Echoes from the night of Sept. 21, 2013 still speak whispers of just how close Alexander Gustafsson came to being a UFC champion.
“And still, the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion of the world, Jon 'Bones' Jones,” UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer belted from the microphone at UFC 165.
Those words play over and over again like a bad song on the radio, imprisoning Gustafsson in a nightmarish and perpetual time loop. The entirety of the moment was reminiscent of reaching the end of a rainbow only to find that there was no pot of gold.
No consolation prize comes with a loss in combat sports. For every failure, there is only a pat on the shoulder and a trip back to the end of the line.
However, Gustafsson became the exception to the rule after going 25 grueling minutes with Jones in arguably the greatest title fight in UFC history. As Jones walked out of the Octagon that night with UFC gold, an empty-handed Gustafsson stood alone in the spotlight, surrounded by thousands of cheering Canadian fans at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
From that moment forward, the Swedish boxer’s life would never be the same again.
“Everything has changed [since the Jones fight]. It’s been a great journey and a lot of fun. Just enjoying the time,” Gustafsson said during a phone interview with Bleacher Report on Tuesday.
Gustafsson, who is usually a man of few words, has been learning to take everything in stride.
He recently beat out former UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre in a fan vote to decide who would be featured on the front cover of EA’s upcoming UFC video game. To think, one performance helped Gustafsson oust the biggest pay-per-view draw in UFC history in a popularity contest.
“It’s crazy. I’m very excited to see the cover itself. It’s amazing,” said Gustafsson.
Ironically enough, the man joining Gustafsson on the front cover will be none other than his archrival, UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones.
The testament of time is ever-flowing and always changing. Yesterday’s past and today’s present can sometimes be a far cry from tomorrow’s future. A year ago, Gustafsson went relatively unknown by casual fans, and now, he is recognized by the MMA world as the Joe Frazier to Jones’ Muhammad Ali.
“It feels good to hear that and to know that, and I know that it’s just the beginning,” Gustafsson said. “There’s a lot more to come. I’m a different fighter today, and the next fight is going to be different and I will win that fight.”
Gustafsson also said, “I’m working on everything. I try to understand the sport more and more as I develop, and I try to be a better fighter overall and work on everything, not just every aspect, I try to combine it too. I work on it every day, and I try to be a better fighter in every practice.”
Gustafsson showed off his continued evolution as a fighter in his bout with Jimi Manuwa at UFC Fight Night 37. He was able to keep the undefeated striker off balance by mixing in takedowns with his usual stand-up-heavy offense. The strategy worked perfectly for Gustafsson, who earned a TKO win and a second crack at UFC gold.
Jones, who hasn’t been particularly fond of the UFC’s matchmaking, would rather see Gustafsson face a bona fide light heavyweight contender before receiving another title shot. He has even floated former heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier’s name out there as a potential opponent:
The pressure appears to be mounting for Jones, who is already slated to defend his title on April 26 against Glover Teixeira. It has to be tough to sleep at night knowing a pair of dangerous opponents like Gustafsson and Cormier are both waiting in the wings.
In Jones’ eyes, the UFC has prepared a gauntlet of contenders taking “easy matchups to get a title shot.”
“I feel like they save all the dogs for me, and they just give the toughest guys the easiest matchups to get a title shot. Let’s see some of these top contenders fight each other,” Jones said in an interview with MMAFighting.com.
There isn't any sympathy from Gustafsson, who believes Jones is just doing everything he can to avoid the rematch as long as possible.
“He knows that I’m a very bad matchup for him,” said Gustafsson. “He knows that the first fight was very tough for both of us, and he knows that I’m a bad matchup. My style isn’t really a good style for him. He’s just trying to avoid me as long as possible.”
As for Teixeira’s chances against Jones, Gustafsson is willing to concede that the Brazilian has a puncher’s chance. But other than that, he fully expects Jones to record his seventh consecutive UFC title defense.
“Well, there’s always a chance. [Teixeira] hits very hard, and he’s very tough. He also combines striking with his takedowns very well,” Gustafsson explained. “He’s a tough fighter, but I think Jones will win the fight. I think Jones has too many tools for him, and he’s faster. He isn’t a fighter that moves a lot. He just stands in the same spot and tries to throw heat. That’s the kind of style Jones likes to fight.”
There is a mutual respect hidden behind the Jones and Gustafsson rivalry. Both men’s careers were forever changed from the epic five-round battle at UFC 165.
Gustafsson achieved superstardom and earned the MMA world’s respect as a serious light heavyweight contender. Jones, on the other hand, learned the valuable lesson of never mistaking dominance for invincibility. For every tree that is cut down, there is always a stronger one to take its place.
It’s a heavy burden that comes along with being UFC champion, but it is also one Gustafsson believes Jones has handled quite well. When asked who he felt was currently the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Gustafsson didn’t need a second to think before giving a definitive answer.
“I think it is Jon Jones,” said Gustafsson. “He’s proven that a lot of times. He’s unbeaten. He has the one loss [to Matt Hamill], but I don’t count it as a loss. I would say Jon Jones.”
Jordy McElroy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also the MMA writer for Rocktagon. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.