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Gustafsson overcomes setbacks for title shot

Times of great calamity and confusion have ever been productive of the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace, and the brightest thunderbolt is elicited from the darkest storm.”

-- Charles Caleb Colton (English writer)
STOCKHOLM, Sweden

In the small hours of Jan. 25, Alexander Gustafsson walked out to a huge roar from 30,000 fans at the Tele 2 Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.  It was an historic event for the UFC, the biggest ever in Europe and the promotion’s second biggest attendance to date.

It quickly became a nightmare for Sweden’s celebrity sports star. After 2 minutes, 15 seconds he was floored by the powerful fists of Anthony Johnson, surely eliminating any chance of challenging for UFC gold in the near future. 

The outcome was just one chapter in a story of setbacks and frustration for Gustafsson.  But on Oct. 3 at the Toyota Center in Houston, he must advance from thoughts of missed opportunities, as he will once again fight for the UFC light heavyweight title against defending champion and former Olympian, Daniel Cormier.

More on UFC 192: Relieved Cormier ready to defend crown | DC, Gustafsson talk prep for 192 | VIDEO: Gustafsson on what he learned from losing | WATCH: Hardships mold Cormier | Get your UFC 192 tickets | Pre-order the PPV now

Speaking with and observing Gustafsson in his native Stockholm, he does not cut the figure of a man who is dwelling on his last fight or the injuries that have frustratingly blocked him from entering the Octagon with former champion, Jon Jones. 

He is in a buoyant mood, enjoying his work and manifesting a real thirst for his chosen occupation.  Step back six months, however, and things were very different.

“A couple of days after (the Johnson fight), I felt down.  It was one of those times when you really think ‘What I am supposed to do with my career and my life? Should I quit?  Should I keep going?’” Gustafsson admitted.  “And you start doubting yourself. 

“The massive support I got from my family, my team and all the fans … it was simple really — either I continue and I get back at it and work to be the best guy in the world or I quit.  I’m not a quitter, so here I am.”
 


Gustafsson’s affair with the light heavyweight championship belt is a storied one.  After rampaging through six UFC 205-pounders, including a decision win over former champion Shogun Rua, Gustafsson emerged as the next challenger to the then-champion, Jon Jones.

But despite his success, he was about to meet one of the UFC’s most dominant champions and the betting lines were not in his favor. 

“Before the fight people were counting me out because I didn’t have any hype back then and I had fought only one main event,” Gustafsson said.  “So I fought Jon Jones and that was when my career started flying.  I lost the fight but a lot of doors opened for me and I gained a lot of fans. 

“We had the biggest fight ever.  It was one of the best fights people have seen.  I won that fight in my mind.  I still believe I won that fight and well … it’s history now.”

The impact of that fight was huge for Gustafsson, the UFC and also for Jones.  Jones hadn’t faced anyone who had pushed him as hard or as far, and many thought Gustafsson won that epic battle in 2013. 

The Swede went on to be featured on the EA Sports UFC cover and a year later, he was slated to battle Jones once more at UFC 178. 

Much to the disappointment of Gustafsson and his growing army of fans, he would withdraw from the bout with a knee injury.      

“We had the EA Sports UFC game and I was in the voting with legends like GSP, and people were actually voting for me and I won to be on the cover with Jon Jones,” Gustafsson recalled.  “I was very shocked.  I had that fight with Jon jones and I really gained a lot of fans.

“I thought the rematch was mine and that I had the next shot at Jon Jones.  However, there were different factors and it didn’t happen.  It was a hectic period.”

In March 2014, Gustafsson returned to the Octagon to face rising Brit, Jimi Manuwa.  Once again preparations were marred, but this time on a much less superficial level. 

Two weeks before the fight, Gustafsson lost his father.  In another display of resolve against the universe, he fought hard and won in spectacular fashion, becoming the first man to ever stop Manuwa. 

It was a victory he dedicated to his late father, and the one that put him back on track to finally meeting his old foe, Jones. But adversity would interrupt his path yet again.
 


“I fought Jimi and won that fight and then I was on the line to fight for the title again so I got back into camp and then I blew my knee and I had to operate (with) that,” Gustafsson said.  “My back was bad, too.  I had a lot of injuries that affected me really bad.

“You know, you’re never injury free in a camp.  There’s always something that irritates you, but then the injuries just exploded and they came hard.  I was really disappointed and felt sad that it (the Jones rematch) didn’t happen.”

As Gustafsson was forced to move aside, Cormier needed no convincing to step up and take the opportunity to finally compete for championship gold. 

The opportunity never came in Cormier’s Olympic wrestling career, so this was it. 

Gustafsson’s account of witnessing this is an interesting one.  There was no malice towards DC.  No jealousy. Rather, simply an appreciation of the event from essentially just another UFC fan.

“I didn’t think that much about the announcement of the Jones- Cormier fight.” Gustafsson said.  “I thought, ‘It’s gonna be a good fight and both are great athletes.’  I wasn’t pissed or angry.  It was a good fight in my mind.”

