Two of the most fearsome light heavyweight strikers in the UFC will collide later today (April 14, 2012) as top Swedish star Alexander Gustafsson takes on Brazilian brawler Thiago Silva in the main event of UFC on FUEL TV 2 in Stockholm Sweden.
Gustafsson had a tremendous 2011, finishing all three of his opponents and quickly moving up the light heavyweight ladder. He closed the year by stopping "The Janitor" Vladimir Matyushenko with a first round TKO which launched him into everyone's top 10 rankings in the division. He's eyeing elite status if he can get past Silva.
Thiago Silva had a horrible 2011 and a horrible 2010 as well. Injuries and suspensions have kept him sidelined for an extended period of time and the only victory he's had in the last two years was overturned when he submitted fake urine in his pre-fight screening. He desperately needs a strong showing to get back on track and turn his career around and nothing would be more impressive than stopping Gustafsson in hostile territory.
Will Gustafsson "Maul" Silva while channeling his inner viking in Scandinavia? Can Sila bounce back and put his horrible past two years behind him? What's the key to victory for both top light heavyweights?
Let's find out:Alexander Gustafsson
Record: 13-1 overall, 5-1 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 followed up that performance by taking on veteran Vladimir Matyushenko and trashed "The Janitor" with a first round TKO after dropping him with a jab. Now he's set to headline his first event in his home country in what many expect to be his coming out party.
How he gets it done: If Gustafsson shows any of his ground game in this fight, it'll be his defensive wrestling which has been a primary focus ever since his loss to Phil Davis while training at Alliance MMA. He needs to use his technical striking to beat Silva's brawling and aggressive style here.
If "The Mauler" can remain at a distance, his kicks are going to be a huge advantage from the outside. He also needs to keep circling and use angles to take advantage of the fact that Silva will always be moving forwards. The more strikes he can land to the legs and body, the slower Silva will be rushing forward and the easier he'll be to hit.
The biggest key for Gustafsson will be to sidestep and counter when Silva rushes in. He knows what's coming so he needs to make sure to tag Silva with every opportunity. Silva leaves openings if you are quick enough and Gustafsson has some of the fastest hands in the division. If he can hurt Silva, he's got some of the best finishing instincts in the UFC and he'll make sure to put him out for good.
Record: 14-2 (1 no contest) overall, 5-2 (1 no contest) in the UFC
How he got here: Thiago Silva steamrolled his way through the local Brazilian circuit, stopping all but one of his opponents using his crazy-aggressive, constant forward-attacking style. He built a reputation as a finisher and carried it over to the UFC.
Once in the UFC, Silva smashed his first four opponents, stopping three in the first round and the other in the second. Unfortunately, this set up a "battle of the unbeatens" against Lyoto Machida and "The Dragon" trounced Silva at UFC 94 with a violent first round finish.
After bouncing back with another thundering first round knockout of Keith Jardine, Silva has suffered from a wide assortment of issues. He fought Rashad Evans with a bad back and lost a decision, then didn't fight for over a year before beating Brandon Vera only to have the result overturned when he submitted fake urine during his pre-fight drug screening.
Silva accepted his punishment and finally returns to action after 16 months away against Gustafsson.
How he gets it done: Thiago Silva has a very simple style: move forward and throw throw with power. He doesn't like to feint, side-step or dance, he just wants to press forward and try to knock your head off.
Gustafsson likes to circle and use angles with his striking so Silva absolutely needs to take him out of his comfort zone. If he can continuously press forward with a ton of pressure in the stand-up, he could make "The Mauler" uncomfortable enough to abandon his gameplan and just slug it out with him.
If Silva wants to win, constant pressure is key and he needs to force this fight into being a brawl. I don't think he can beat the Swede in a technical striking battle, but he's powerful enough that he could connect if it were to turn into a slugfest. He can't afford to let Gustafsson work angles and pepper him from a distance. At some point, his defense will falter if he does.
If he is getting outstruck, Silva showcased some pretty decent wrestling in his last fight, taking Brandon Vera down and dominating him, although who knows what other factors allowed him to control the fight like he did. Needless to say, Gustafsson should have better defensive wrestling than Vera at this point but if Silva can put him on the canvas and work some ground and pound, that would be great in terms of winning rounds and doing damage.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight has to be Thiago Silva's long layoff. He fought just once in over two years and even that fight he couldn't do it without steroids because of a back issue. He says that he's fully healthy heading into this bout, but he's got to be rusty as hell with how inactive he's been lately. Gustafsson tends to give his opponents a feeling out process in the first minute or so (usually) but if Silva is off his game, he's not going to be able to take full advantage of this opportunity.
If he's not at his best, it could be a short night for the powerful Brazilian.
Bottom Line: This is a battle between two very distinct striking styles. One man will be trying to work his technique on the outside and find openings while the other will be looking to create openings by charging through the other's defenses at full speed. This is a great contrast and has the makings of a very interesting battle. Whoever can impose their will on their opponent will almost certainly win, it just depends which style prevails. No matter what, I don't expect this fight to go all three rounds and I certainly don't expect anything less than pure unadulterated violence.
Who will come out on top at UFC on Fuel TV 2? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!