Alexander Gustafsson wants another crack at UFC gold. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Given the amount of talk that has swirled around the possibility of stadium shows in Brazil, the United States and Ireland over the last several years, it is somewhat surprising that the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s second event in a large arena -- the first was UFC 129 -- will take place in the comparative MMA backwater of Sweden. Alexander Gustafsson is on the cusp of becoming a legitimate star in his native country, and the promotion has pulled out all the stops, except for showing the event in local primetime, to try to make it so.
Gustafsson draws the more-than-slightly-terrifying Anthony Johnson atop the UFC on Fox 14 card this Saturday at the Tele2 Arena in Stockholm, and their fight should determine the next challenger for reigning and seemingly unbeatable champion Jon Jones. The rest of the lineup features some substantial names, including the legendary but declining Dan Henderson in a co-headliner with Gegard Mousasi and perennial top-10 light heavyweights Ryan Bader and Phil Davis, plus a mixture of rising prospects and action fights beneath them.
Let us take a look at each matchup:
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTSAlexander Gustafsson (16-2, 8-2 UFC) vs. Anthony Johnson (18-4, 9-4 UFC)
THE MATCHUP: Two of the UFC’s best young light heavyweights meet in a titanic clash that will likely decide the next contender for the title. Gustafsson dropped a narrow decision to divisional kingpin Jones in September 2013, but he rebounded with a devastating knockout of Jimi Manuwa in March. Former welterweight Johnson has been on an absolute tear since losing to Vitor Belfort three years ago, taking eight victories in a row and making them all look easy.
The Swede is first and foremost a striker. A former amateur boxer, he works behind a rangy jab that he often doubles, a long right hand, an uppercut to catch opponents who attempt to change levels in the pocket and a beautiful counter left hook. Gustafsson’s mechanics are nearly perfect, and he throws every shot with effortless power. His command of angles, footwork, distance and timing is exceptional and speaks to a lifetime of experience. Kicks first made a sustained appearance in Gustafsson’s game when he fought Jones, and since then, he has begun to string together beautiful punch-kick combinations, strong front kicks and a steady diet of shots to the legs.
Despite his well-deserved reputation as a crisp boxer, Gustafsson is a fully three-dimensional fighter. He excels in the clinch, turning missed punches into smooth entries and immediately following with knees to the head and body. He is almost impossible to hold in the tie-ups if he does not want to be there; his takedown defense is nearly impenetrable; and he owns highly underrated offensive techniques of his own. To give an example, Gustafsson excels at turning the corner and using his leg to create a table with which to unbalance his opponent and finish the takedown. On the ground, Gustafsson maintains solid control, passes well and can land devastating strikes from top position.
“Rumble” is one of the most dangerous strikers in the entire sport. Shot for shot, few pack more raw force than Johnson, and he increases his natural power through clean fundamentals and consistent weight transfer. He stalks behind a crisp jab but does his best work on the counter. His standard approach is to move to the edge of the pocket and use feints or the jab to draw out a response from his opponent and then come back with devastating punching combinations that mix up left hooks, straight and looping right hands and uppercuts to prevent reactive takedowns. What makes Johnson such a devastating counterpuncher is his masterful melding of defense and offense: He excels at slipping, rolling, parrying and immediately returning fire. His strike selection is crafty, and if his opponent makes a habit of circling to one side at the fringes of striking range, Johnson does a beautiful job of timing high kicks to cut off that movement.
Although striking is the strength of Johnson’s game, he is also a highly capable wrestler. He excels at stuffing his opponents’ initial shots and creating space, but he is technical enough to defend chained attempts, as well. Offensively, he prefers a powerful double and controls well from top position. Johnson has historically suffered from suspect cardio, likely due to the insane amounts of weight he was cutting, and the attendant exhaustion was partially to blame for the run of submission losses on his record. That seems to be less of a problem now, but it is difficult to tell.
BETTING ODDS: Gustafsson (-210), Johnson (+175)
THE PICK: Johnson is on a terrifying run at the moment and is clearly peaking under the instruction of Blackzilians striking coach Henri Hooft. Gustafsson is also in his absolute prime and has likewise shown substantial improvements in his last several outings. Both fighters’ impeccable takedown defense means that this will likely transpire mostly on the feet. Johnson has the edge in power, but Gustafsson throws substantially more volume, takes cleaner angles and is probably durable enough to weather the early storm. Johnson should be favored to take the early rounds with his aggressive counterstriking and will likely land hard kicks to Gustafsson’s legs, but as the fight progresses, the Swede’s volume and endless gas tank give him a substantial edge. I think Gustafsson will eventually land a knockdown punch or a takedown on a tired Johnson late in the bout, take his back and lock up a submission victory in the fourth round.
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