All eyes were on Alexander Gustafsson at Fight Night 37.
After taking light heavyweight king Jon Jones to the brink back in September, "The Mauler" was promised another opportunity to compete for the title as long as he won his next fight. The 27-year-old accepted the challenge and stepped in to earn his his due against undefeated knockout artist Jimi Manuwa in the main event to the UFC's first visit to London in 2014.
With the bout headlining a Fight Pass card and the No. 1 contender facing an opponent not ranked in the top 10, the situation was far from ideal for the Swedish fighter. That said, Gustafsson understood the dangers the "Posterboy" presented, and he handled the task accordingly.
While Gustafsson held a huge advantage over Manuwa in the ground department, "The Mauler" decided to keep things standing and properly blistered the knockout artist with a huge flurry in the second round. With the win, the Team Alliance fighter earned another shot at championship gold and put another big win on his already impressive resume.
The lightweight division has been one of the best collectives under the UFC banner for the past four years as the race for top spots has remained consistent. On Saturday night, surging prospect Michael Johnson looked to break through into the next level as former contender Melvin Guillard was fighting to earn his way back.
The co-main event tilt was figured to be one of the best bouts on the card. While it didn't live up to the hype of being an all-out war, Johnson showed up to work and handled his business. The Team Blackzilians fighter once again showed gain improvements in his striking game as he walked away with the unanimous-decision victory.
Outside of the two biggest fights on the card, there was plenty of action to be found Saturday night at the O2 Arena. Granted, said action came in various forms, but there was action to be found nonetheless.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from Fight Night 37.
Gustafsson didn't want to talk about Jones in the lead-up to his fight against Manuwa in London. "The Mauler" knew he had a title shot waiting if he defeated Manuwa and wanted to put all of his focus on the undefeated knockout artist.
There was a lot at stake heading into Fight Night 37, and Gustafsson showed up in a big way on Saturday night. After putting the "Posterboy" on the mat for the majority of the first round, he decided to keep things standing in the second frame.
While trading leather with a dangerous puncher with the capabilities Manuwa possesses is a risky move, Gustafsson ultimately proved to be more game than many expected.
The 27-year-old rattled Manuwa with a combination as the Brit's back was against the cage, then he used a big knee to put his opponent on the mat. With Manuwa down and in trouble, Gustafsson swarmed to pound out the finish. With the victory he automatically earns the next shot at the light heavyweight title and will get another opportunity to earn championship gold.
It also should be noted that while Gustafsson is a one of the best fighters on the planet, he won't be representing his country as a gymnast any time soon. His post-fight cartwheel was lacking in form, but his charisma and enthusiasm was enough to salvage the moment.
When a fighter turns a corner in their career, it is a sight to behold, and Michael Johnson has done precisely that over his last three fights. The Blackzilian had knocked off veterans Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau, respectively heading into London and was looking to pick up another huge win against Melvin Guillard at Fight Night 37.
While the bout didn't result in the wild-fire fight it was figured to be, "The Menace" put a cerebral and effective effort forth, and it was enough to earn him the unanimous-decision victory. Where Johnson once relied on his wrestling and athleticism in the early stages of his time in the UFC, his improved striking game has made the difference in his recent hot streak.
With the victory over Guillard, Johnson is guaranteed entry into the deeper waters of the lightweight division. His next challenge will certainly come from the next tier of the 155-pound fold, and facing the winner of the upcoming tilt between Jim Miller and Bobby Green next month at UFC 172 would make solid sense for Johnson.
The UFC welterweight division is rich with talent, and Gunnar Nelson is blazing his way up the ladder. The highly touted prospect is figured to be a future star in the weight class, and he provided another example of just how real the hype is on Saturday.
After spending a year away from the cage, Nelson returned to steamroll Omari Akhmedov to kick off the main card for Fight Night 37.
Following a brief feeling-out period on the feet, the Icelandic fighter dropped Akhmedov with a straight left hand then went to work on the canvas. Nelson quickly moved to mount where he unleashed a brutal series of elbows that battered the Dagestan native. With the clock ticking down on the round, Nelson locked in a guillotine that forced Akhmedov to tap.
With the victory, Nelson picks up his third win under the UFC banner and keeps his undefeated record intact. The 25-year-old has proven to be far superior to the level of competition he's faced thus far, and it will be interesting to see which path the UFC will travel in bringing him along.
*** Brad Pickett took the fight on the judges' cards to make a successful flyweight debut, but his opponent Neil Seery has nothing to hang his head about.
The Brit and the Irishman brought 15 minutes of ruckus and made a solid play for Fight of the Night honors as they traded leather in wild flurries throughout the three-round affair. "One Punch" took the unanimous decision and inserted himself as a major player at 125 pounds, while Seery gave fans a reason to want to see him fight again.
