On another day, at another time, with a different set of judges, Alexander Gustafsson might already have been crowned UFC light-heavyweight champion. He could have won the title in 2013, when pushing Jon Jones to the wire, and he could have been awarded the belt in 2015, when doing the same to Daniel Cormier. Both times Gustafsson excelled himself, proving doubters wrong, gaining success against men typically dominant against other challengers, yet both times, despite a stellar performance, Gustafsson walked away empty-handed.
It’s been the story of the Swede’s career so far. Almost, but not quite. There or thereabouts. Forever the bridesmaid, never the bride. It’s the small, simple things that can irk and lead to regret. If, for example, he had ducked a spinning back elbow thrown by Jon Jones in round four of their fight, the course of history could have changed. Certainly, it would have prevented a major turning point in the fight, one pounced on by Jones and used to rescue something he was in danger of losing. There were similar moments against Cormier, too, moments when Gustafsson had the upper hand and the momentum, moments he stuffed takedowns and hurt DC (no mean feat), moments it looked like it would finally happen for Alex. But, alas, that effort was also in vain.
Now, on the cusp of fighting Glover Teixeira in a battle of number one and two contenders, Gustafsson knows he’s running out of chances. Lose on Sunday (May 28) in Stockholm and the game is up; the nearly man might never become The Man. Win, however, and Gustafsson is back on track, presumably next in line for a shot at whoever wins the July 29 rematch and UFC 205-pound title fight between Cormier, the current champion, and Jones, the former champion, two men Gustafsson knows well. Beat Teixeira in fine style and the question becomes this: Can ‘The Mauler’ finally become The Champ?
Yes, he can
He’s got time
Gustafsson, at 30, clearly has time on his side and room to grow. He’s been doing that – maturing, improving – ever since he joined the UFC in 2009. Since then he has established himself as one of the very best light-heavyweights in the world. He has suffered losses along the way – to Phil Davis, Jon Jones, Anthony Johnson and Daniel Cormier – but seems to lose only to the best and, more importantly, learns from each of his setbacks. In between losses to Davis and Jones, for instance, he scored submissions and knockouts aplenty and also claimed the scalps of Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and Thiago Silva. You can do that when you’re young. You can get better, you can learn.
Now, at 30, he’s in his athletic prime. He’s had hard fights, yes, a few of which will no doubt shorten his shelf-life, but, rest assured, this isn’t a shop-worn scrapper on his last legs, nor someone who has shown signs of slowing down or some kind of regression. Instead, Gustafsson, at 30, is the final product; a one-time highly-touted European prospect all grown up and primed to conquer.
He’s got style
Even in his two championship defeats, against Cormier and Jones, the towering Swede showed much in the way of potential. He outboxed Jones for large spells, displaying a superior grasp of distance and timing, and was able to stifle Cormier’s wrestling two years later, something many have tried but few have achieved.
Put it all together and it would seem Gustafsson is the perfect antidote to both men. He can box as well as anybody in the division, utilising his height and reach with real intelligence, and he’s also adept at deciding where the fight takes place due to his reliable takedown defence and all-round Octagon control. This all stands him in good stead moving forward. It’s why he usually has his hand raised and why he succumbs only to the most athletic and explosive of 205-pounders. In the vicinity of the rest, Gustafsson is a cut above.
He’s got experience
Not many 30 year olds can say they’ve spent 25-minutes in the company of Jon Jones and 25-minutes in the company of Daniel Cormier. That, so long as it doesn’t break you, should be enough to educate and improve any professional fighter.
Gustafsson, you’d think, is no different. He will have taken things from both fights – once past the initial disappointment of losing close decisions – and used all he learnt to improve his own game and ensure the same mistakes don’t happen again. Moreover, there’s no longer a sense Gustafsson is wet behind the ears or out of his depth among the sharks of the light-heavyweight division. Five rounds with Cormier, five rounds with Jones, three with Rua and a couple with Jimi Manuwa, Gustafsson has spent time in the presence of most of the leading light-heavyweights on the planet; indeed, even his first pro defeat, all the way back in 2010, came at the hands of Phil Davis, the current Bellator light-heavyweight champion. He’s done the rounds, therefore, and is now enhanced by a knowledge and confidence that can only be a by-product of facing the best in the world and living to tell the tale.
No, he can’t
He’s had his chance
Three time’s a charm; third time lucky. If only professional fighting was that easy, that simple, that kind. But it’s not. It’s really not. In fact, professional fighting is about as unforgiving and merciless as any sport out there and just because you deserve to win, and have paid the price in training and then on fight night, doesn’t necessarily mean you will triumph or get what you believe is rightfully yours.
Maybe Gustafsson, gunning for a third shot, is just unlucky. Worse, if he couldn’t beat Cormier and Jones first time around, when opportunity knocked, what makes anyone think he will fare better next time? If anything, the two Americans might now be hip to his tricks and tendencies and able to cope with the lanky challenger’s advances better as a result of this. Perhaps they will improve just as he will improve. Cormier, after all, has grown into his role as champion and will continue to do so (should he keep winning, of course), while Jones, as destructive outside the Octagon as he is inside it, will presumably never be as cavalier and as ill-prepared as he used to be.
It’s not so much the defeats to Cormier and Jones that fuel Gustafsson’s naysayers, more a shocking first-round knockout defeat at the heavy hands of Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson in 2015. That’s the proof, they say, that he’s not made of the stuff required to win and retain the UFC light-heavyweight championship. It is, to them, a sign of fragility, a reminder of how he imploded before his home fans, and something they believe will happen again if someone puts it on Gustafsson the way Johnson put it on him during the two minutes and fifteen seconds of mayhem it took to silence 30,000 Swedes at the Tele2 Arena, Stockholm.
He’s got no luck
Who’d want to be a light-heavyweight with UFC title ambitions in 2017? Gustafsson, for his sins, happens to exist and be within spitting distance of the throne at a time when Jon Jones, arguably the most talented mixed martial artist of all-time, and Daniel Cormier, arguably the fiercest wrestler in MMA, also happen to be hanging around and keen to claim gold. Forget the lack of luck Gustafsson had in fights with the pair, he’s unlucky just to be trying to win something they also both want. There are many easier ways to win a title, that’s for sure, and Gustafsson, at six-foot-five and 205-pounds, will have to do it the hard way. If he knows anything, he knows this by now.