In the first of a two-part preview counting down to UFC 165, Fighters Only magazine editor Nick Peet speaks exclusively to quietly confident light heavyweight title challenger Alexander Gustafsson.
After months of international pre-fight press commitments, UFC champion Jon ‘Bones’ Jones will finally put his undefeated record and world title gold up for the taking in Toronto, Canada, on Saturday 21st September against number one challenger Alexander Gustafsson.
The build-up to the fight has been a marathon, yet the five rounds of championship action will undoubtedly feel like a sprint for the two biggest and best 205lb fighters in the world when they finally meet.
And for challenger Gustafsson, the day can’t come soon enough. Following a gruelling pre fight camp conditioning period in his native Sweden, follow by eight weeks of hard labour at Alliance MMA in San Diego, California, ‘The Mauler’ is champing at the bit to get his shot at the title.
And he admits inspiration comes in many forms, not least from others who have already succeeded against the odds inside the very Octagon he’s preparing to do battle in inside the next fortnight. Chris Weidman shocked the world in July when he knocked out middleweight ruler Anderson Silva at UFC 162, and Gustafsson admits that in this case lightening can almost certainly strike twice.
He tells FO: “Absolutely, I take inspiration from what Chris Weidman did against Anderson. This could be the year when a lot of title belts change hands. This is a totally different fight, of course, but Weidman proved that nobody is invincible. Hendricks versus GSP is also a good fight that could end with a new champion too.”
With his own career record (16-1) showing just one blip, when he lost to now teammate Phil Davis back in April 2010, Gustafsson has ploughed his way through one of the toughest divisions in the UFC while also spearheading the UFC’s growth into his lucrative home nation.
Indeed, he dreams of once again headlining at a sold out Ericsson Globe Arena in his home city of Stockholm – only next time he hopes to be walking into the arena with UFC gold strapped around his waist.
“When will I return to fight again in Stockholm? Good question. Let’s see. First I am taking the belt, and then we will see what happens. But of course I am dreaming of defending the belt back home,” he says.
“I still feel like I am at the beginning of my career, I’ve got plenty of years in front of me. But I want to be the number one guy, I want to be the champion. And the only way to become the best is to beat the current champion, and that’s what I am preparing to do.”
And as for any fears of crumbling under the pressure of a title fight, especially in regards to satisfying the desires of a whole continent of European UFC fans, Gustafsson states: “I’m actually enjoying every second of it. There is no pressure on me at all. I know that I will take that belt. I have everything to gain by this fight.
“Knowing that I have so many people from so many countries supporting me and wanting me to win lifts me. For an elite athlete the fans are everything. Knowing about that overwhelming support just lifts me more and more.”
He adds: “Remember, it’s always still just a fight. I just try to stay focused on my own thing and really blank out the surroundings. The media and the belt, all that stuff, I try to put that into perspective and stay focused on what matters. Of course, the belt, I’m thinking about that: it’s running through my mind every day.
“But it’s just about staying focused. Right now I’m also looking back at my last few fights, analysing the stuff I’m doing well and going over what I didn’t do so well, continually improving.”
Pressure gets to everyone in the end, especially when the world is watching and you’re facing a guy with an unbeaten record and the scalps from a catalogue of former world champions. Yet Gustafsson has a unique take on the challenges ahead. “It’s not a case of being able to block it out, you have to,” he retorts.
“As a professional fighter that’s a large part of your success. It’s something you have to work on and develop with your team, but experience is the only really way to learn to manage it.
“That’s why the press tour for this fight was actually invaluable to me. It was the first time I had ever been on a press tour before and so I tried to make the most of the experience.
“Being around Jon, facing off with him so many times, watching him interact with people and moving around. It was a good experience and really helped me to humanize him also.”
TOMORROW: JON JONES ON BREAKING RECORDS, FIGHTING IN NEW YORK, AND REKINDLING AN ANDERSON SILVA SUPERFIGHT