Thursday 6:44 PM GMT
Gegard Mousasi: from exodus in Iran to a life as one of the world's great road warriors
By Gareth A Davies
A fighting man. Gegard Mousasi's face is marked with scars, many of them small, and healed, like the pitted landscape of this road warrior's life. The 32-year-old, fighting for the 51st time and headlining on his Bellator MMA debut against tough Russian Alexander Schlemenko on Friday's card here at the Mohegan Sun on a Native Indian reservation in Connecticut, has plied his trade across the world from Asia, through Europe, to the USA.
Yet his life story is one of Exodus, upheaval, and the long struggle to prove himself. With all that, Mousasi remains one of the quiet men of mixed martial arts, in spite of a history that resonates with turmoil once the lines open up and you read between them.
Born in Iran into an Armenian community, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war – in which half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, with estimates of a similar number of civilians, are believed to have died – Gegard's formative years were inextricably linked to conflict.
The first Persian Gulf War has been compared to World War I with large-scale trench warfare. It was attritional, with manned machine-gun posts, bayonet charges, and waves of attacks across a no-man's land, and extensive use of chemical weapons.
This was the backdrop to the early years of the life of Geghard Movsesian, the youngest child of three, born to Gakik and Lucik Movsesian.
Mousasi's family – parents, brother Gewik and sister Angineh – tripped over the border a few years after the Iran-Iraq war and headed to Holland. Gegard was 8 years old. And impressionable. But it was not a straightforward journey, as the family of five endured eighteen months in a refugee camp there.
Mousasi revealed his early years, unaware of the troubles around him. A teary child of 8 saw his blissful life, at least in his eyes, of "playing outside on dusty streets all day in Tehran", was over. Instead, a new world, with many other refugees, all seeking solace in the orange light and new hope of The Netherlands.
The early experiences, whether he knew it or not, created a tough young man who had an inner steel and fearlessness. And a need to prove himself. "My mum and dad were born in Iran. There's a small community of Armenians there, but slowly everyone is leaving. I think there were 200,000 of us there at one time, and it's fallen to around 50,000 now," explains Mousasi softly, accentuating each syllable clearly, his hands clasped together. There is much reflection in this man.
"These days, there are a lot of people who have difficulties getting out of the country so you have to go illegal, but it's not the same as it used to be." Prior to the Iran Revolution in 1979, it was once Persia, an opulent, glamorous Kingdom. Armenia is on Iran's northern border.
"It was once a glamorous place. If you'd seen the King and Queen, you'd have thought it was France. It was such an elegant place."
"My parents had a good life there. They used to live in a village and later they came to Tehran. My dad was a mechanic and my mother was a housewife, who looked after the children."
"Iranian people are very hospitable, very family-oriented and besides that they have a very beautiful country. They have mountains, desert, sea [it borders both the Caspian Sea and Indian Ocean] so you have everything. There are four seasons in Iran, so you can go winter skiing, you can go in summer to the beach… it's not a real tourism place, but it's a nice country if you have family and friends to visit there." Mousasi has been back a few times – but only, he explains, "to visit family". His recollections of Tehran were "a lot of playing in the streets, being at school, football. Back then, you would play a lot outside…"
It was a life-changer in Holland. He began by dreaming of being a boxing world champion, watching Oscar De La Hoya, and the heavyweight careers of Mike Tyson, and then Lennox Lewis. He tested himself in an array of combat sports, and found solace. Judo was his first sport. Then he took up boxing.
By the age of 16, he was a national amateur champion in his adopted country. Indeed, in 2011, he had revealed that he had contemplated trying to qualify for the London Olympics as a Dutch representative. It never came about. As a teenager, he was also drawn to kickboxing, and then, he walked into an MMA gym. Bingo.
Twelve years later, his resume includes victories over Hector Lombard in a Pride Welterweight Grand Prix, success in Dream at middleweight with wins against Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef and Jacare Souza. Then, a move to light-heavyweight, and eventually heavyweight. In Dream's Open Weight Grand Prix, Mousasi submitted Mark Hunt in the opening round. He has even sparred with former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko in an exhibition match – though he was defeated by an armbar. He defeated Renato Sobral via KO in the first minute of the first round to become the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, brought to America to fight for the first time by Bellator's current CEO Scott Coker.
It is some resume. And some journey. And after four years in the UFC, fighting the leading middleweights, it was time for a change. He was simply not getting the middleweight title fight he craved. He felt he had proved himself. But talk to anyone who has worked with Mouasi. He is a technician. He makes very few mistakes.
He favours the stand-up; but he's comfortable anywhere. Perhaps he learnt not to make mistakes, unconsciously, in his surroundings as a child. It helped in Holland, which he recalls, was very hard on him, at first. "Yeah, because I was missing my home, my friends…I think it took me six months to a year until I was settled, and of course, we came to Holland where all the refugees go. You had camps for that."
"We'd had a normal life in Iran, then you move there and suddenly you were five people in a room, sharing with another family. There were refugees from so many other countries. Eventually we got our house and it wasn't that bad. We were lucky. It took a year and a half. A lot of people stayed there in refugee status for 5 years. You can't get your life started when you are in that situation."
"It takes the time off your life. I know some people who took 8 years to get the right to stay in Holland. So for 8 years, they weren't allowed to do anything, go for a job. That's one thing that's bad about immigration. Once you got there, the children would always go to Dutch school, medical care was good, but it's the change you have from having everything in your own country and then you start from zero, and you have to wait."
