UFC Fight Night 109 Preview: Gustafsson returns to Stockholm to exorcise demons

When Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson announced his retirement following a second loss to Daniel Cormier in April, a number of light-heavyweights, some of whom had tasted his power, some of whom lived in fear of it, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira, two men cold-cocked inside a round by Johnson during his ascent to a 205-pound title shot, exhaled loudest upon getting wind of AJ’s intention, and the pair now meet, in a post-Rumble world, in Stockholm, Sweden this Sunday (May 28) at UFC Fight Night 109.

Both Gustafsson and Teixeira, despite succumbing to Johnson in double-quick time, have regrouped and again find themselves in and around the top of the 205-pound pile. Gustafsson currently sits at number one in the pecking order, while Teixeira is right behind him at two. Win this one, you suspect, and the winner will find himself right in line for a shot at the man who emerges from the July 29 grudge rematch between champion Daniel Cormier and former champion Jon Jones.

For Gustafsson, Sunday night’s fight with Teixeira marks not only a test of his title credentials but the first time he has returned to Stockholm to fight since being knocked out inside a round by Johnson in front of his countrymen. That fight, in January 2015, was a UFC title eliminator. It was also meant to be a coronation night for Gustafsson. The homecoming. Instead, he found himself embroiled in a firefight early with arguably the biggest one-shot puncher in MMA and a stunned silence soon followed. Gustafsson had been stopped on his big night. Nobody knew quite what to say. Nobody knew how to react. According to the script, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

As for Teixeira, his Rumble Johnson experience was even shorter. You could argue even more humiliating, too. After all, thirteen seconds was all it took for Johnson to stroll across the Octagon, uncoil his right uppercut and let it go on the exposed chin of the Brazilian, who promptly collapsed to the canvas. Fight over, just like that, there wasn’t even a chance to defend himself, much less rise or protest.

Highlighting these experiences, these Rumbling moments, isn’t supposed to make light of Gustafsson and Teixeira and their right to a shot at light-heavyweight gold. Nor is it meant to highlight their flaws and fragility. Rather, focusing on these moment goes to show just how similar the two are – at least in terms of form – and also how well they have done to recover from a shocking setback and progress with their career in a way lesser men may have struggled to do.

Consider, for example, how Gustafsson, later that year, stood toe-to-toe with Daniel Cormier for five thrilling rounds, at times stuffing the great wrestler’s takedown attempts, and had every right to feel hard done by following a split-decision loss. Certainly, there were no signs of any post-Johnson hangover there. Far from gun-shy, the Swede approached the assignment with gusto, rocking Cormier on more than one occasion, and seemed as close to winning a title as a challenger could possibly get; closer even than he was when pushing Jon Jones to the wire in 2013. ‘The Mauler’, it’s worth noting, got back in the win column in his next fight, defeating fellow contender Jan Błachowicz over three rounds, and, at thirty, appears to have plenty more to give.

Thirty-seven-year-old Teixeira, meanwhile, rebounded from his first-round knockout loss with a decision win against Jared Cannonier earlier this year. Whether he will rediscover the form that saw him conquer the likes of Rashad Evans, Patrick Cummings and Ovince Saint Preux, though, remains to be seen.

Chances are, we’ll find out on Sunday. We’ll find out how well Glover Teixeira, 26-5, has recovered and we’ll find out, once and for all, whether Alexander Gustafsson, 17-4, will forever be known as a perennial contender and nearly man or perhaps, on what is his third run at a title, someone who has matured and grown to such an extent he can now do more than simply trouble Cormier and Jones in the not too distant future.

If it’s inspiration he’s searching for, the man from Arboga doesn’t have to look far. Earlier this month – May 12, in fact – he and his partner, Moa, welcomed their first child, Ava, into the world.

“People can feel fear in a lot of different things,” Gustafsson said in February. “Some would be afraid to go into an MMA cage to fight, but the only thing I’m afraid about in there is losing. I feel no fear getting into a fight against a 100-kilo-athlete. I have been practicing for that moment for years and I am 100% ready.

“Some are afraid of heights, and that I can agree with, but something that raises fear in me now is that I will become a father for the first time. It scares me, but in a good way. It is not just the fear of when the baby will be born, but it’s the whole feeling: life-long responsibility.

“Will I be able to become a good father and, at the same time, be my kid’s best friend? Will I always be able to be there when my child needs me? How can I protect my child against all evil and trouble in the world so it feels safe? How can I teach my children to be kind and sweet, yet confident and strong? Deep down I know that if so many parents before me have done it, I am sure I’ll able to do it, too. Right now it’s those thoughts that make me most afraid, but I’m sure I will overcome those fears as well.”

Fear is all about context, I suppose. Alexander Gustafsson, like Glover Teixeira, never feared the explosive power of Anthony Johnson and paid the ultimate price. He was caught by surprise. He was mercilessly exposed in front of his home fans, his support network, his people. But now, nearly two-and-a-half years later, the stoic Swede is ready to confront his fears and revisit the scene (city) of the crime. He does so with a greater strength, a greater resolve and a knowledge that the fear of a fighter, the fear of being knocked out, the fear of defeat, is nothing compared to the fear of a father.