Alexander Gustafsson: Coming of Age in a Dog Fight

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Alexander Gustafsson: Coming of Age in a Dog Fight
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

UFC 165 was a tough event to sell. A largely untested European fighter was meeting Jon Jones and all Zuffa employees could do to sell the fight was put together that awful exploding head trailer. Yet those of us who tuned in to see the fight were rewarded with—to this writer's mind—the best UFC title fight in a long time.

This fight broke a seven fight streak of title defenses in all UFC divisions failing to go to decision but you would be insane to call it a boring bout.

For just over three rounds, Alexander Gustafsson performed out of his skin and soundly drubbed the champion on the feet.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

This fight produced the perfect outcome for Gustafsson. After the bout, forums and blogs were flooded with opinions and bickering; Gustafsson was robbed. Jones looked bad. Jones only wins fights because of his physical advantages. And so on.

I'm here to add my voice to the rabble and give—hopefully—a little insight into just why Gustafsson did so well and why he looked nothing like his usual self.

The Importance of Movement

Jon Jones has an easy day when his opponents come straight at him, but his brilliant leg attack made me skeptical of Gustafsson's chances to use his footwork. Gustafsson enjoys circling laterally and the way to counter that is to meet that with a circular strike from the side he is circling to.

A nice example is Frankie Edgar being slowed down and forced to stand in front of Benson Henderson because of Bendo's constant threat of the low kick. 

Jones, however, does not use round kicks nearly so much as he used to. Looking almost exclusively for his straight kicks to the front of the leg. 

Front kicks are a wonderful means of using one's height and keeping the distance, but missing one can leave an aggressive kicker very off balance. One need only review the Nandor Guelmino vs. Daniel Omielanczuk finish from the prelims to be reminded of that.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport
Gustafsson just about managing to check a good roundhouse kick.

As long as Gustafsson threatened to stay mobile, he could put Jones off of throwing his kicks which require a good deal of accuracy.

Whenever Gustafsson stood directly in front of Jones, however, he would check kicks, move away from them or—most crucially—brace for them and immediately counter with one or more strikes.

Gustafsson catches a low kick.
And runs the champion to the mat.

Consequently, Jones was nowhere near as active or accurate with his kicks to the knee as he was against the plodding Quinton Jackson.

From the second round onward, Gustafsson would draw Jones' kicks (which Jones was leading with) and fire back counters. The trip Gustafsson hit at the start of the second, and numerous combinations, came off of checked kicks or ones which Gustafsson simply took with the expectation of countering.

Jones attempted a good many back kicks which—being a spinning technique rather than a truly linear technique—can achieve the desired affect if an opponent circles into them, but Gustafsson was too wily for the most part.

Gustafsson did not simply run from side to side but would often stand in front of Jones and start plodding his way in, taking the push kicks to the knee as he did so. Fighting heavy on his front leg Gustafsson could work his body jab and his counter left hook well while Jones tried to keep him off and had little effect. 

Earlier this week the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published an article on Gustafsson likening the "baptism by fire" that he was receiving against Jones to that of Ingemar Johansson in his first bout with Floyd Patterson.

To take nothing away from Johansson, however, Gustaffson looked nothing like his countryman in the ring.

Johansson knew that he must land his right hand—variously called "Ingo's Bingo" and "Thor's Hammer"—to win.

Gustafsson instead worked Jones from head to toe with everything in his tool kit. He jabbed, body jabbed, hooked, kicked low and took Jones down and found numerous holes for his own "Bingo" in the middle of all of this.

Variety is the spice of the boxing game and Gustafsson threw curry powder into Jones' eyes time and time again.

Understandably, Gustafsson's work rate and unfamiliarity with 25 minute bouts led to him slowing in the final stanza. Round five was pretty much all Jones. Gustafsson had let a few snapping high kicks come uncomfortably close to his jawline throughout the bout because of his relaxed posture, but in round five he had neither the strength to stop them nor the energy to move away.

Proper Boxing

If UFC 165 did not make it abundantly clear, boxing technique still has a long way to come in MMA for most fighters, and good boxing technique can bewilder even the best all around fighter in the world.

