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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 153’s Alexander Gustafsson

Three-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Alexander Gustafsson, will throw down with knockout artist, Anthony Smith, this Saturday (June 1, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 153 from inside Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.

It’s been six years since Alexander Gustafsson first challenged Jon Jones for the title, nearly upsetting the still-unbeaten prodigy. However, those six years have proven incredibly frustrating. Despite some big wins in that time, Gustafsson came up just short opposite Daniel Cormier, was brutally knocked out by Anthony Johnson in his home country, and finally was dispatched a second time by Jon Jones earlier this year. What is left for Gustafsson, who has come so close to the title without anything to show for it twice now? Unless Jones loses his title (unlikely) or fails another drug test (likely), there is no path to gold for the Swede at 205 pounds. Despite this difficult situation, Gustafsson remains committed, intent on building a new win streak and making another run at gold.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


Gustafsson began his martial arts career as a boxer. Boxing fundamentals — good footwork, rangy punches, smart combinations, and accurate counter punches — make up the core of Gustafsson’s game, and whether or not Gustafsson is able to box often decides whether or not the Swede is successful.

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. Admittedly, he will drop all pretense and sprint away when cornered on the fence, which is not the most efficient or appealing approach to lateral movement. Still, it’s better than getting punched in the face or taken down.

The jab is 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 first bout with Jones was actually the body jab, an 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 any lanky puncher, he does sometimes hangs around too 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 has proven 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 standing too tall or leaning over his lead knee (GIF).

In addition, Gustafsson’s nearly complete control of range allowed him to show off some of his tricks. At times, he would throw a 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.

Last time out, Gustafsson did not do anything dramatically wrong against Jones. Ultimately though, it was Jones who took the initiative, and “Bones” who was more comfortable kicking. As a result, Gustafsson found himself behind rather quickly, and Jones does not release momentum once he captures it.


Gustafsson’s wrestling has really turned into a great asset. After his clashes with all-time great wrestlers in Cormier and Jones, Gustafsson has proven himself a talented wrestler.

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).

In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze the MMA-style double leg, why it works for tall strikers, and how it compares to a classic wrestling shot.

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 and 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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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).


Gustafsson is a top-ranked fighter in an extremely unenviable position. Unless he moves to Heavyweight, the only way to score another title shot is a serious win streak. There can be no bumps in the road or long periods of inactivity: Gustafsson has to stomp a half-dozen opponents and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s earned another shot at “Bones.”

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.

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