It will be a battle of vast age disparities in the light heavyweight division this Friday night (December 30, 2011) as veteran Vladimir "The Janitor" Matyushenko takes on exuberant European youth Alexander Gustafsson on the main card of UFC 141: "Lesnar vs. Overeem" in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Matyushenko is coming off one of the fastest finishes of his 14 year MMA career, stopping Jason Brilz in just 20 seconds at UFC 129 earlier this April. He's quietly gone 4-1 in his recent run in the UFC and has now finished consecutive opponents with first round stoppages."The Janitor" is out to prove that his age (41) is just a number.
Alexander Gustafsson looked terrific in the first year of his UFC career and has improved by leaps and bounds ever since suffering his lone loss to Phil Davis. He stepped up to the big leagues by taking on former top 205-pounder Matt Hamill this past August and beat "The Hammer" into retirement with a second round thrashing. He's hoping to continue to take out top veterans with a victory against Matyushenko.
Will "The Janitor" clean house with another surprise knockout? Can Gustafsson beat his second consecutive foe into retirement? What's the key to victory for both men on Friday night in Vegas?
Let's find out:
Record: 26-5 overall, 7-3 in the UFC
How he got here: Vladimir Matyushenko is an extremely distinguished veteran grappler. He earned his nickname because the USA national wrestling team mistook him for a custodian during a wrestling meet in Siberia, a meet where Matyushenko defeated several top US wrestlers.
After transitioning to MMA, "The Janitor" went on an impressive run and earned a title shot against Tito Ortiz at UFC 33. He fell short, but would put together another excellent streak outside the UFC, becoming the first IFL light heavyweight champion.
When Affliction folded, the Belarusian was signed to the UFC for one last stint and he's performed admirably, going 4-1 with his only loss being to eventual champion Jon Jones. Matyushenko was all set to face Jason Brilz at UFC 122 but Brilz had to back out with an injury. Instead, "The Janitor" wiped the floor with UFC newcomer Alexandre Ferreira with a TKO victory inside the first round.
When he finally got his shot at Brilz at UFC 129, he took it with authority, smashing the Nebraskan with a knockout in just 20 seconds, one of the UFC's fastest finishes of 2011. He was originally slated to take on rising prospect Gustafsson at UFC 133 but had to pull out with an injury. The bout was rescheduled for UFC 141 once he healed up.
How he gets it done: Matyushenko has some respectable technical boxing skill, but he surprised many with his 20 seconds knockout of Jason Brilz this past April. No one knew he had that type of one-punch finishing power if he could connect cleanly. I doubt he could get away with the same strategy against Gustafsson, a pretty accomplished striker with superior technical skills and a more diverse standing attack.
Matyushenko would be better off if he were to try to make this fight a little uglier, get in Gustafsson's face, pressure him, force him to be on the defensive and never allow him to get comfortable. If he can catch him off balance, expect repeated takedown attempts.
Gustafsson has terrific balance and his defensive and offensive wrestling and grappling has only gotten better since he began training with former opponent Phil Davis at Alliance MMA. Matyushenko will have to commit to his takedowns with everything he's got if he wants to actually put "The Mauler" on his back and keep him there. If he can put him on the ground, he'll likely have to limit his offense so as to keep the Scandinavian from popping back to his feet.
I don't see "The Janitor" winning by any means other than a close decision victory.
Record: 12-1 overall, 4-1 in the UFC
Key Losses: Phil Davis (UFC 112)
How he got here: Alexander Gustafsson began boxing at just 10 years old, but he grasped the bull firmly by the horns when he jumped into mixed martial arts with both feet, making the transition in 2006 at just 18 years old. He transitioned his striking skills very quickly into MMA, winning six of his first eight fights by knockout or TKO on the European circuit.
He earned an invite to the UFC at the end of 2009 and boy did he pass his test with flying colors, knocking out the always scrappy Jared Hamman in just 41 seconds at UFC 105. He would be matched up with undefeated former national champion wrestler Phil Davis at UFC 112 and would get dominated physically, suffering a first round submission defeat via anaconda choke.
After accepting Davis' offer to come to his gym in America and train with him, Gustafsson has never looked better. He won his next two fights via his own ground game with rear naked chokes against James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate and then followed it up at UFC 133 with the most significant victory of his career against Matt Hamill, destroying "The Hammer" in the second round so badly that he retired afterwards.
He gladly accepted a bout with Vladimir Matyushenko, a fighter who's relatively even with him in the light heavyweight rankings and will give him some much-needed experience against a battle-tested veteran.
How he gets it done: Gustafsson has been showcasing his ground game recently, but he would be wise to go back to his roots for this fight. He's got many more weapons in the stand-up than Matyushenko, who's striking game is relatively limited to pure traditional boxing.
If "The Mauler" can remain at a distance, his kicks are going to be a huge advantage. His technique has been improving with every fight and I expect him to be able to pound away at "The Janitor's" legs and body with heavy kicks. The more strikes he can land to the legs and body, the slower the Belarusian will become and the less power he'll have in both his punches and his takedowns.
If Gustafsson can force Matyushenko to lose a step due to his kicking attack, he can then pounce with his punches and put a hurting on his wounded foe. He could even mix in his ground game eventually as his offensive submission grappling is superior to "The Janitor's" and he has potential to force him to either tap out or go out cold.
The biggest key will be for him to utilize those long limbs and his youthful speed.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is the tremendous age difference. Vladimir Matyushenko is coming off his fastest knockout in nearly 14 years but he's turning 41 just two days after his fight with Gustafsson. He's over 16 years older than his youthful foe and while he's had a very impressive run in the UFC in the latter stages of his career, eventually it all catches up to you.
This bout against a very promising young light heavyweight talent could be that time. Gustafsson not only has youth, but he's got a more diverse attack, more speed and better submissions on the ground. If Matyushenko can't get inside in the stand-up exchanges or take his opponent down, he could be in for a world of hurt.
Bottom Line: This is a great match-up of youthful energy versus experience. Both Matyushenko and Gustafsson are currently on a similar level in the UFC light heavyweight division and this will be an opportunity either for "The Janitor" to make one last run at the top or for Gustafsson to take the mantel and shoot for a run of his own. Both men have stopping power in their fists and strong albeit completely different forms of dangerous ground games. This bout is almost certain to be a terrific match although there is a small potential for Matyushenko to control his opponent with his wrestling or even for Gustafsson to provide a one-sided thrashing. If both men show up with no injuries, however, this should be a very entertaining scrap. Keep your eyes peeled because a new contender in the division could emerge here if "The Mauler" prevails.
Who will come out on top at UFC 141? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!