No. 1-ranked Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight contender, Alexander Gustafsson, will try to steal the title of 205-pound mixed martial arts (MMA) Wunderkind, Jon Jones, this Saturday (Sept. 21 2013) at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.
After crushing Jared Hamman in just 41 seconds at UFC 109 in Nov. 2009, which brought his professional record to 9-0, Gustafsson was considered an up-and-coming prospect. In fact, he was so highly touted that he was matched up with fellow undefeated talent and NCAA Division I wrestling champion Phil Davis.
The Swede put up a valiant fight, but eventually succumbed to his opponent's "Wonderful" submissions.
Following the loss, Gustafsson made an intelligent decision, deciding to train with Davis at Alliance MMA, one of the best camps in the world. "The Mauler" went on a tear afterward, finishing his next four opponents before winning unanimous decision victories over Thiago Silva and Mauricio Rua.
Gustafsson was next matched up with fellow European striker Gegard Mousasi in his native Sweden. Unfortunately, a laceration above his eye sustained in training just days before the pivotal match derailed it altogether. However, it was not all bad for Gustafsson, who was rewarded with a title shot regardless.
Does Gustafsson have the MMA skills to dethrone one of the most dominant champions in UFC history?
Let's look closer:
"The Mauler" began boxing when he was just 10 years old. He still primarily boxes when in the Octagon, but has mixed in other strikes like kicks and knees into his game.
Before talking about his punches, it's important to notice Gustafsson's impressive footwork. The Swede maneuvers around his opponent, constantly moving side-to-side. Gustafsson will move until he sees an opening in his opponent's defense and then burst forward into a combination.
Like most good boxers, Gustafsson's boxing revolves around the jab. While circling, he will constantly flash the jab and lightly land on their gloves and arms. Once he finds his range, he will mix in a hard jab with his light punches. Since his movement makes him hard to track down, his opponents often charge at Gustafsson.
When they do, his jab will land with extra power.
Almost all of Gustafsson's combinations are started with a jab and followed by a right hand. The one-two combination is an extremely useful tool, and Gustafsson's length makes it even more effective. Gustafsson will also throw the right straight first, without any set up, or as a "Superman punch." This technique is a bit unorthodox, but Gustafsson is fast enough to pull it off.
One of Gustafsson's favorite combinations is the jab to right uppercut. Since Gustafsson is taller than most of his opponents, a lot of them try to duck under his strikes. When they do, Gustafsson meets them with the uppercut. Another reason the uppercut works so well for Gustafsson is that a lot of the fighters try to counter his height by ducking low and winging an overhand.
For Example, Brazilian brawler Thiago Silva was clipped by an uppercut while trying to land the knockout punch.
To complement his boxing, "The Mauler" has worked in a few different strikes into his arsenal. One of the best new additions to his game is his use of knees. Like the uppercut, Gustafsson throws knees when his opponent ducks to avoid his other strikes. The Swede will grab a double collar tie and throw a single knee to the face before pushing his opponent back out to range.
Gustafsson has also mixed a few kicks into his attack. He likes to throw leg kicks while he circles and will go to the head, too. The most effective kick he has started to use is the front kick to the face. In addition to doing damage, his front kicks keep his opponent at his preferred range. Gustafsson's finishing combination of Matt Hamill began with a front kick and he also snapped Rua's head back with a front kick.
Gustafsson's excellent range control forces his opponent to either fight him at a distance where only he can land punches or try to close the distance. Gustafsson's whole game is designed to beat opponents in these two areas, so he is equally ready for both situations. His lone defeat came from a fighter who was able to avoid these two ranges, by endlessly chaining takedowns together until the Swede made a mistake.
One of the better things Gustaffson does is circle out immediately after a combination. He gets out of the way after he punches, which helps him both avoid damage and land possible counters. This is crucial, as avoiding his opponent's punches allow him to dictate the fight instead of just going tit-for-tat.
Gustafsson's defense does have some holes. Mainly, he keeps his chin just a bit too high and doesn't move his head enough. His lateral movement is fantastic, but when he isn't moving, he is very easy to hit. "Shogun" repeatedly hit him with overhands even though he was moving at half speed, and even Hamill landed a few stinging jabs when Gustafsson stopped moving.
Despite his boxing base, Gustafsson has developed a very sneaky takedown game. Gustafsson's wrestling has improved tenfold since joining Alliance MMA and working with Davis, the talented wrestler who handed the Swede his lone career defeat.
