactly his fault, though- easy to just accuse him of taking his eye of the ball, but he fought a good pressure and grappling game against a fighter who's always been vulnerable to those things, and just got smoked by a single weird strike. It happens.
David: I consider it pugilism karma for his knockout over Jacare, and subsequent stock he benefited from as a result. Mousasi is basically the lost coin clip version of Robbie Lawler; never quite able, or urgent enough to get over the contender hump.
Phil: If Gegard's coming off a bad, unexpected loss, then Leites is a debatable stock-up position where he made a fight he was expected to lose very, very close. This has two effects: firstly, he surprised us a bit. Secondly, though, he also showed that he doesn't have quite the offensive power necessary to put away Michael Bisping, which is what is normally necessary to break through into the top tier.
David: For me it was the Francis Carmont fight that woke me up to Leites' career resurgence. Carmont was coming off an embarrassing loss to C.B. Dollaway, but he was still seen as a solid presence, however boring, in the division and Leites pasted him.
What are the stakes?
Phil: One of these guys, as Connor has pointed out in our breakdown, is going down into "middleweight" middleweight with a loss, where the more generic fighters tend to congregate. Down with your Marquardts, Dollaways, Halls and so on. The winner gets to basically hang around where they are now, waiting for someone higher up the foodchain to slip up.
David: I'd love to attempt some pointless exercise about parallel worlds where both men fit into the title picture, but the truth is boring in this case; the knife and forks are present and accounted for. The A1 for those without dignity. Just no stake.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Mousasi rarely appears to "want it" anywhere. Actually, that's a bit harsh. As we've pointed out before, Mousasi is one of those fighters like Josh Thomson who is incredibly well-rounded, clearly intelligent, and has a strong strategic grasp of how to approach various fighters, he just doesn't have a great ability for controlling the tactical back-and-forth. He knows to strike with wrestlers and wrestle with strikers, he can just get bumped off the tracks he lays for himself.
All the individual areas of his approach are excellent though. A clean, long jab and right hand are the basis of his stand-up, and he has a strong offensive double-leg and chain wrestling. He has one of the best guards in the division, and is a beast from top position. He's got an iron jaw, and while his cardio isn't top shelf it's more than serviceable against all but the elite.
David: I think that's kind of the problem with Mousasi. Against the elite, all of those little things need to be there. Cardio doesn't have to be the death knell for a competitive fighter, but when it's cardio plus lack of urgency plus exploitable takedown defense, these things just add up to create a wider gap than would otherwise exist given his obvious talent on display.
The variables are all there for a contender. It's the latent variables that seem to be missing, and that's been the story of his career. That and fight age. I think fight age tends to show up in a fighter's defense, which is protected by strategy and calculation, and supported by the ability to ability to absorb and/or deflect punishment. Once you begin to lose these things, the losses tend to pile up, and Mousasi has regressed defensively which cues how much fight age has caught up to him.
Phil: Leites' primary improvements have come in his hands. He's developed along approximately the same lines as someone like Ponzinibbio or Leites' teammate Hacran Dias- a functional, aggressive Muai Thai game which isn't the prettiest around, but fits together and does what it's supposed to. A lot of the time fighters in this situation tend to forget their wrestling, but Leites still has a good grasp of the basics of phase-shifting. The problem here is that in almost every area apart from his top game the descriptors tend to be "good" or "underrated"- there's no real area of his game which he can use to bludgeon through the defenses of a skilled generalist like the Moose.
David: Leites essentially turned a corner by going all Panama Lewis on his fight gloves the honest way. However he's done it, he's simply hitting with more power than he used to. While his mechanics have improved enough to make his power more of a factor, his overall philosophy hasn't. He's always been a decent boxer for a jiu jitsu ace, but his boxing is anything by dynamic. Like a lot of grapplers with a muscle for striking, they sort of just bludgeon their way into landing strikes rather than deliberating with them.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: Leites gets a lot of credit for being the more improved fighter, and that's certainly true, but if we look at Mousasi's takedown defense back in his Strikeforce days, we can see a dramatically improved defensive wrestler nowadays. The exception is, of course, the Jacare fight (which you predicted correctly, and I did not), but I feel that Jacare is to Leites as Leites is to most of the rest of the BJJ Guys at 185lbs- just a step above pretty much everywhere.
David: You know he reminds me of Leites in some bizarre way? The techno viking. That was Mousasi's to lose, and even though the scorecards were nonsense, and Mousasi served him up a platter of ass whooping, it still showed how far a opponent could go with just a decent survival antennae and some transition sorcery.
Phil: Just how both of them took their last losses I guess. Some serious forward momentum got stopped in the case of Leites, and Mousasi got KOed for the first time in a long, storied career.
David: Walk out music. If it's Leites' See You Again versus Mousasi's Politicians in my Eyes, then we're in for a bloodbath.
Phil: The only area where Leites is even debatably technically superior to Mousasi is in top position grappling, and to get it there he has to navigate Mousasi's jab and perhaps even Mousasi's own aggressive wrestling game. I think he can do it, the odds are out of whack, but I don't think it's the likely outcome. Gegard Mousasi by unanimous decision.
David: Not much to unpack. Leites isn't even defensively sound enough to avoid outright losing it on the feet. I do think there should be real emphasis on the ground battle; Leites is much more poised on the ground. Even if Mousasi is throwing up triangles or whatever, Leites is good at resetting, and adjusting. All bets are off if Leites can get it there, and grind it out Fitch style. It's just not likely. Gegard Mousasi by Decision.