For just a moment, it seems as though Alexander Gustafsson is about to lose his cool. If he did, who could blame him? Here he is just days away from fighting for the UFC light-heavyweight championship, yet much of the chatter around his opponent Jon Jones is whether he is next going to fight Glover Teixeira or Daniel Cormier or move up a division to heavyweight.
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It’s almost as if the fight against Gustafsson is a foregone conclusion, a formality. Justly, this bothers the nearly unflappable challenger, if only a little.
"I don’t like it. I don’t," Gustafsson told FOX Sports before flying off to Toronto, the site of UFC 165. "Because Glover will end up fighting me in the end."
As Saturday night nears, Gustafsson finds himself battling a strange perception problem. Few would argue that he hasn’t put together a resume worthy of the opportunity he’s been given, yet it seems like no one is willing to step forward and pick the 6-foot-5 Swede to unseat the dominant champion.
None of this angers him in any appreciable way, he says, even if he doesn’t completely understand it. Here is a fighter who has lost a grand total of one time in 16 pro fights, yet he’s a massive underdog.
At least one part of it makes sense. Gustafsson acknowledges Jones as the "pound-for-pound best in the world" and understands the desire to project him into different bouts that will challenge him in unexpected or heretofore unseen ways. But he has another one he’d like to propose, one that hasn’t been offered up before.
"I will give him a rematch right away," he said. "I think every champion deserves a rematch."
Gustafsson says it in that soft-spoken yet assured style that has become his trademark. Coupled with his dynamic striking and a high-profile win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, along with high-profile cut that knocked him out of a fight with Gegard Mousasi at the last minute, Gustafsson has seen his stock price rise greatly over the last year. Not quite enough to make the world see him as a credible threat to Jones, yet that hardly puts him in bad company. Jones hasn’t been in a close fight odds-wise since he fought Rua on short notice back in 2011 and went on to capture the belt.
Instead of focusing on the strengths the rest of the world sees in Jones, Gustafsson has spent the last few months adding to his own arsenal, aware that the fight is likely to test every dimension of MMA. While most expect Jones to have a sizable advantage in wrestling and on the ground, there’s no guarantee he’ll look to exploit. In his last fight against Chael Sonnen, Jones decided to beat Sonnen at his own game and did just that. If he does the same with Gustafsson, he’ll keep the fight standing.
If you want to search for signs of that, you don’t have to look far. For this camp, Jones returned his former boxing coach Patrick O’Connor into the fold to emphasize combination punching, angles and power. For his part, Jones said he expects to dominate Gustafsson in every position.
“I hope he’ll stand with me and strike with me,” Gustafsson said. “That would be just great for me. But that won’t happen. With Jones, you never know what you have. You think you have a bulletproof game plan against a guy like that, but you don’t because he’s unpredictable. You have to be flexible. Whatever he throws, whatever he does, I’ll be ready for it.”
To end Jones’ reign, Gustafsson faces an uphill task in the eyes of many. He’ll have to contend with Jones’ record reach, his fantastic wrestling game, and a dynamic ground attack. While he understands the scope of the challenge, he can’t help but think he’s being overlooked, even if he tends to avoid all of the predictions and odds.
If he wins, he’ll be more than happy to do it all over again and prove it was no fluke, or, if the UFC desires, he’ll move along to the same guy who is being forecast as Jones’ next challenge.
“It would be a fun fight for the fans,” he said. “Glover is a strong guy, and he has very good knockout power, but he’s too slow. He’s too slow.”