With limited sponsorship and a stable of superstars in need of individual treatment, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is beginning to find it difficult to hold onto every one of its assets.
After seeing notable Octagon names like Rory MacDonald, Benson Henderson, Phil Davis, and Josh Thompson leave the promotion behind in 2016, UFC has witnessed other premier fighters like Ryan Bader, Roy Nelson, and Gegard Mousasi jump to Bellator MMA this year.
Mousasi, 32, will make his debut at Bellator 185 on Oct. 20 against Alexander Shlemenko after signing a six-fight deal with the promotion back in July. Like most of his fellow UFC veterans currently competing under the Bellator banner, Mousasi is enjoying the new experience.
“Life is easier,” Mousasi told MMAjunkie. “I was able to bring my friends also into Bellator. The treatment that I’m getting is great. I feel Bellator has space to grow, not only with me, but also as a company.
“I was a small fish in the UFC. I’m a big fish in Bellator. That’s why I want to do my part to grow with Bellator. There’s a connection that I don’t have with UFC. It’s a company, like a factory. With Bellator, it’s more that I’m part of the family, and I’m doing the best I can to grow with the family.”
The disconnection between Mousasi and UFC shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just hours after announcing his contract signing with Bellator earlier this year, the former Strikeforce champion took direct aim at UFC and blasted its partnership with Reebok. It wasn’t the first time Mousasi publicly challenged UFC and probably won’t be the last.
“I was treated well in the UFC because I got the opportunity to get where I am now,” Mousasi said. “But, if I was to criticize them, I think the fairness of payment or the fairness of getting a title shot, it’s too much about the name of the fighter and who they feel they can build as a star as opposed to who is the best fighter. There are issues. Before the belt I’d have to fight probably Luke Rockhold, I would have fought Yoel Romero because (Robert) Whittaker is next. It would have made my road so difficult to get to the top. Some get an easy road.
“They give the fighters they like matchups suited for them so they can keep winning. They’ll probably do (Conor) McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 3. Why? Because McGregor has a good shot of winning. They’re not going to make a fight with Khabib (Nurmagomedov) or Tony (Ferguson) because it’s bad for the promotion. Those things, you feel as a fighter. I’m not making things up. It’s frustrating. I had to take the hard road. That’s what I feel.”
After winning five-straight fights in the UFC’s middleweight division, including knockouts over former champions Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort, Mousasi didn’t know if he was ever going to get a title shot, which led to his decision to sign with Bellator. It’s an understandable move to make, especially considering the UFC’s 185-pound crop is currently being hijacked by a superfight between champion Michael Bisping and former UFC welterweight king Georges St-Pierre.
With new land to travel and new opponents to overthrow, Mousasi now feels like he’s able to do whatever he wants to do. That sort of freedom is hard to come by in mixed martial arts (MMA) today, but Bellator is offering veterans like Mousasi the opportunity to branch out.
“That’s one of the great things about Bellator is I have the freedom to decide and do whatever I feel,” Mousasi said. “I have more freedom. It’s a lot more easy-going. Scott [Coker] bringing me into Bellator, I want to have a good impression. I don’t want to let anyone down. I’ve come to get the belt. I have to beat (Shlemenko)m and I have to beat him decisively. I have to make a statement.”