Recent No. 1 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight title challenger, Alexander Gustafsson, looks to earn another crack at the belt by defeating British bruiser, Jimi Manuwa, later this afternoon (Sat., March 8, 2014) in the main event of UFC Fight Night 37, which takes place at 02 Arena in London, England.
After a fiery debut victory over Jared Hamman, "The Mauler" suffered the first loss of his professional mixed martial arts (MMA) career to the wrestling prowess of Phil Davis, who wrapped up the Swede in an anaconda choke. In a show of intelligence and humility, Gustafsson relocated to the United States and went on to become one of Davis' main training partners.
The move has paid dividends.
After the loss, Gustafsson went on to win his next six fights, earning a title shot against Jon Jones. Though few expected it, the Alliance MMA-trained fighter would give Jones an arduous battle. He may have lost the decision, but his "Fight of the Year"-winning performance has fans demanding he receive a second shot. To earn one, he just has to turn away undefeated knockout artist Jimi Manuwa.
Does Gustafsson have the skills to do so?
Let's find out:
A boxer since the age of ten, Gustafsson managed to become an amateur national Swedish boxing champion in 2009 between MMA fights. In addition to carrying some of the smoothest hands in the sport, Gustafsson's kicks and knees are constantly improving.
Gustafsson rarely stands in one place. preferring to circle around his opponent constantly. As he shifts around his opponent laterally, Gustafsson feints with his hands and looks for openings. If he sees his opponent react to a feint or finds himself at an advantageous angle, Gustafsson will look to move forward with a combination.
From the outside, Gustafsson is constantly prodding his opponent with the jab. He'll often throw jabs at half-speed, merely measuring distance and glancing his opponent's arms. As he finds his range, he'll began to throw harder jabs, often following a soft jab with a stronger one. Though his jab primarily sets up his other punches, Gustafsson showed it can be a powerful strike if his opponent rushes him.
Gustafsson's body jab is a huge part of the reason his most recent bout with Jones was so close. The Swede used the body jab wonderfully, and its effect become more and more clear as the fight went on. Early in the bout, his body jab, along with most of his punches, was coming up about six inches short each time. However, a couple minutes in, it began to land.
Although Jones never really lowered his hands to block the body jab -- which would've been a huge mistake -- it did shift his focus. As Jones braced for the body blow, Gustafsson would follow it up with punches to the chin, generally a left hook or right uppercut. Even though Jones' hands were still in position, he was ready for body punches. This sudden change of targets slowed his defenses and gave Gustafsson the openings he needed to land on Jones face.
Later in the fight, Gustafsson's combinations off of the body jab would extend further into three and four punch combos. To mix it up, he began throwing his right hand to the body and following it with a left hook to the head, or a double jab to the body then head. Throughout the entire fight, Gustafsson did an excellent job mixing his targets and confusing the champion.
Often following Gustafsson's jab is his crisp right hand. The one-two is a staple of boxing for a reason, and Gustafsson's length makes it even more effective. To mix up his boxing a bit, Gustafsson occasionally throws his right hand as a lead or as a "Superman" punch. Even if he doesn't set up his right with lead hand strikes, he usually hides it well with his feints.
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. Gustafsson's uppercut also lands well because his many opponents have tried to attack his height with a predictable overhand, which leads them directly into his uppercut.
In his last fight, Gustafsson frequently used his left hook to counter Jones. As long as "Bones" was in range, it didn't matter to Gustafsson what strike he was throwing, as the Swede successfully came back with a left hook against jabs, right hands, leg kicks, and even a head kick.
One of the most impressive things about Gustafsson's striking game is his comfort and aggressiveness in the pocket. Though his defense is generally pretty sound, he still gets hit hard occasionally (or more than occasionally in his bout with Jones). When he gets hit, Gustafsson almost always comes back with strikes if he's in range. Even if his opponent lands a strike in the middle of Gustafsson's combination, the Swede will continue with his strikes undeterred.
It may not be the smartest mentality against a power puncher like Manuwa, but it's definitely entertaining.
Gustafsson has been working on his kicks for awhile, and they looked better than ever in his last bout. He generally prioritizes speed over power, throwing a high volume of quick kicks to the leg and body as he circles around his opponent. Gustafsson often throws his kicks without setup punches, which is fairly risky, but his movement, feints, and length have kept him safe thus far. One of the mistakes Gustafsson made against Jones, likely due to fatigue, is mostly abandoning his kicks in the later rounds, as he basically shortened his effective range.
One of Gustafsson's more powerfuls kick is his front kick. Though it failed to make an appearance in his bout with Jones, Gustafsson used it prior to that bout in order to help him keep range. In addition to being a powerful strike, it's a good tool for someone of "The Mauler's" height.
Another edition to Gustafsson's striking game is his knees in the clinch. It would be foolish for such a tall fighter not to utilize knees to the head and body, and Gustafsson attacks with them well. Like the uppercut, Gustafsson throws knees when his opponent ducks to avoid his other strikes. The Swede likes to grab a double collar tie, throw a few high knees, then quickly back out of range to avoid any punches off the break.