By technique I do not mean leaping across the floor the quickest or holding one's hands tight defensively as Georges St. Pierre is so brilliant at. I mean the creativity which a skilled boxing technician has on the feet.

Many coaches treat the body jab as a nothing punch in MMA, yet from the second round of this title bout onward, Gustafsson's body jab allowed him to go on offense.

Standing directly in front of Jones he would jab for Jones' solar plexus then immediately return to an upright posture to hit Jones with a jab, right straight or left hook in the head. 

Gustafsson jabs the body.
And immediately comes upstairs with a jab to the face.

Punch variety confuses people far more than speed or power alone can, something which Junior Dos Santos has been showing in the heavyweight division for some time. While Gustafsson got hit a few times as he attempted uppercuts from a misjudged range with his hands down, something I alluded to in my last article, for the most part he looked like that most mythical of creatures in MMA—a skilled boxer who can stop an elite wrestler's takedowns

Gustafsson attempts a long uppercut with his hands low and eats a right straight instead.

Jones' Ring Science

Being blown away by Gustafsson's performance shouldn't let us detract from Jones' own work, however. The champion outlasted the challenger and battered him through the last round and a quarter with experience and grit.

In addition to the repeated spinning back kicks which Jones used to corral Gustafsson every time he began circling, he also connected some nasty roundhouse kicks on Gustafsson's right arm as the Swede circled to his right.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Jones' greatest moments in this bout were undoubtedly his double spinning elbow and his high kicks.

The high kicks were simply snapped up from stance throughout the fight and often caught Gustafsson off guard even while he was fresh.

The spinning back elbow in the fourth round which did the damage to Gustafsson's will and face was an attempt to punish Gustafsson for his inside slip (which took him into the path of the elbow). The genius came in that Jones attempted it once, then immediately did exactly the same thing and connected it flush. 

Just as "no good fighter" will lead with a right hand, no good fighter will attempt the same technique twice in a row. That makes it all the more surprising when a truly elite fighter does it.

After a fighter misses a spinning technique he is expected to get tentative and try it again later in the fight, not immediately.

Styles Make Fights

How then did I—and in my defence, most others in the fight game—not see Gustafsson as having much of a chance against Jones? 

Firstly there is the issue of competition. Some fighters are great at wrecking less than stellar competition, but others rise to the occasion much better if they are put in front of someone truly terrifying.

Chris Weidman and Alexander Gustafsson both never fought a top five contender until they met the champion, and both astounded us with their all around skill in their title fights. Gustafsson didn't look half so good against Thiago Silva and a shambling Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua as he did against Jones.

A second, and more important reason is that old adage of the fight game; styles make fights. 

Immediately after the fight there was talk of how Jones struggled with someone his own size, and this much is true, but the assertion that he only wins because of his size advantage over his opponents is clearly ridiculous. 

Jones excels at using his reach advantage. He does so better than anyone in the MMA game. Alexander Gustafsson is pretty mediocre at using his reach.

Rather than avoid the danger and fight from the outside against shorter opponents as Jones does, Gustafsson will move in close against much shorter opponents and attempt to fight them from a range where they can both strike.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport
Slipping like this is simply irrelevant against much shorter opponents for the most part.

While Jones is much more effective with his reach, it took Gustafsson meeting an opponent of similar stature of his own to properly apply the game that he has always wanted to.

Slipping inside of Jones' strikes and coming back with combinations, moving inside of Jones' kicks, this is the kind of stuff that one would have trouble doing as a taller fighter, but it all worked so well for Gustafsson against the first opponent of similar stature that he has met. 

Many have called for Jones to make a move to heavyweight but honestly after last night, seeing Gustafsson's full boxing style come out against a gigantic light heavyweight, I feel like Gustafsson might have more success at heavyweight than Jones would.

He simply doesn't use his reach well enough as a giant in his division, at heavyweight he would be able to employ all the slick moves he pulled off against Jones.

I always steer well clear of predictions because it's all guess work to me, but I would be very surprised if Gustafsson didn't turn into something very special in his next few bouts.

Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.

Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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