*** While he has been MIA for over a year, Ilir Latifi came thundering back onto the UFC scene on Saturday. The Swedish "Sledgehammer" overpowered veteran Cyrille Diabate and made short work of "The Snake" with a first-round submission victory. Once the light heavyweight powerhouse latched onto the choke, it was all over for the French striker, as Latifi picked up his first win inside the Octagon.
*** The Ultimate Fighter 17 alum Luke Barnatt wanted to put on a show for his countrymen when he faced Mats Nilsson. He knew the submission savvy Swede would be looking to take the action to the mat, and the "Bigslow" used his range and ever-improving striking to keep the fight right where he wanted it.
After peppering Nilsson with a solid barrage of shots, Barnatt turned up the pressure and scored the first-round stoppage. With the win Barnatt keeps his perfect record intact and picked up his eighth consecutive victory.
*** Louis Gaudinot needed a victory on Saturday night to stay on the relevant side of the flyweight division, and that's exactly what he took from Phil Harris.
The green-haired TUF alum made short work of his British opponent by locking on a guillotine and forcing Harris to tap early in the opening round. Gaudinot put on another strong showing in London and has now found victory in two of his last three showings.
*** It has been awhile since Dan Hardy has made an appearance inside the Octagon. After a rare heart condition forced an end to his fighting career, "The Outlaw" signed on to be a part of a new commentating team for Fight Pass events.
On Saturday night, Hardy pulled off a solid performance as his play-by-play was on point and his post-fight interviews were solid. All in all it was a great first showing for the former knockout artist and a great start to his post-fight career.
There is no doubting that Guillard possesses the type of talent to be an elite-level fighter in the lightweight division. But the question constantly surrounding the 30-year-old Louisiana native is which version of the heavy-handed fighter is going to show up.
When the aggressive knockout artist steps into the cage, he's one of the toughest outs in the lightweight ranks. He brings a unique blend of speed and power, and when combined with a sharp killer instinct, Guillard can be a monster inside the cage.
That said, there is also a different version of the veteran that shows up from time to time.
Where Guillard is typically dangerous at every point of the fight, his "Mr. Hyde" side is cautious and unwilling to engage. While there is nothing wrong with fighting a smart fight, on Saturday night against Johnson, the "Young Assassin" showed no sense of urgency, despite obviously being down the cards heading into the third round.
From 2010-11, Guillard strung together five consecutive victories and put himself within striking distance of a shot at the lightweight title. Yet, in the two years since that run, the former contender has experienced a rough road. He's managed only two wins in his last eight showings with one of those bouts ending in a no contest.
In order for Guillard to remain relevant in the elite tier of the lightweight division, he needed to bring Johnson's momentum to a halt. Unfortunately for Guillard, he wasn't able to get the job done and in the process ushered his opponent to the next level of the weight class.
When the UFC hosts a card overseas, they typically line the card with fighters from that particular country. Fight Night 37 was no different as six competitors on the lineup hailed from the United Kingdom.
That said, it was a rough night for the British natives as four of the six were turned back in their efforts. Only Brad Pickett and Luke Barnatt were able to put on strong showings in front of their countrymen while Phil Harris, Danny Mitchell, Brad Scott and Manuwa were all sent packing on the night.
In the week leading up to Fight Night 37, the UFC's digital network, Fight Pass, was the hottest topic across the MMA community. With the free-trial-subscription period at an end, fans and media debated the effectiveness of holding cards—especially one that featured the No. 2 light heavyweight in the world—on such a platform.
With Gustafsson coming off a career-making performance against Jones last September, it seemed to be a strange move to place him on a card that could only be viewed online. While the move was undoubtedly a play by the UFC to drive attention to their latest endeavor, the general consensus seemed to have the talented Swede being buried on an Internet card.
Nevertheless, the event went off without a hitch, and the presentation on Fight Pass was solid. The commentating team of John Gooden and Dan Hardy did a solid job calling the action, and action on the card flowed at a consistent pace.
It was a good look for Fight Pass in London, and it will be interesting to see how things progress in regard to the UFC's future digital offerings.
Promotional newcomer Danny Mitchell was looking to make an impression in his UFC debut on Saturday night. With his catchy "The Cheesecake Assassin" moniker and his mullet/rat-tail-hybrid hairstyle, the Brit certainly brought a strong one-two punch of strange.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, that's all he really brought as he had no answer for the grappling of Igor Araujo. Mitchell came out on the business end of a lopsided unanimous decision loss and his effort to make some noise inside the cage fell flat.
Staying with the presentation theme, the stoic gaze of Gunnar Nelson belongs in a class all its own. The Icelandic grappling phenom once again showed zero emotion as he put a thorough drubbing on Omari Akhmedov en route to another first-round stoppage. It's also worth noting that Nelson cracked a slight smile in his post-fight interview.
Your move, Gegard Mousasi.
Duane Finley is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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