Against fighters that are not Jon Jones, 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 striking game is designed to beat opponents in these two areas, so he is equally ready for both situations.
Though Gustafsson's chin can get up a bit too high when he pushes forward, his defense is generally very solid. For the most part, his lateral movement keeps him out range, so he's only in danger when his feet stop moving. One of the better defensive 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 is one of the very best striker turned wrestler in MMA. Though he still chooses to box with most of his opponents, he leaves his opponent no choice, as his takedown defense is nearly impenetrable.
One of Gustafsson's better takedowns is his double leg, which he times very well. He uses his striking to wind up at an advantageous angle, where the double will come much easier. Or, he'll wait until his opponent reaches up towards his chin with a big power shot, change levels, and drive through his opponent's off-balanced hips. Against "Shogun" Rua, Gustafsson repeatedly landed doubles by sucking Rua into a striking exchange then tricking him with a shot.
"The Mauler" is also dangerous in clinch exchanges, where he can use his height for a leverage advantage. This allows him to more easily twist his opponent as he sneaks in a trip, making his takedowns much more effective.
The biggest feather in Gustafsson's cap is his status as the first man to ever take down Jon Jones. Jones, busy expecting the boxer to continue boxing, was a bit stunned when Gustafsson level changed and got in deep on his hips with a double. From there, Gustafsson drove while turning the corner, eventually pushing Jones down onto the mat.
Gustafsson's excellent takedown defense is greatly aided by his length and movement. Not only is it hard to keep track of where the Swede is moving, but he keeps the distance very well. This forces his opponent to shoot from a longer distance or risk his punches, overall making his opponent's life much more difficult. Even Jones, who's even longer than Gustafsson, had a very difficult time getting in range to shoot, as he was forced to try to clinch instead.
Speaking of, Gustafsson is absolutely incredible at evading clinch takedowns. As soon as his opponent tries to grasp him, Gustafsson scoots his hips very low and pushes away. As he either works for underhooks or frames his opponent's face, Gustafsson moves away, which creates space. Once he has enough space, Gustafsson will frame his opponent's hips and duck away, evading both the grappling and any attempts at punches off the break.
When Gustafsson has been taken down, he is exceptionally quick to spring back to his feet. He generally inches his way to the fence, where he can work for an underhook and eventual wall walk. Once he's against the fence and moving to his feet, he's in the clinch again, where he'll immediately begin working to escape.
The only downside to Gustafsson's sturdy takedown defense is that his guard game is pretty much a complete unknown. During the few seconds he is on his back, Gustafsson has focused on getting underhooks and returning to his feet. If he ever fails to get back up easily, then we may get a glimpse of his guard game.
When Gustafsson does manage to drag his opponent to the mat, he's aggressive from the top position. Admittedly. neither of his two submission victims in the UFC are grappling specialists, but he was able to quickly use a cut pass to get around their guards. After that, both James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate turtled, allowing Gustafsson to get the back and eventually the rear naked choke.
Since his bout with Davis, Gustafsson has only had to demonstrate his defensive jiu-jitsu in one fight, when "Shogun" Rua forced him into a leg lock battle. Rua is known for his aggressive half guard and footlock game, and he looked to use these skills when Gustafsson took him down in the first round. While both men were dry, Rua transitioned from a half guard sweep to heel hook attempt.
Gustafsson did a very nice job not allowing Rua to settle, as he immediately spun. As he rolled, he kicked away at Rua, trying to create enough space to free his leg. Though he was in a tight spot, he managed to get away while "Shogun" tried to switch to a calf slicer. It's always dangerous to be in a fighter's bread and butter move, but Gustafsson showed that he had made some progress in his grappling by escaping Rua's leglock game.
Best Chance For Success
Gustafsson will likely look to take this fight to the mat sooner than later. That's not to say that Gustafsson can't out-strike the Brit, but it would be a pointless risk to take considering his grappling advantage.
Early in the fight, Gustafsson should throw plenty of kicks, especially his front kick. Gustafsson's reach advantage won't be very helpful if he's only boxing while Manuwa kicks, so he should use his other striking skills as well. Once Manuwa is a bit annoyed by Gustafsson's range and kicks, he'll likely step up his aggression.
That's when it's time to level change into a takedown.
Although Gustafsson has clinch takedowns, it would not be a good idea to fight Manuwa from inside the clinch at all. "Poster Boy" has huge power inside the clinch with his knees, and the last thing Gustafsson wants is to have his movement limited by some nasty knees to the thighs. If he finds himself in the clinch, Gustafsson's priotiy should be on getting the hell out of there.
Will Gustafsson fight his way into a second title shot or can Manuwa earn one of the biggest upsets of the year?
To see a complete fighter breakdown of Jimi Manuwa click here.