"We didn't get the Visa for staying for 5 years so it took a long time before you could go to work. Then there was the language barrier. It's very difficult. I have one friend whose dad was a surgeon, another who was a high level engineer. But once they come to Holland they were nothing. People want to work but from being respected in your job in your country, you have to start out with nothing. It's not impossible, of course, but it can be very difficult." But looking back, Mousasi now feels lucky.
"My dad would take me to judo a few times a week. I got all these things that I was able to do once we were set up in Holland. Everything was taken care of. I think Holland is a country that takes care of their people – one of the best countries in the world."
So what drove him ? "I think it had more to do with poverty than a difficult lifestyle. We were not rich. I didn't have money – at least compared to my friends, I didn't."
"It was a combination of not wanting to struggle for money, but also that I wanted to be a tough guy, to be respected, too." The young Gegard had athletic prowess, so he decided to exploit it. "I had talent in judo, I believe. Every time the teacher would show something in class, I would be his favourite student to show it." He learnt quickly. "I think with fighting you have to have a desire to achieve something. You never see a rich kid get to the top of any combat sport because they don't have the drive. All the great boxers come from the ghetto. They all had nothing. They have the desire, the hunger but the rich kid is not going to get punched in the face. Why would they ?"
"I wanted to be a boxer but I knew it wouldn't be possible. It was difficult especially in Holland. But MMA at that moment was doing well in Holland and I liked the fighting styles, so I thought I'm going to do that – it's tougher. You want to be the best and I thought I want to be the best in fighting. Once I'd started, I realised it's better than boxing."
"I remember I was doing boxing, and I lost a fight. I was heartbroken. I thought Mike Tyson didn't lose, so I shouldn't lose either. It was my first loss. But then I started kickboxing, and soon afterwards saw MMA. So two or three weeks later I took a fight without really knowing the ground game. I was 17/18 then. I just took every fight that I could at the time whether it was kickboxing or MMA. It just clicked."
By now, Gegard had made up his mind that he would become a professional fighter. It didn't go down too well at home. "My mother didn't like watching the fights but I would always do well so it wasn't that bad. At that time I wasn't at a high level, it wasn't on TV, so they didn't see anything. And back then, I never got home injured or with a black eye or whatever, so it wasn't that bad."
As the years have passed, and success came, his parents have changed towards his career. He has also invested wisely. "I have some properties," he explains. "But don't expect me to run a gym, it's too much of a headache, though my brother may do that." "I've got my home but I've also bought properties which I rent so I have some income out of that."
"Yeah no just properties, any business that I feel like it's worth to invest so far I haven't seen anything to go ok I'm going to invest in that. My dad is proud but my mother still, she doesn't like to watch the fight. The fight week is hard for her. That week she has a lot of stress."
"I always call them after my fights, but normally after the fight my friend already called my mother to tell the result."
Mousasi's aspirations are like every other fighter in mixed martial arts today: title ownership. "Every fight is difficult so I have to be 100% for every fight. It's all about the small details and preparation, the coaching and the game plan. This is the highest league. You can't just make your opponent tired with own conditioning. Everyone is in shape, everyone is ready, everyone is well rounded, everyone understands what is on the line. So every fight is difficult. That's why every fight has to be seen as a championship bout."
Now, his aspirations are to win the Bellator middleweight crown, and then take on all-comers. "I feel like Bellator is pushing me and I feel obligated to deliver. Of course there is pressure for me. I've put the hard work in in the gym. I just have to make weight and it will be a good result."
Shlemenko is a tough cookie. And Mousasi knows it. But he is confident. Very confident. "I've dealt with that when I fought Uriah Hall. I know what's coming. I shouldn't be too aggressive. I should be smart. I have the reach advantage, physically I'm the bigger guy. Ground, wrestling, technically I'm better. Everything is on my side. I just have to get the job done."
"I feel I should be able to finish Shlemenko and be dominant. Also, he brings the fight. He comes to fight. I've never seen him in a boring fight. I'm not worried about a boring fight because he's going to make the fight."
There are many options in Bellator – Mo Lawal, Ryan Bader, even Rory McDonald – but for now, reigning at 185lbs is his goal. "Middleweight is my division. I'm at my best at middleweight. If I go to light heavyweight I want there to be something on the line like a belt. Then I'd do that for sure. But there is also Mo Lawal. There would be a huge doctor's cheque for him if we fight."
As for the middleweight title, there is already a defence lined up. "Alessio Sakara is fighting Rafael Carvalho (the champion) in December, so I have to wait and see who is champion. I trained with Alessio before in Holland. I know what I'm expecting at least. I've only seen Carvalho fighting Manhoef, so I don't know him that well. He has a good record."
"Rory MacDonald might want to come up but he's a welterweight. He's going to give up a size advantage. First I have to beat Shlemenko. He's a good competitor. I trained with Douglas Lima for a week in Holland and there's a size difference. Douglas Lima is tough. Let him first pass him and then we'll see. But there's a size difference. That I can tell for sure."
So to Friday night. "I hope to finish Schlemenko. I don't see him being dangerous. But it's a fight. You can get caught with a punch or a kick. I'm sharp, I'm in shape, I know what he's doing, I'm prepared. I should finish him in two rounds." Confident, and happy. A good place for Mousasi right now. "Bellator is open-minded. They talk to the fighters and see what it is they like. I have freedom. It's easy for me to say I want to go up to light-heavyweight, fight the best. That's what I want." And every day, as Gegard Mousasi has known from the start of his life, is a fight for survival. Friday is simply the next test.