Alexander Gustafsson was in prime form in London. | Photo: Ryan O'Leary/Sherdog.com
If ever there was an opportunity for Alexander Gustafsson to take a step backward and undo much of the good he had done in pushing reigning light heavyweight champion Jon Jones to the brink in September, this was it.
Fighting in obscurity on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s recently launched and oft-criticized digital network against a relatively unknown opponent, it would have been understandable if Gustafsson had eased his foot off the gas pedal. In short, it was the quintessential nothing-to-gain-everything-to-lose scenario.
Even Gustafsson himself admitted on the MMA Hour that the whole situation kind of “sucks a little bit.”
“I was a little bit shocked because I went from a title fight to a fight that only shows on the Internet, so I was a little bit … I didn’t know what to think,” he said.
So yes, it appeared that Gustafsson was facing the MMA equivalent of what is referred to as a “trap game” in team sports. Fighting Jimi Manuwa while a potential rematch with Jones loomed on the horizon was akin to getting up for the Washington Generals with LeBron James coming to town the following week; or at least that is what it felt like.
Of course, it did not have to be that way. If the UFC could make Pat Cummins, a short-notice jobber with a non-existent resume, seem like the second coming of Rocky in a matter of days, then it should not have been difficult to market Manuwa, a physically imposing knockout artist with, you know, actual UFC victories.
Unfortunately, Manuwa never got that kind of push. As a result, much of the world -- sans the diehards -- barely knew Gustafsson was fighting, much less against an opponent who had yet to set foot outside of England for a professional MMA bout. In the end, all of the above contributed to making Gustafsson’s performance in the UFC Fight Night 38 headliner all the more impressive. He landed a takedown on the muscular Brit in the bout’s first minute, a move that sent a message that “The Mauler” planned on doing what he wanted when he wanted.
After demonstrating that he could neutralize “Poster Boy’s” considerable power in the first round, the Swede rocked Manuwa with a knee from the Thai plum, sent him to the canvas with a pair of uppercuts and finished off the triumph with hammerfists on the mat.
At no point did it feel like Manuwa ever had a chance of springing an upset. That was important for Gustafsson. No matter how remarkable his effort was against Jones at UFC 165, there was always the sense of disbelief that accompanied it. Sure, Gustafsson fought out of his mind for one night when no one expected him to, but there was also the possibility that he would come back to earth a little bit without the champ in the cage pushing him to a higher plane.
The slightest regression, even in victory, would have planted seeds of doubt. Daniel Cormier now calls 205 pounds home, after all, and he has been woofing about a title shot against Jones since before his cut from heavyweight began; never mind that a victory over Cummins should not make one a No. 1 contender by itself. Cormier is undeniably talented and, as his gig as a UFC analyst would indicate, also talks a good game. Title shots have been granted for far less.
That is why Gustafsson did himself a favor by dispatching Manuwa with ease. If your memory of his near-victory against Jones had begun to fade, this served as a reminder as to why “The Mauler” is still 1a to Jones’ No. 1 in the division. Cormier can wait, at least until he beats someone more highly ranked than Cummins.
“Jon Jones, I want my title shot again,” Gustafsson said in the Octagon following his emphatic victory. “I’m right here, whenever you want.”
Assuming all goes as planned and Jones dispatches Glover Teixeira at UFC 172 in April, then the rematch between the two light heavyweight stars will likely take place sometime later this year. While it appeared heading into UFC Fight Night 38 that Gustafsson could only hurt his cause for a rematch, when all was said and done, he actually elevated his status. That he did so is telling. The great ones raise their game against the best, and they relish the opportunity to showcase their dominance against those beneath them.
That is exactly what Gustafsson did against Manuwa.
“Absolute beast,” UFC President Dana White said of Gustafsson at the post-fight press conference. “He’s the biggest star in Europe right now. He’s a huge star in America.”
On April 14, 2012, Gustafsson made his Octagon headlining debut against Thiago Silva in his native Sweden at UFC on Fuel TV 2. During the broadcast, UFC commentator Mike Goldberg gushed about how closely Gustafsson mirrored Jones as the Swede cruised to a unanimous verdict. I wrote that it was far too early in Gustafsson’s career to be making such comparisons, and besides, other than height the two were not all that similar anyway.
Some two years later, Gustafsson is still fighting on international Saturday afternoon cards, only now he is on UFC Fight Pass. The difference: Back then, the idea of Gustafsson as a suitable foil for Jones was more of a nod toward potential than anything concrete.
Now, a Jones-Gustafsson rematch stands as a pillar of matchmaking sanity in an increasingly insane MMA world. Still, there will be some who claim that Gustafsson received his second shot at glory thanks to a victory against a “gimme” opponent.
The reality is that Gustafsson earned his current place in Toronto some six months ago. UFC Fight Night 38 was merely a test, one he passed with flying colors.