Gustafsson has a nice double-leg takedown. He'll go to his double-leg when his opponent is winging big punches at him, either by ducking under their strike or catching them at an advantageous angle. Gustafsson repeatedly took down "Shogun" by sucking him into a striking war and then taking his legs out from under him with a quick double.
Easily the most impressive part of Gustafsson's takedown game is his assortment of trips. Gustafsson uses his massive height to his advantage, which helps him get better leverage. "The Mauler" is able to simultaneously twist his opponent while tripping them, which makes his takedowns even more effective.
For a fighter without an extensive grappling background, Gustafsson is very skilled at chaining his takedowns together. In the third round of his fight against Rua, he attacked with a single leg takedown. The former Chute Boxe-trained fighter defended with a hard whizzer and stood back up. As he stood, Gustafsson grabbed a knee and threw "Shogun" to the ground.
"Shogun" again stood up, but this time was thrown back down and kept there.
Gustafsson also has impressive takedown defense. His takedown defense is greatly aided by his lankiness. Since his opponent doesn't want to get crushed by punches closing the distance, they have to start their shot farther out. This gives Gustafsson an extra couple seconds to get his hips out of his opponent's grasp.
In his 2010 fight against Phil Davis, he managed to defend four of the Penn State wrestler's five takedowns before falling to an anaconda choke. That's a pretty impressive display for a relatively green fighter, and his takedown defense has improved drastically since he has begun training with Davis.
The key to Gustafsson's takedown defense is his understanding of range and movement. Gustafsson is constantly too far away to attempt a takedown on. The only exceptions to this are when he is attacking, where strikes like his uppercut and knees deter takedown attempts, and the clinch, where he has shown to be a very developed wrestler.
Since Gustafsson is so rarely on his back, we don't often get a display of his guard game. From the few minutes we have seen, Gustafsson doesn't really have an offensive jiu-jitsu game from his back. Instead, he focuses on getting under hooks and returning to his feet.
On the other hand, Gustafsson does take down his opponents occasionally. Once he has his opponent down, Gustafsson often attempts to get passed the guard with a cut pass. From there, he likes to get the back and attack with a rear naked choke.
In his fight with Hamill, Gustafsson managed to drop "The Hammer" with a combination. However, Hamill didn't go down without a fight. and constantly bucked and rolled, trying to get out from under Gustafsson. "The Mauler" showed some impressive control, rotating between mount and back control, before eventually finishing the wrestler with punches and elbows.
Gustafsson submission defense seems to have improved since his loss to Davis. The first time he took down Rua, the Brazilian transitioned from a half guard sweep to heel hook attempt very quickly. "Shogun" is well known for his excellent half guard and leg locks, but Gustafsson managed to escape, albeit with some difficulty. He rapidly rolled away from the heel hook and tried to push his way out of Rua's grasp. Rua tried to transition to a kneebar and then to a calf slice, but Gustafsson had already created enough space and made it back to his feet.
Best chance for success
There is no easy way to defeat Jon Jones, even if Gustafsson can match his height. Jones' kicks may be the Swede's biggest problem because he can land at the range where Gustafsson likes to circle. To counter this, Gustafsson will have to focus on closing the distance with punches, which is not really his strong suit.
Gustafsson throws leg kicks pretty hard, so it might work for him to push forward with punches then try to kick out Jones' leg as he retreats. Jones does a good job avoiding punches, but he has yet to face anyone who has focused on kicking his legs. However, Gustafsson must remain cautious because he does not want Jones to catch a kick and drag him to the mat.
As Gustafsson closes the distance, he has to cut off the fence. The best place to force Jones to exchange punches is against the fence. Jones knows this, too, and rarely ends up there; however, Gustafsson has to constantly cut angles and force the fight where he wants it.
I believe that the biggest advantage Gustafsson has over Jones' past opponents is not his similar height to the champion, but his age. Almost all of Jones' opponents inside the Octagon have had long, physically draining careers. After a decade in the fight business, it's harder to endure the abuse Jones delivers and continue with a rigid gameplan. It won't be easy, but perhaps Gustafsson can take the punches, kicks and elbows without shelling up, a fate that has defeated all of Jones' past opponents.
Does "The Mauler" have what it takes to be the UFC's first European champion or will "Bones" hang onto his title and top pound-for-pound ranking?