Alexander Gustafsson has been touted as the next big thing for as long as I can remember hearing his name. Next weekend he meets Jon Jones for the light heavyweight belt at UFC 165 and we are all anxious to see if he can back up this hype.
In the fight world you are only ever as good as your last fight, in fact the last fight on Gustafsson's record reads as a massive step up in competition despite the declining athleticism of Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua. Today we will briefly examine that bout.
Of course plenty of fighters have had mediocre showings and gone on to look incredible in their next bout so don't put too much stock in Alexander Gustafsson not having a chance of defeating Jon Jones. I shall try to point out the habits which Gustafsson has shown before and which were still evident in his most recent bout.
Height and Reach
The first thing to note is that Gustafsson uses his height well.
So much is being made of Gustafsson's height and reach—his height being on a level with Jones but his reach being a more proportional length than Jon Jones' remarkable reach. The amount we are hearing about it reminds me of the ludicrous talk about glove sizes and heights in the lead up to Shane Carwin versus Brock Lesnar.
Height has the same effect as reach in a bout if used correctly because when an opponent is forced to punch upward he loses reach. Extend your arm out straight in front of your shoulder and you will be able to reach further in front of you than if you start bringing your arm up to eye level or higher.
As a brief aside (or a neat fact for you to bring up with a friend if you're looking for an excuse to segue into fight talk), it is for this reason that if you go into many coffee houses or newsagents you will notice that the staff standing behind the counter are elevated on a higher floor than on your side of the counter.
This is so that the person serving you is stood over you in case of a dispute. Firstly for the psychological affect brought on by the silliness of shouting upward, but secondly because should someone take a swing at the staff over the counter they would have to swing upwards.
Against Shogun this was the story of the bout. Gustafsson would throw three or four slapping strikes to land a good one on the end, and Shogun would swing alternately, mainly hitting air.
Gustafsson showed the same jab-jab-body hook, jab-jab-low kick stuff that he has shown before, but in this bout his uppercut really seemed to be wasted. The uppercut is a punch for use against a hunched fighter when he is charging in on you, or for keeping a fighter upright for hooks.
Gustafsson, however, throws it at range as a long and ineffectual strike. Chasing with the uppercut never works nearly as well as catching a fighter ducking in as Gustafsson did against Silva.
Shogun was too upright for the uppercut to ever have much effect at range, yet whenever he got in close and Gustafsson threw it, Gustafsson dropped his non-punching hand so low that he ate an overhand each time.
This brings me to the main problem with Gustafsson's otherwise polished stand up game. Gustafsson is remarkably easy to time when coming in.
Gustafsson does great work when an opponent is chasing him and he is using the Machida strategy of "retreat, retreat, retreat, step in," but on offense he can be overzealous.
On offense Gustafsson suffers from a similar fault as Donald Cerrone: if an opponent gives ground he'll chase them with strikes, land a hard low kick and generally make their life miserable. Long, looping techniques which can catch an opponent even if he is retreating at top speed. Should the opponent stand their ground and trade however, both Cerrone and Gustafsson struggle.
A brilliant example was the telegraphed low kick which Gustafsson threw at Shogun in the opening round of their bout, clearly expecting Shogun to retreat but instead finding himself right on top of the Brazilian, taking a punch to the face then being taken down.
If the famously limited wrestling of Shogun can get a fighter down when he kicks like that, it's not a great thing to attempt against Jon Jones.
Something to notice throughout is that Gustafsson has just never learned to keep his hands up and defend himself well at all because of the height advantage he enjoys in many of his bouts. In the intercepting knee at the top of the article you can see that if Shogun weren't so disadvantaged in height against Gustafsson he could have flattened the Swede.
The same is the case in every instance in which Gustafsson was caught in that bout. Shogun is not a polished striker. The greatest part of his game was his incredible kicking ability but since that has been destroyed by terrible luck with knee injuries all that is left is a rather heavy handed brawler with little strategy.
Thoughts on the Big Fight
I am sure that I am seeming terribly pessimistic of Gustafsson's chances in his title bout, but it is important to remember that he did make Shogun miss an awful lot. Shogun's connection rate in the bout was pretty shoddy and while Gustafsson's wasn't much better he is a volume striker and connected far more strikes overall.
When Gustafsson is moving or has finished his strikes and is getting out of range again, he is superb. The problems come in his dropping of his hands as he comes forwards and relying on being too far away rather than taking any defensive measures after he has landed his strikes.
Now another fighter who somewhat resembled Gustafsson in some of his strategies (mainly the baiting of the chase as Gustafsson did against Hammil and Silva) also shared the same basic flaw of dropping his non-punching hand when engaging. Jones and his team exploited that masterfully with a long right hook and later the superman left hook which dropped Machida as he attempted his legendary left straight counter.
It is unlikely that Gustafsson's sloppy defense during strikes has gone unnoticed by Team Jackson/Winkeljohn. Let us remember that it was only Rashad Evans' decent defensive form that stopped him from being put to sleep by the counter elbows which Jones was chucking at him every time he stepped in.
This is not to say that Gustafsson cannot beat Jones. To say that with any amount of time spent watching MMA would be flat out ridiculous. We can't predict anything that will happen. He's a keen kicker and he's a smart fighter, something which the higher weight classes are particularly short of. He blends trips into strikes masterfully in a way which is reminiscent of Anderson Silva or Fedor Emelianenko, and he'll pick up visually stunning trips from striking range.
Additionally Jones' last two matches have not been against elite light heavyweights but rather against middleweights in tune ups. In both matches Jones got injured despite the seemingly safer nature of the bouts. This could be a sign of Jones slipping, or simply a sign of him underestimating Vitor Belfort's guard and suffering a freak injury against Chael Sonnen.
Stay tuned for a look at Eddie Wineland and Renan Barao!
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.