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As it does every year or two, the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Stockholm with an event headlined by Alexander Gustafsson. If nothing else, UFC Fight Night 153 at the Ericsson Globe will serve as moving day in the light heavyweight division -- the top three fights should help sort out the situation at 205 pounds -- but beyond that, it does not offer much in terms of relevant action.
Now to the UFC Fight Night “Gustafsson vs. Smith” preview:
Light HeavyweightsAlexander Gustafsson (18-5) vs. Anthony Smith (31-14)
ODDS: Gustafsson (-330), Smith (+270)
Exactly how good is Gustafsson? With Daniel Cormier having moved to heavyweight, the Swede remains the second-best light heavyweight in the sport, but it is unclear if that can be attributed to his performances or simply by default. Gustafsson established himself as an elite light heavyweight in near-miss title fights against Jon Jones and the aforementioned Cormier, but since he lost to the latter, “The Mauler” has been both inconsistent and inactive. Roughly a year after the Cormier fight, Gustafsson offered a flat performance in a win over Jan Blachowicz, and it took nearly nine months for him to return against Glover Teixeira. Against Teixeira, Gustafsson looked much improved from his last appearance, showing off his hand speed and ability to move quickly around the cage, but it was still a mixed bag. While Gustafsson never found himself in true danger, he did wind up out of position at certain times, forcing him to run around the cage wildly in a way that would not likely work against longer, more athletic opponents. Gustafsson finally secured his rematch against Jones in December, but it was a blowout. Gustafsson made it to the third round but did not get much of anything done over the course of the bout. Whether it was Jones taking the second fight more seriously than the first or learning to adjust to Gustafsson’s reach, the champion showed off a much more diverse set of skills, leaving the Swede without many options before “Bones” decided to look for a takedown and pounded out a finish. It is hard to say where Gustafsson goes from here, outside of hoping that somebody knocks off Jones. Again, he is still clearly the second-best fighter in the division, and there is not exactly a wealth of prospects at 205 pounds who look ready to knock him off that pedestal. Gustafsson returns to his native Sweden here to take on another recent Jones victim.
Smith is among the unlikelier UFC title challengers in recent memory, as it took him about a decade to become an overnight success. He was under Strikeforce contract when the UFC absorbed the promotion, and his first tenure in the Octagon was completely forgettable. Antonio Braga Neto tapped him in under two minutes in a deep undercard bout, resulting in Smith’s release. That figured to make “Lionheart” a footnote in UFC history, but after putting together a seven-fight winning streak over three years, Smith eventually got the call as a late replacement and found his way back to the Octagon. From there, Smith was a flawed but fun middleweight with a knack for comeback wins. Encounters with Elvis Mutapcic, Andrew Sanchez and Hector Lombard all saw Smith firmly on the losing end to start, only to rally and earn a surprising comeback. Thiago Santos eventually stopped that run, and from there, Smith decided to ply his trade at light heavyweight -- a decision that paid off much quicker than anyone could have expected. Smith landed all the right matchups in a flawed division. Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua were past their primes, allowing Smith to run through them with relative ease; and he managed to outlast and beat Volkan Oezdemir to become a Cinderella title contender. Smith took his shot against Jones in March, but it was a disappointing performance. He usually turns up the heat and blitzes his opponents, but against Jones, Smith seemed content to survive, as he stayed defensive and coasted to a clear decision loss. Smith has already reached heights that few outside of his circle thought possible, so it is hard to be too down on him in the grand scheme of things, but with Jones’ continued dominance in the division, “Lionheart” also finds himself without much of an obvious next direction. As such, a fight with Gustafsson makes as much sense as any.
Given the relative accomplishments of each man, this is a more difficult matchup for Gustafsson than it might appear. The standout performance for “The Mauler” in recent years was the Teixeira fight -- it was two years ago -- but the Brazilian may have been uniquely suited to make Gustafsson’s movement-heavy style look good. Meanwhile, Smith’s relatively young and has both the speed and the reach to hold his own on the feet against the Swede. In fact, it would not be shocking to see Smith get the better of things as long as the fight is standing. While Gustafsson should do the better job of managing distance, if Smith decides to blitz, he could easily take the Allstars Training Center rep out of his comfort zone and cause some damage in a panic. The main factor here, though, should be Gustafsson’s wrestling. Since the early days of his career, Gustafsson has worked on that aspect of his game to the point that it is shockingly effective. Smith’s takedown defense has remained quite poor, even as he has climbed the ranks. Assuming he does not get finished on the feet, Gustafsson should be able to pull the ripcord and use takedowns to get back into his comfort zone, unless the Swede just decides to hunt them from the start. There is a chance this is just a frustrating mental performance from Gustafsson on his home soil, but the pick is for the hometown fighter to do some work on the mat and earn a second-round submission.
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