Sherdog.com’s 2013 Fight of the Year

Fight of the Year

Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson shared the stage at UFC 165. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

The picture began making the rounds not long after their five-round classic at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 21, 2013. It was something like a modern-day mixed martial arts version of the hospital encounter between the fictional Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed following their first boxing match on the silver screen.

Jon Jones, his swollen visage resembling that of someone who had just had an unfortunate encounter with a beehive, rested comfortably on a gurney next to a smiling Alexander Gustafsson, who a few hours earlier came closer than any previous opponent ever had to defeating the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s reigning 205-pound champion.

Close did not result in a title belt for the talented Swede, but he gained plenty in pushing Jones to his physical limit. Now the clear-cut No. 2 light heavyweight in the world, Gustafsson’s drive for the top spot is empowered by the confidence that he can compete with the sport’s pound-for-pound king. Much like Apollo and Rocky, Jones and Gustafsson forged a mutual respect for one another through caged combat at its highest level. A rematch would seem to be a foregone conclusion, although both men face different challenges in their immediate future.

For now, the initial meeting between Jones and Gustafsson at UFC 165 stands out as Sherdog.com’s “Fight of the Year” for 2013. It had a little bit of everything: high stakes, back-and-forth action, drama and a dominant champion enduring the crucible of his most worthy challenger to date.

“I’ve been asking for a dogfight for a long time, and I finally got that dogfight I was looking for,” Jones said. “Tonight was a blessing in so many ways. I got the victory, and I got to prove a lot to myself. I’m not satisfied. I’ve got to do a lot of work in the gym to improve my game.”

Jones had rarely been tested since capturing the light heavyweight crown with a third-round stoppage of Mauricio Rua at UFC 128. Sure, there were a couple of tight spots against Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort, but even those moments were fleeting at best, as Jones recovered to post lopsided triumphs in both instances. For the most part, the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts standout appeared to be an impenetrable blend of reach, creativity and wrestling. Thanks to his dominant run of victories over the likes of Ryan Bader, Rua, Quinton Jackson, Machida, Rashad Evans, Belfort and Chael Sonnen -- he finished all but Evans -- many believed that “Bones” had already surpassed Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva in the pound-for-pound hierarchy.

Enter Gustafsson, whose 6-foot-5 frame and 81.5-inch reach were heavily promoted as UFC 165 approached. How would Jones fare against an opponent who could look him directly in the eye? Oddsmakers were not nearly as impressed, however, as the champion was as much as a -1000 favorite. While clearly a promising talent, Gustafsson’s most notable victory had been a three-round verdict over a faded Rua at UFC on Fox 5. His other triumphs inside the Octagon -- Jared Hamman, Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna, Matt Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko and Thiago Silva -- were solid but not spectacular.

“It’s the UFC’s job to promote with something,” Jones said prior to the fight. “It’s factual [that] we are both two really tall guys. We both have very similar builds. One of the stories of my career has been the fact that I’m so much bigger than everybody else. This is a great fight for me to break a record [for most light heavyweight title defenses], and a great fight for me to prove that this record is earned and really had nothing to do with my physique. This is going to give my mind more credit.”

It quickly became apparent that Jones, who made a living out of bullying foes with his Greco-Roman wrestling, was not going to easily overwhelm Gustafsson. The New York native failed on his first takedown attempt within the bout’s opening 30 seconds. That turned out to be a recurring theme: Jones landed just one of 11 takedown attempts on the night. Gustafsson, after finding his range with right hands and opening a cut over Jones’ right eye, cemented his legitimacy as a title challenger by landing a takedown late in the frame; it was the first time Jones had been dumped on the canvas in his UFC career.

“I think it’s the whole evolution of his game that helped him not allow Jones to set his takedowns up,” said Gustafsson’s trainer, Eric Del Fierro. “His boxing is bar none probably the best in the sport right now. You hit these little short angles that people aren’t noticing; it’s a lot harder to take these guys down. Wrestling in MMA, sometimes it’s predictable. We can see certain things that we can counter and build Alex’s defense on, but he’s such a phenomenal athlete and just a hard worker that even if he doesn’t have the perfect technique, he’ll work his way out of it.”

When in doubt, Jones had always been able to revert back to his wrestling. Take the Machida fight, for example. After a shaky first round in which he absorbed a few solid shots from his Brazilian opponent, Jones switched gears, took down “The Dragon” and sapped his will to compete with vicious elbows on the canvas. Shortly thereafter, he choked Machida unconscious.

Without that reliable weapon, Jones was forced to stand with a foe he could not keep at bay through reach alone. While Gustafsson was able to consistently find a home for his punches, Jones went to work with a varied arsenal of kicks. Still, it was the Swede who appeared to be getting the better of the standup exchanges. The proof was in Jones’ increasingly swollen face.

“This is the most he’s ever been hit inside the Octagon by strikes,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan observed in the third stanza.

Heading into the championship frames, there was a very real possibility that Jones was down on the judges’ scorecards. The situation grew even direr as Gustafsson began teeing off with combinations in the fourth round, gradually worsening the cut over Jones’ right eye. With his back against the wall, Jones turned to another tried-and-true weapon: his elbows. Unlike his wrestling, this approach did not fail. A perfectly timed spinning back elbow landed squarely on Gustafsson’s forehead late in the round. Jones followed up with a series of knees on his suddenly reeling adversary. Somehow, Gustafsson wobbled his way through the rest of the period.

“It’s safe to say I had some desperation,” Jones said. “Alexander was very game, and that guy definitely has a chin on him.”

Jones continued to fight with a sense of urgency in the fifth round, landing repeated kicks to Gustafsson’s head. The champion finally secured his first takedown at the three-minute mark, but the Swede quickly returned to his feet. Jones remained on the offensive, continuing his head-kick assault before closing the fight with a flying knee as time expired.

In the end, Jones’ charge over the course of the final 10 minutes proved to be the difference: Judges Richard Bertrand and Douglas Crosby scored it 48-47 for Jones, while Chris Lee submitted a 49-46 tally for the champion. All three judges awarded Gustafsson the opening round. Crosby also gave the Swede round two, while Bertrand gave him the third. Still, there was no question that a new star had arrived in the light heavyweight division.

“It’s just an honor for me to fight the champ,” Gustafsson said. “He’s the champ for a reason. I will learn from this and come back much stronger. I’m just starting my career, and I have tons of fights to do.”

Gustafsson is right. He is only 26 years old, with a wealth of physical tools at his disposal. There will be plenty more fights to come. We can only hope that a return date with Jones is one of them. As UFC President Dana White said at the UFC 165 post-fight press conference, “Who doesn’t want to see that rematch?”

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