Two quiet assassins, fighting under the radar
Across the Atlantic, the Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jimi Manuwa fight is big business. So big that just ahead of it, the UFC inked a television deal with major network Channel 5 in the UK, and landed a multi-fight deal with leading cable channel TV4 Sport in Sweden. The show is also trending towards a sellout of London’s O2 Arena and will have a multi-million dollar gate. In short, it’s exactly what the UFC anticipated in its decision to host region-specific shows that would emphasize the local market, even at the risk of alienating North American fans.
As local business goes, it is a home run. Back in the promotion’s home continent, the results are still TBD. This fight, for example, is a pivotal one for the UFC’s light-heavyweight division. If Gustafsson wins, he is virtually guaranteed another opportunity at the championship. Potentially, that means a rematch with Jon Jones in a redo of the bout that many of the sport’s observers consider to be the best display of mixed martial arts ever seen, a point-counterpoint showcase of skill, determination, and all the heart two men can muster without wilting into surrender.
There is plenty at stake, yet in the U.S., the fight is mostly under the radar, a position somewhat suiting the respective personalities of the combatants. Gustafsson is proud but laconic; Manuwa is polite but concise. There is little wasted energy in their words. They get to the point and get out, which is exactly the tactic Gustafsson used in his mild criticism of his placement on UFC’s new streaming service Fight Pass, saying it, "sucks a little bit."
That’s about as controversial as he gets, which is to say, he mostly lets his actions speak for him. Truth be told, with so much to gain from a victory, any reduction in visibility is a temporary tradeoff most fighters in his place would take. After all, a title rematch with Jones or anybody else is not going to be on Fight Pass.
Gustafsson has been handed a fairly tricky assignment here. On one hand, he’s a fairly lopsided favorite on the betting line, but on the other, Manuwa is undefeated and fighting about 15 miles from his home in London. There’s very little doubt he’ll be a crowd favorite, one that’s shown accurate striking and crushing power.
But how good is the "Poster Boy"? Despite a 14-0 record, we don’t really know. All three of his UFC bouts have concluded under unusual circumstances. First a doctor stoppage after Kyle Kingsbury’s left eye had been swollen shut, then two consecutive opponents suffering injuries in the heat of battle that prematurely halted the action.
"It wasn’t worrisome to me when they matched me up with him," Manuwa told FOX Sports. "He’s a man. He feels pain. He bleeds just like me. If I hit him, it’s going to hurt. Everyone is a human being to me so it doesn’t matter the rankings. He’s No. 1? That means nothing to me."
That’s about the answer you would expect from someone who is 14-0 with 14 finishes. So far, everyone and everything has been just a bump in the road to him, from his troubled early days to his stint in jail. He’s somehow after a late-career start on the cusp of a significant achievement.
Of course, Gustafsson doesn’t see the story playing out that way. He told London’s Daily Star that he will, "finish Jimi early. Very early."
Gustafsson is far more proven commodity. After taking Jones to the limit, he has more to gain and far more to lose than Manuwa. In a sport with few true European stars, he’s the poster boy fighting "the Poster Boy." In Europe, a Gustafsson win will resonate. In the U.S., it’s anybody’s guess how exactly it’s received.
One of the reasons national sports don’t often travel well internationally is because of the time differentials. Even the Olympics is broadcast on tape delay to optimize primetime viewership. Between that issue and the new, largely untested Fight Pass vehicle broadcasting the UFC Fight Night London match in the U.S., a large portion of the fan base will be experiencing this fight in a very different way, if at all.
In a strange way, the fates of Gustafsson and the UFC’s project are intertwined. For both him and the promotion, it’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal, and either a colossal mistake or the start of something as big as they ever imagined.