So far this year, there have been four MMA fights that looked to be so lopsided on paper that the favorite opened up at 15-1 or better odds. The first three all took place in January: Daniel Cormier vs. Dion Staring, Josh Barnett vs. Nandor Guelmino, and “King Mo” Lawal vs. Przemyslaw Mysiala. After it was officially announced that Alexander Gustafsson was out of his fight against Gegard Mousasi, the UFC found a replacement so obscure that Mousasi became the fourth man to open at 15-1 or better this year. Mousasi’s new opponent is Ilir Latifi, a training partner of Gustafsson’s, and a light-heavyweight fighter with a 7-2 overall record.
At first glance, it would seem that Latifi is in a rather hopeless situation. He’s taking on a world-class opponent in Mousasi on less than one week’s notice. He lost by knockout to Tatsuya Mizuno, and Mizuno was an overwhelming underdog when he faced Mousasi at DREAM 16. Now, after being suddenly placed in the main event of a UFC show, Latifi finds himself the opponent of a fighter who opened up as a 20-1 favorite to beat him.
But while Dion Staring, Nandor Guelmino, and Przemyslaw Mysiala had very little realistic chance of winning their respective fights, I believe Ilir Latifi has a path to victory open to him against Gegard Mousasi.
As I explained in my scouting report, Mousasi has world-class overall talent in MMA, but also has terrible takedown defense. This was highlighted by “King Mo” in particular; despite what was a huge disadvantage in both striking and submissions, Lawal was able to defeat Mousasi by taking him to the ground repeatedly. In fact, most of Mousasi’s fights hit the ground at some point, usually because Mousasi is unable to defend his opponent’s attempt to take him down.
Ilir Latifi doesn’t have Mousasi’s talent in MMA – not even close. His striking is very sloppy, and generally consists of looping power punches that rarely connect cleanly. By contrast, Mousasi is an excellent kickboxer whose striking skills proved enough to win K-1 matches against very tough opponents in Kyotaro and Musashi. As long as Latifi’s fight against Mousasi stays standing, Mousasi has an enormous advantage. In a pure kickboxing match between Mousasi and Latifi, Mousasi would be almost guaranteed to win by first-round knockout.
The only chance Latifi has to win this fight is by taking Mousasi to the ground and controlling top position, much like “King Mo” Lawal did. While Latifi isn’t quite the wrestler Lawal is, he still has an impressive amateur wrestling background. Latifi’s highlight reel largely consists of him picking his opponents up and throwing them down onto the canvas. Given Mousasi’s lack of ability to defend takedowns, Latifi could absolutely get a hold of Mousasi and slam him down.
On the ground, Latifi needs to control top position, and land just enough strikes from that position to prevent the judges from scoring the fight in Mousasi’s favor. That’s easier said than done – one reason Mousasi has been able to win so consistently despite having poor takedown defense is his ability to sweep his opponents. Mousasi is excellent at disrupting his opponent’s base and reversing position on the ground. All Latifi needs to do is make one mistake, and he’ll find himself on his back.
Another problem for Latifi is that his conditioning is just not good enough to be competitive in the UFC. Latifi is a very short and stocky light-heavyweight, and carries a lot of muscle mass on his 5’8″ frame. This is great for landing takedowns, but not so good for a 15-minute fight. If Latifi is already exhausted entering the second round – a very good possibility, especially considering Mousasi’s activity from the bottom – his ability to take the fight to the ground will be severely diminished. Not helping matters is the fact that Latifi is taking is fight on such short notice.
Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that if Latifi wants to win this fight, he needs to “lay and pray.” In other words, Latifi needs to take Mousasi down, hold him down, land a few strikes, and hope it’s enough to win by decision.
To do so, Latifi cannot afford to make any errors. He needs to take Mousasi down quickly, because if he doesn’t, he’ll probably get knocked out. He needs to maintain top control, and land strikes while maintaining a strong base and preventing sweeps. He needs to avoid gassing out, because the moment he gets exhausted, his ability to take Mousasi down will likely be gone.
There are many ways for Mousasi to win this fight, and it’s extremely likely that one of those will happen. It might be a quick knockout, it might be a slick submission, it might be a TKO after Latifi exhausts himself, or it might even be by decision. For Latifi, I only see one realistic path to victory. On the bright side, that’s one more path to victory than Staring, Guelmino, or Mysiala had in their fights.