You could forgive Gustafsson if he were to have felt some animosity toward either his personal situation or Cormier’s opportunity.  However, it wasn’t long before he was presented a multi-faceted challenge that would stir more than just his combative senses: 

Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson. At home, in Stockholm.

“My fight with Rumble was announced so I had my focus.  It wasn’t so much about fighting Rumble himself.  He’s a great fighter and dangerous opponent and so I wanted to fight him,” Gustafsson said.  “The biggest thing for me was to be fighting in my hometown in the Tele2 Arena. 

“It was just massive, so I really wanted that fight as it was happening on my home soil.  To fight in Sweden, here in Stockholm!  If I get that option, I’ll take it every day.  And to get that fight with Rumble was a really nice surprise.”

Anyone present at the event will attest that it was truly Gustafsson Mania.  Tele2 Arena was packed to the rafters with 30,000 fans. The leading heads of the UFC and its broadcast partners were in attendance.

And when Gustafsson exited the black curtained tunnel and moved down the Octagon runway, Stockholm at 4 a.m. most likely hit noise levels never before heard.

Sweden’s fighting son was back. 

‘To walk out was an amazing feeling.  It was craziness.  I felt good and went in relaxed.  I felt like I had full control of the fight.  I was hitting (Johnson) and out striking him.  I kept moving and I felt good.” Gustafsson said, recalling that night with mixed emotions.  “I was a slow starter in that fight.  I didn’t start as intense as I wanted to.  Then he did a really good thing: He countered my attack and he caught me good. 

“After that first punch I felt that I couldn’t recover.  I saw, like, two or three of them. I was pretty bad.”

The moment Gustafsson went to the canvas, it was as if someone had pulled the plug on the sound within the arena. When Gustafsson tried to get back to his feet, it was like an engineer had momentarily plugged the sound back in.

But as referee Marc Goddard motioned an end to the contest and signalled Johnson as the winner, the sound levels once again fell off the meter. There was obvious concern for Gustafsson, who had just felt the full force of arguably the most powerful 205-pound fighter on the planet.

“It was simple really — either I continue and I get back at it and work to be the best guy in the world or I quit. I’m not a quitter, so here I am.” -- Alexander Gustafsson
While the promotional cogs of the UFC turned, Gustafsson was forced to battle some demons.  Second place was clearly never going to be good enough for the Viking warrior.

When Gustafsson stepped back into the gym following his defeat, his mind was set on improving to earn his way back into title conversations.  It was clear this time he could expect a less direct shot than his previous two fights.

Once again, Gustafsson found himself a bystander while two relative newcomers to the division battled for the vacant title. Once Cormier emerged as the new champion, Gustafsson’s route was fast tracked. It was decided he was next in line for a crack at the Championship belt.

“I actually didn’t see the title shot coming up so soon.  It doesn’t grow on trees!” he said with a laugh. “When I got that call I was just, ‘Wow! Count me in.  Let’s go!’ And my motivation went into outer space.”

It’s rare that a title shot follows a devastating loss, and Gustafsson was prepared to seize this opportunity.  He could become the champion. He could become the first Swedish UFC champion and be one of three Europeans to hold a UFC title in 2015.

If he was searching for motivation before, he certainly found it in the back seat of his manger’s car, with UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta on the telephone from Las Vegas.

Motivations aside, will size matter in this matchup?

At UFC 192, the champion is a powerful 5-foot-11 inch wrestler with a 72-inch reach, facing a challenger standing 6-5 with a 79-inch reach.  Comparisons will be drawn to the main event of UFC 182, as the physical stats on paper are reminiscent of when Jones successfully defended his belt against Cormier.

Perhaps, it’s a blueprint ready made for Gustafsson?  If it is, he is being coy as to its significance and he quite rightly has his own views on the match-up. 

“I don’t look too much at what other fighters have done.  I have to analyse DC and I have to analyse myself every day,” Gustafsson said.  “I don’t build a game plan on looking at that fight. 

“It’s very simple: He’s a short wrestler and I’m a tall striker.  He’s a great fighter but I believe that I am the type of fighter that is the absolute opposite of DC.  I move a lot.  I can fight backwards.  I have a lot of belief in my speed and precision and I know that I have really good takedown defence.”
 


When Gustafsson enters the Octagon and awaits the champion to join him, he will complete a two-year circle that has tested him in the most painful of ways.

His losses have been both professional and personal.  His injuries are have been debilitating and ill-timed.  But his resolution and tenacity to be the best has presented him with the ultimate opportunity.  He now must find a way to overcome one of the hardest working, toughest and most talented competitors to step into the Octagon.

It’s a dream that Gustafsson believes will become a reality.  And according to Gustafsson, when he has that belt strapped around his waist, he’ll be looking next for Jones.

John Gooden is a UK-based presenter, commentator and writer for the UFC and UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnGoodenUK.

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