This Saturday (Sept. 21, 2013), Alexander Gustafsson faces Jon Jones for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight title at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada, at UFC 165. The bout is the main event of a stacked pay-per-view (PPV) that also features a Bantamweight title bout between Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland.
Without question, this is the biggest fight of Gustafsson's young career. For the first time since entering the UFC, he's being given the opportunity to win championship gold. Doing so would make him the first European fighter in UFC history to be announced by Bruce Buffer as the UFC champion.
In preparation for the huge end of year, the UFC sent Gustafsson and Jones on a world tour to promote their upcoming bout. For Jones, it was like any other media tour. Answer some questions, smile and laugh, and shake some hands with the interviewer. For Gustafsson, it was an entirely new experience.
While in San Diego, I had the opportunity to speak with Gustafsson about his new found role in promoting such an anticipated bout. While some felt disappointed that he didn't receive as much attention during the press stop in New York City, he sees it another way. Jones is the champion and therefore should be the focus of the fight.
"No, not at all. Jon Jones is the champion and he's got the belt right now. So I leave everything to him. It's my turn soon and when I get that belt, it's my turn to be in his spot. I'm not having that rush here," he said.
For those that remember, Jones had a hard time accepting his role as the face of the light heavyweight division when he first won the belt. He was awkward in interviews and it took a while for him to finally settle into the role of media darling.
Gustafsson isn't in any rush to take over that role, though he may not have much more time in the background. Watching him spar, it's clear that the fighter I saw live at UFC on Fox: Henderson vs Diaz in Seattle, Washington has made a ton of adjustments and improvements in his overall game.
Once known as a Swede with solid boxing, Gustafsson has developed into an all around dangerous fighter. His takedown defense has greatly improved just by working with teammate Phil Davis, and his hand speed is as fast as a middleweight.
But while it's easy for me to see such improvements, I was unsure if Gustafsson was able to see how far he's come in his short MMA career.
"I try to and do improvements every day. It's hard to sometimes see it yourself sometimes, but I got the best time in the world and the best guys around me. The best sparring partners. So I'm blessed to be part of this team at Alliance and it all starts at home. I get the best of both worlds. I owe my team everything. It's because of my team that I'm here."
Obviously, with such a camp that's filled with talented fighters that include Phil Davis, UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, Chris Leben, Jeremy Stephens, and Bellator Lightweight Champion Mike Chandler, it's pretty easy to understand why Alex does his fight preparations in California.
His schedule includes multiple practices a day as well as strength and conditioning training to make sure that the fighter that enters the Octagon on Saturday is the very best Alexander Gustafsson.
And right now, the only thing that's on his mind is his bout with Jones.
"Training and fighting is my life right now. That's how it is. It's like this for every camp. I get Sundays off. That's my off day and so I try and enjoy the city [San Diego] a little bit. But right now it's just the fight, tactics, the gameplan, my opponent. I'm thinking and eating and fighting Jon Jones right now."
With the fight just seven days away, it's clear that his entire focus is leaving the arena with that UFC gold. Like every fighter, his goal has always been to be a UFC champion, and on Saturday he finally has the opportunity to fulfill his dream.
He has 25 minutes to do what no other fighter in the UFC has been able to do and he believes that it's his destiny to be the man to defeat Jon Jones.
"I always knew that I would get the belt, there was no question about it. I always knew. I want that belt around me and that's how it's going to be. There's just no question about it. But I didn't think it would come now. Everything has come so fast but right now, I'm just enjoying every second of it. I'm enjoying the spotlight to be a contender. I can't wait to get in the cage with Jones and take that belt away from him."
On my last trip out to Alliance, I spoke with Brandon Vera to get a better understanding of the gym's mentality when it comes to fighting teammates. With Gustafsson and Davis both fighting at the top of the UFC's light heavyweight division, an eventual rematch is bound to happen.
Vera explained that they all have plans for whenever they'd have to cross that bridge.
"Everybody here understands and knows that there is and can come a day when we will be fighting each other. Everybody is just fine with that sh*t. Every body knows. Me, Phil, Alex, everybody," Vera said. "Everybody knows they could end up fighting each other, we don't care."
"We even go so far as to talk about how long we're gonna train together before the fight," he added. "Are we going to train together all the way to the fight or are we going to train four weeks together and then four weeks apart? Are we going to train all the way to weight cutting? We've gone into detail."
I asked Alex a similar question as he's currently challenging for the belt and Phil is knocking at the door for his own shot at UFC Light Heavyweight gold.
"It's hard to say, you know. When I get that belt, then we'll discuss it then. Me and Phil will always be friends. We'll all be good friends, but we're both professionals. If this is going to happen, then it's meant to be, but let's see what happens."
It will have been several months since he's seen his friends and family as he's been training in San Diego since earlier this summer. That's a long time away from familiar faces and loved ones. But most of all, it's a long time away from his two dogs.
So when he leaves the arena on Saturday with the UFC title, he plans on having a proper homecoming celebration in Sweden, likely while wearing that piece of gold around his waist. Rocking it Tim Sylvia style.
"First of all, I'll be enjoying seeing my family and friends. My dogs and being around them. I will have that belt around my waist for a month. I will shower with it. Sleep with it. I will eat with it. I will train with it. I'm go fish and hunt with it. I will do everything with that belt."