This summer has been bittersweet for Canadian music fans. Yes, that’s an odd place to start in discussing a Swedish mixed martial artist, but give it a second.
One of the greatest rock bands the country has known, The Tragically Hip, completed its final tour after lead singer and Canadian icon Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier in the year.
The band is known for insightful lyrics and songs that center around social issues, history and other ideas that are not always a first focus for musicians. One such song, Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park, is an ode to a bear living in captivity and a commentary on the concerns such treatment of animals creates.
“What’s troubling Gus?” Downie crows repeatedly, offering interruptions of constant conversations, lack of fear the bear instills in people as he’s held captive, or the struggle he has between his new life and his biological urge to hunt and kill as possible sources along the way.
It’s perhaps a little corny and may not be a story that everyone is interested in, but it’s a lyric that sticks with anyone who hears it.
Now in 2016, 12 years after that lyric was first heard and three years after Gus the Polar Bear passed away at the Central Park Zoo, MMA fans have reason to revive it because Alexander Gustafsson has been troubled in his own way, and everyone is wondering what the cause might be.
Since his epic title war with Jon Jones at UFC 165, Gustafsson has only fought three times. He holds a win over an overmatched Jimi Manuwa and a pair of losses—one in devastating fashion to Anthony Johnson, another in a title fight with Daniel Cormier that he was inexplicably gifted after losing to Johnson.
He’s fought well at times, if unspectacularly, producing his best work in the Cormier fight while remaining unable to get over the hump and become champion. This weekend he’ll throw hands in Germany on a Fight Pass card that most people forgot was even happening, and many more probably didn’t even know he was scheduled for.
It’s a significant drop in status for Sweden’s top MMA product, who should be entering his prime and finding more success with his rangy boxing and vastly improved wrestling. He isn’t though, instead alternating between big fights with bad results and beating up veritable scrubs just to keep his name out there to some extent.
So what’s troubling Gus?
Probably a few things, actually.
The Jones fight was among the wildest tilts the sport has ever seen, and it’s not outrageous to suggest Gustafsson may have needed the better part of a year just to get himself right afterwards. It happens routinely to athletes that they need a long recovery after a fight takes a part of them—Rory MacDonald in his loss to Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit in his are good recent examples of the trend.
The Johnson loss happened in Sweden at the second stadium show the UFC had ever done, where 40,000 of Gustafsson’s countrymen saw him get totally romped after he was positioned as a conquering hero returning home. It was bad enough that he openly considered retirement afterwards in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen (h/t MMAFighting.com), which says it all.
The Cormier fight was somewhere in between, and though the shot itself wasn’t deserved on merit, Gustafsson showed up and fought like a man possessed when he got it. It wasn’t the chaotic brawl that the Jones bout was, and the loss wasn’t as explosive as the Johnson outcome, but it was still the exact type of occurrence that made him wonder if he’s still cut out for his chosen line of work, per an interview on The MMA Hour.
Now with these troubles having spanned across three years, Gustafsson will look to get on some sort of permanent track back to relevance when he meets unranked Jan Blachowicz. He’s a talented man who’s run afoul of some more talented men in recent fights, and it’s left him treading water as something of a forgotten contender as a result.
So the answer to what’s troubling Gus? Well it just so happens that the answer applied to both the polar bear and the mixed martial artist. Says Downie:
Is that what's troubling you, Gus? The mere mention of the name
Used to be enough to make every bird stop singing.
Is that what's troubling you, Gus? No one is afraid.
Gus the Polar Bear is beyond saving, but the right showing from Alexander Gustafsson this weekend will make people afraid once again. That would be a pretty good place for him to start.