This was not the debut Gegard Mousasi envisioned when he tested the free-agent waters and left the Ultimate Fighting Championship to sign with Bellator MMA.
Mousasi fought through a badly damaged right eye to procure a unanimous decision over former middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko in the Bellator 185 headliner on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 29-28 for “The Dreamcatcher.”
Shlemenko (56-10, 12-4 Bellator MMA) made life miserable for the promotional newcomer, changing the tone and trajectory of the fight with one punch. An overhand left, delivered with power and precision, resulted in gruesome swelling to Mousasi’s right eye in the first round. He withstood the adversity but not without considerable difficulty, turning to takedowns, positional control and an active submission game. The middle stanza likely provided the difference, as Mousasi executed multiple takedowns, passed to side control and ultimately advanced to the back to fish for rear-naked chokes, counteracting the work his Russian counterpart had done on the feet.
Round 3 was not pretty for Mousasi (43-6-2, 1-0 Bellator MMA). He looked weary and desperate, and he retreated to his back on more than one occasion in attempt to get out of the line of fire. Shlemenko battered him with overhand lefts, spinning backfists, left hooks and body kicks, even staggering the former Strikeforce champion with a two-punch combination. However, it was not enough to earn favor from the judges.
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In the welterweight co-main event, Neiman Gracie remained undefeated by submitting Zak Bucia with a second-round neck crank. A short-notice replacement for the injured Javier Torres, Bucia (18-9, 0-1 Bellator MMA) bowed out 2:27 into Round 2 in what was the first submission defeat of his 27-fight career.
Gracie (7-0, 5-0 Bellator MMA) was relentless. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt closed the distance on Bucia, pressed him against the fence and executed takedowns. Gracie then advanced to the back and went to work on rear-naked chokes. Bucia was game, his defense sound. Gracie switched gears in the second round, where he again moved to the back and secured position with hooks. Instead of the rear-naked choke, the World Series of Fighting veteran squeezed on a neck crank until Bucia relented.
The 28-year-old Gracie has submitted six of his first seven opponents.
Meanwhile, Kristina Williams dazzled in her professional debut, as she carved up former WBC boxing champion Heather Hardy to a gory doctor stoppage in the second round of their women’s flyweight showcase. The cageside physician called for the bout to be stopped 2:00 into Round 2.
Hardy (1-1, 1-1 Bellator MMA) spent a majority of the fight eating punches, kicks and standing elbows from the taekwondo black belt. By the time the first round was over, she was bleeding heavily from the mouth and nose, the situation becoming increasingly dire. Some 90 seconds into the middle stanza, Williams (1-0, 1-0 Bellator MMA) caught the ducking Brooklyn, New York, native with a crushing head kick to the face. The impact appeared to shatter Hardy’s nose and led to the stoppage mere moments later.
In other action, American Top Team’s Ryan Quinn captured a unanimous decision over Marcus Surin, prompting 29-28 nods from all three judges; Lisa Blaine scratched out a split decision -- 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 -- against Ana Julaton in a three-round women’s flyweight match; Dani Shainis dispatched Matt Denning with punches 4:50 into the first round of their catchweight encounter at 150 pounds; Vovka Clay tapped Frank Sforza with a guillotine choke 1:17 into the second round of their catchweight confrontation at 150 pounds; Kevin Carrier took a unanimous decision from Jose Antonio Perez in a three-round lightweight battle, drawing 30-27 scores from all three judges; American Top Team prospect Jordan Young submitted Alec Hooben with a triangle choke 2:44 into the first round of their catchweight clash at 195 pounds; Costello van Steenis struck Steve Skrzat into submission with continuous elbows 2:52 into the first round of their middleweight tilt; and Joaquin Buckley eked out a split decision -- 29-28, 28-29, 29-28 -- over Vinicius de Jesus in a three-round welterweight affair.