Why Khabib Nurmagomedov calls Bellator's Gegard Mousasi 'the most underrated fighter in MMA'

Gegard Mousasi, above, defends his middleweight title against Johnny Eblen at Bellator 282 on Friday. Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA

Gegard Mousasi put on a dazzling show four months ago in Dublin. That it was not an epic-length performance made it all the more magnificent. The Bellator MMA middleweight champion needed less than a minute and a half to lay waste to an undefeated challenger in the Bellator 275 main event.

Austin Vanderford, to his credit (and ultimate demise), went on the offensive that night at 3Arena, closing the distance right from the start and winging big punches. But Mousasi had answers for everything thrown at him, and those responses almost immediately overwhelmed Vanderford. Yet as swiftly as the fight surged toward its TKO conclusion at 1:25 of Round 1, Mousasi was not at all in a rush. Calm efficiency is a hallmark of the 36-year-old Dutchman's two-decade career, and once again that virtue won him the night.

It also earned the low-key champion a rave review from one of the highest-profile figures in the sport.

"[Mousasi] is the most underrated fighter in MMA today," retired former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov tweeted that night.

Mousasi (49-7-2) has an opportunity to live up to the accolade when he headlines Bellator 282 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Friday (9 p.m. ET on Showtime, prelims at 6 p.m. on the Bellator YouTube page). His challenger this time is another wrestling-heavy undefeated fighter, Johnny Eblen, who like Vanderford trains at the American Top Team gym in South Florida.

Mousasi is riding a four-fight winning streak and has won 12 of his past 13 fights, extending back to his time in the UFC. And to a couple of the fighters who've faced him during that run, the Nurmagomedov endorsement very much rings true.

"Nobody believes in what he can do, because his technique is very ordinary, nothing flashy," said former UFC light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida, who has faced Mousasi twice, winning a unanimous decision in a 2014 UFC bout and losing a split verdict in 2019 in the Bellator cage. "But it doesn't matter if he doesn't kick as high as someone else, or he doesn't do jump knees. That doesn't matter. What matters is that he is good everywhere, so well-rounded and so calm. He can fight anybody and has fought everybody, and he wins."

Mousasi owns victories over a long list of championship-level fighters, from Dan Henderson to Vitor Belfort, Chris Weidman to Rory MacDonald, Machida to Douglas Lima. Mousasi is in his second reign in Bellator and previously was a champ in three other fight organizations, including Strikeforce.

"He definitely should be on the list of the best fighters that ever lived," said Lima, a former Bellator welterweight champ, who lost to Mousasi in 2020 in a bid for the 185-pound belt. "The guy has been fighting top competition his whole life. Didn't he beat Mark Hunt at heavyweight, something like that?"

Yes, he did. Competing against the 265-pound "Super Samoan" in an aptly named 2009 tournament in the Dream promotion, the Super Hulk Grand Prix, Mousasi pulled off a first-round straight armbar submission.

But the list of accolades is simply that to Mousasi -- a list. It's not what matters to him.

"I don't give a f--- about belts," Mousasi said after his February title defense. "I'm here to make money."

That narrow, workmanlike focus might have something to do with why he's been chronically underrated. Mousasi has made a career of saying little in the buildup to a fight and, after doing what he does best inside the cage or ring, just collecting his check and going home.

"Mousasi is like Fedor Emelianenko, very quiet, not much talk," Machida said, referring to the stoic Russian heavyweight legend. "It holds him back a little, in terms of promotion, but at the end of the day, as a martial artist, he has the skill to get the outcome he's after. So what can people say about him?"

Uncharacteristically, Mousasi did have something to say about himself right after his vanquishing of Vanderford. "I feel like I'm the best middleweight in the world right now," Mousasi told reporters. "I never said that [before] because I never thought I was the best."

That's bold bravado for someone who competes at the same weight as UFC champion Israel Adesanya. And yet Mousasi, even while making a case for himself, recognizes that in a sport whose various promotions operate in separate silos with rare crossovers, putting out an opinion about a weight classes' pecking order is like playing fantasy sports. "Talking about it," he said, "is like talking about how I want to be Santa Claus."

Mousasi's four years in the UFC came before Adesanya had ever entered the Octagon. When Mousasi knocked out Weidman with a knee to the head in 2017, it was his fifth straight win, four of them finishes. He was No. 4 in the UFC's official middleweight rankings, and he thought he was next in line to challenge then-champ Michael Bisping. But the UFC gave the title shot to Robert Whittaker instead.

So it was off to Bellator for Mousasi, who within less than a year was champion. And not talking much about it.

"We've got guys in this sport who talk a lot but aren't even that good, but people recognize their names and they're the ones who get to fight for titles and big money," Lima said. "And then there's a guy like Mousasi, who does his talking in the cage with his punches and kicks. His control of distance, his timing, his calmness, his aggression, his takedown defense, his jiu-jitsu -- all of that makes him a hard guy to fight. He trains hard, I know, but he makes it look like a walk in the park. I wish people respected that more."