Over the course of his last several title defenses, it's become clear that UFC Light Heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones needs a viable competitor—from both a physical and technical perspective. More importantly, he needs one that fans might deem worthy without requiring a grandiose UFC pre-fight trailer. Jones—to make the best of the present situation—must fight Alexander Gustafsson.
Perpetually the subject of an ever-increasing scrutiny from MMA fans worldwide, Jones now sits on the figurative sidelines and awaits the full rehabilitation of the toe he badly injured at UFC 159. Though he walked away with belt in hand, the champion did so after having defeated an undersized and—as some might argue—undeserving opponent in Chael Sonnen. The UFC marketing machine attempted to churn out the same old yarn heard during the build-up to the previous title defense against Vitor Belfort: Jones would be facing an adversary who may very well solve the puzzle presented by the reigning champion.
Ardent MMA fans elected to ignore the message. Perhaps they were right to do so—Jones took Sonnen down with the utmost of ease and proceeded to rain down blows until the very moment Referee Keith Peterson had seen enough. The murmurings of an Anderson Silva vs Jon Jones super-fight began to grow louder.
Jones, instead, opted to discuss a fighter of more immediate concern than Silva.
Beloved by droves of European MMA fans, Alexander "The Mauler" Gustafsson (15-1) has inserted himself into title contention with a series of six consecutive victories—it's worth mentioning that most of those wins came by the way of decisive knockout or submission.
Of particular interest to the champion himself, the physical attributes of Gustafsson are remarkably similar to his own. With only a year separating the age of the two fighters, both men—though different in terms of fight style—possess uncharacteristically long arms and legs.
Gustafsson would also benefit from a reach of 76.5 inches—eight inches shy of the awe-inspring 84.5 inch reach of the champion. At 6'4" tall, height wouldn't be a concern—he's evenly matched with Jones. Such impressive dimensions have become the core formula for the long-distance striking and leverage-based submissions routinely demonstrated by both champion and challenger.
During the UFC 159 post-fight press conference, Jones provided his outlook on why Gustafsson would be a uniquely worthy matchup:
"I fought Lyoto Machida before. I fight for the love of the sport. I fight for the people that support me, but I also fight to prove critics wrong. A lot of people believe I'm successful because I appear to be larger than my opponents. And with Alexander Gustafsson, that would be no more. So fighting Alexander Gustafsson—a guy with long arms and long legs himself—I think that would be a great thing. That's who I would love to fight next."
It should come as no surprise that fans of The Mauler foresee a title fight where Jones—after having established a fighting ethos based on unmatchable reach—might have to resort to less of his physical gifts and more of his trained skill-set.
According to a recent interview with MMAfighting.com, Gustafsson is eagerly anticipating an offer to fight the champ:
"He wants to fight me, and I want to fight him. [The UFC hasn't] offered me the fight yet. I'm just really hoping to get some answers soon. I'm really hoping for it, and I think I will get the fight. Nothing is set or signed, though."
As of late, both men have even managed to put their heated rivalry on public display:
Fighting me is not good for your image @AlexTheMauler FYI— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 24, 2013
@JonnyBones if you think of what is good for your image, maybe you should continue to fight this 185ers??— Alexander Gustafsson (@AlexTheMauler) May 24, 2013
In spite of his meteoric rise, Jones has been the subject of a wide array of criticism. Some of it—particularly critique of his personality—may remain a burden he'll continually struggle to resolve. But at this phase of his championship run, Jones has the capacity to summon a larger body of fans and captivate the attention of even his most severe detractors.
He won't capitalize on that opportunity by fighting circumstantially available middleweights. He certainly won't realize his potential by sitting idly in hopes of Silva's availability for the often-touted super-fight. Jones has the responsibility—to both himself and his MMA fans—of delivering in the here in and now. By confronting a physically similar fighter in Gustafsson, he can calm any concerns of mismatches based on sheer physique. He can lay to rest the beliefs that have irked him.
Each time he steps foot inside the cage, Bones adds yet another top contender to an ever-growing pile of bodies. A whirling dervish of slicing elbows and laser-guided kicks, he's defeated the who's who of light heavyweights—and he's done so with an exclamation mark.
Gustafsson seems determined to bring an end to that type of tyranny.
A super-fight can always be sought out in the future—forever a possibility. But in the immediate near-future, the champion has greater concerns. The Swede is coming after him with the same determination that Jones exhibited en route to his own claim at the Light Heavyweight throne.
I'm particularly excited to see who will reign supreme. Are you?