Swedish boxer, Alexander Gustafsson, will square off with multiple-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, this Saturday (Dec. 29, 2018) at UFC 232 inside The Forum in Inglewood, California.
Since first fighting Jones in 2013 — the infamously back-and-forth battle that I don’t feel the need to recap — Gustafsson’s activity dropped off completely. The Swede now makes an annual appearance to the Octagon, seemingly dealing with frequent injuries and/or uninteresting opponents, but he nevertheless has managed to earn a third title shot.
Part of that is the competitive nature of the first fight, but the other half of the equation has to be just how dominant Gustafsson was opposite Glover Teixeira. “The Mauler’s” last fight stands out as perhaps his career best performance (even if it was in May 2017), and both fans of Gustafsson and Jones detractors are hoping for a repeat performance.
Let’s take a closer look at the keys to victory for each man:
Gustafsson’s martial arts background begins in boxing and was a promising amateur before committing to mixed martial arts (MMA). As such, the lanky Swede makes full use of his rangy build, doing everything in his power to maintain range and punish attempts to close distance.
More than most, Gustafsson heavily relies on movement and footwork. The title challenger is constantly circling around the outside of his opponent’s range, changing directions and feinting. And yes, he does occasionally turn his back and run to the center of the octagon. While moving about, Gustafsson is generally looking for openings and trying to walk his opponent into hard shots.
The jab is definitely a major tool for “The Mauler,” and he uses it in different situations. When he’s just flicking it out while circling, Gustafsson is largely using it as a tool to make his opponent hesitate and gauge reactions. Once that distance is established, Gustafsson will soon step into the strike, which allows him to land with power and set up his combinations. He can also double or triple up on jabs and will mix softer, flicking jabs with jabs that have his full weight behind them.
If his opponent steps forward at the wrong time, Gustafsson’s jab can even be a finishing weapon (GIF).
One of Gustafsson’s most important weapons in his bout with Jones was actually the body jab, an often overlooked punch. The body jab is fairly easy to land, often causing a fighter’s hands to drop, and is a relatively safe strike to throw. Gustafsson began throwing the punch from the onset of the bout, allowing him to fatigue “Bones” a bit and build upon the strike later. Over time, Jones began to tense up a bit when expecting the body jab, allowing Gustafsson’s follow up punches to break through the champion’s defenses.
Gustafsson built from the body jab masterfully. After landing a body jab, Gustafsson would come up and throw three- to four-punch combinations. Later in the fight, he’d mix it up by attacking the stomach with straight right hands and coming up or jabbing to both the head and body in combination.
The jab-cross is a staple of Gustafsson’s game as well. A very effective combination for Gustafsson, though he does sometimes hangs around to long after throwing the punches, leaving himself in danger. Most of the time, however, Gustafsson does a nice job of angling or rolling after his right hand, which keeps his feet moving and head out of danger.
Gustafsson’s favorite punch is undoubtedly his right uppercut (GIF), which is both a blessing and a curse. At his best, Gustafsson is slinking backward, hiding his chin behind his shoulder, and shooting uppercuts down the center on an advancing opponent. He did this well against Daniel Cormier, and the punch slipped past his opponent’s guard often as a result.
Alternatively, Gustafsson has a bad habit for reaching with his uppercut. Whenever a fighter — particularly a taller one — really leans into an uppercut, it leaves them terribly vulnerable to punches and in poor position to absorb blows. The uppercut is a counter to the overhand, but the opposite is true as well, and a fighter who loves uppercuts is never more vulnerable than when reaching with his power hand.
While on the topic of uppercuts, Gustafsson’s complete domination of Glover Teixeira must be discussed. Frankly, Teixeira turned out to be something of a gift for Gustafsson: a relatively slow moving fighter who punches from a crouched stance. In short, he turned out to be a perfect target for the uppercut, which landed with remarkable consistency. Notably, even when Gustafsson did throw offensive uppercuts behind his jab, he did so without reaching (GIF).
In addition, Gustafsson’s nearly complete control of range allowed him to show off some of his tricks. At times, he would switch-cross into a right hand or uppercut. At one point, he feinted to touch the leg into a spinning elbow, follow up with a series of punches from both stances (GIF).
A common habit of Gustafsson is to finish his combinations by latching onto the double-collar tie. By quickly changing the positioning of the fight from rangy striking to clinch warfare, Gustafsson often gives himself the edge in terms of landing some quick uppercuts or knees up the middle before his foe is ready to defend (GIF).
An area that has really improved over the years is Gustafsson’s approach to kicking. He’s always been capable of mixing in a hard round kick and throwing the occasional teep, but Gustafsson has gotten a bit trickier in setting up hard body shots. Against an Orthodox opponent looking to close the distance — Cormier being the prime target of the following techniques — Gustafsson will take a step back and switch to Southpaw in the process. Amidst all his other movement, it can be difficult to notice a stance switch rather than simple evasion, but his new stance allows Gustafsson to surprise his foe with serious offense. After taking a step back into Southpaw, Gustafsson can rip a hard kick or knee into the mid-section depending on the distance, a pair of strikes that can do serious damage and discourage forward movement.
Gustafsson’s wrestling has really turned into a great asset. After a pair of clashes with two all-time great wrestlers in Cormier and Jones, the tallied total leaves Gustafsson and his opponents both with two completed takedowns. Considering Gustafsson started his UFC career as a European striker getting out-wrestled, that’s a hell of an improvement!
Gustafsson’s best takedown set up is definitely his reactive double leg. On both Jones and Cormier, Gustafsson managed to surprise his opponent by halting his lateral movement, planting his feet, and springing forward with a double leg takedown rather than punches (GIF).
The style of high double leg that Gustasson shoots takes full advantage of the striking stance his opponent is in. Gustafsson doesn’t have to level change all that much, only getting below his opponent’s hips. Once in, Gustafsson’s lanky arms help him pull his opponent off-balance, and Gustafsson can circle with the shot until it’s completed (GIF). It can be something of a hybrid between a true double leg and an upper body clinch, but that’s the glory of MMA: kickboxing stances are so very different than a wrestling stance that fighters don’t have to drop to a knee or even get all that low if the entry is timed well.
In Gustafsson’s ugly fight with Jan Blachowicz, he returned to the takedown more often than ever before. He relied on lot on his double leg, using the left hook to raise his opponent’s guard before ducking in on the hips. Once there, his finish was the same, as Gustafsson drove in and circled till his foe fell.
Gustafsson is an excellent defensive wrestler. He has never been an easy man to takedown, and his technique has come a long way since the beginning of his UFC career.
For one, Gustafsson’s style of striking is an excellent foil to the takedown. Since he keeps such a large amount of distance between himself an his opponent, rarely over-commits on his punches, and is rarely standing still, it’s very difficult to line up a clean shot from the proper range on Gustafsson. Whenever Gustafsson notices a shot is coming, he’ll switch his hips, which goes a long way in denying the takedown.
Regardless of whether his opponent takes a poor shot and doesn’t fully get in on the hips or simply tries for a clinch, he’s very often out of luck. Gustafsson does a fantastic job shooting his hips back and low while pushing away at his opponent. Once his opponent fails to gain control of Gustafsson’s hips, his chances of success on the shot is basically gone, as “Mauler” will quickly fight for an underhook or frame his opponent’s face. Additionally, Gustafsson likes to grab a quick collar-tie and turn his opponent, allowing him to run off the fence.
Either way, Gustafsson will slip from his foe’s grasp before long.
Gustafsson is not much a jiu-jitsu specialist. He is rarely put on his back, and when he is trapped there, his priority is to wall-walk and scramble back to his feet quickly as he can anyway.
The only real use of jiu-jitsu in Gustafsson’s career has been against heavy power punchers. When fighters really commit to punches in the hopes of scoring a knockout, it’s generally pretty easy to take them down. This was the case in Gustafsson’s fights with James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate, as Gustafsson dropped down and threw them to the mat. From top position, he used the cut pass to move through their guards, eventually transitioned into back mount, and locked in the choke (GIF).
Against a more conservative grappler in Blachowicz, Gustafsson struggled to find that opening. Blachowicz was content to sit in guard and try to occasional armbar rather than scramble to his feet, which meant Gustafsson spent most of the bout sitting in guard and landing elbows. Not pretty or awe-inspiring technique, but winning is the true goal.
It’s been more than five years since the first fight, and a lot has happened since. Both men are now 31 years of age, meaning they don’t have a seemingly endless amount of time left in their primes. In fact, given the layoffs of Gustafsson and suspensions of Jones, we’re pretty luck to finally see this rematch unfold. At any rate, neither man has five years to wait for a third, so this just might be the final match up between the two, making it a huge career moment for both.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.