HISCOE: The agony of defeat was finally too much for Alexander Gustafsson

Michael Hiscoe MMATorch contributor

Jun 1, 2019; Stockholm, Sweden; Alexander Gustafsson (red gloves) reacts to fight against Anthony Smith (blue gloves) at Ericsson Globe. Mandatory Credit: Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Alexander Gustafsson, to the surprise of pretty much everybody, called it quits on Saturday in Stockholm, telling us “The show is over.”

After a very strong career at light heavyweight, the pain of losing another high-profile fight proved to be too much for “The Mauler.” While he should be remembered for his wins and strong performances he put on in the cage, it’s Gustafsson’s losses that shaped his career.

Gustafsson won the first nine fights of career including his UFC debut, a 41 second knockout of Jared Hamman on the undercard of UFC 105. He was soon matched up with another undefeated light heavyweight, Phil Davis at UFC 112. Davis submitted Gustafsson in the first round win an anaconda choke. The loss and Davis’ performance left an impression on Gustafsson. So much so that he sought out Davis to train with him for his next fight. Gustafsson formed a friendship and Davis was perhaps Gustafsson’s biggest supporters and advocates throughout his career.

The move proved to be beneficial for Gustafsson, as he won his next six fights after the loss to Davis. Most notable of those wins was a decision over former champ Shogun Rua on a UFC on FOX main card.

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The run and win over Shogun was enough for Gustafsson to secure a title shot against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Jones was already two years and five defenses deep into his title run when the fight with Gustafsson was made for UFC 165 in Toronto. Few gave Gustafsson a chance as Jones had only a scant few moments in his five title defenses where he was less than dominant. At this point, taking a round from Jones would be an accomplishment, winning a fight would have been monumental.

Making the fight between Jones and Gustafsson was questionable at the time as Gustafsson was relatively unknown to the wider UFC audience, especially compared to Jones’ other title challengers, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort, and Chael Sonnen.

Gustafsson wasn’t known for his personality or talking ability either, so instead of promoting the fight through interviews or a personal grudge, UFC relied on Gustafsson being tall and long in promotional materials with the tagline “Greatness is within reach.” It felt like one of UFC’s poorest promoted events in some time and that came to be true as UFC 165 did only slightly more than 310,000 buys. It was the least bought show of Jones’ title run.

So while the event didn’t deliver big at the box office, Jones and Gustafsson more than made up for it in the cage. The two put on what is still considered one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Gustafsson had Jones in danger on several occasions throughout the fight and won the fight on many observers’ scorecards.

Unfortunately for Gustafsson, the three judges at cageside disagreed and Jones won a unanimous decision. But it was that loss that really made Gustafsson’s career.

The Swede became a sort of martyr figure in bringing Jones to the limit but coming up short. Gustafsson symbolized the hope that someone could be capable of ending Jones’ reign over the light heavyweight division and served as the strong but quiet ying to Jones’ brash and cocky yang.

The loss made Gustafsson an even bigger star in his native Sweden. So much so that UFC ran one of their marquee FOX cards from the 30,000 seat Tele2 Arena in Stockholm with Gustafsson headlining. Across from him was heavy hitter Anthony Johnson. A win for Gustafsson could set up a rematch with Jones, who had just dispatched Daniel Cormier a few weeks prior.

It wasn’t meant to be as Gustafsson was blasted and embarrassed by Johnson in front of his home country. The loss was devastating for Gustafsson who has had greatness just within his reach, but just couldn’t quite get it.

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Despite the loss, Gustafsson was given a title shot in his next fight, only against Cormier who had defeated Johnson for the title when Jones was stripped and suspended due to some out of the cage shenanigans. Again, Gustafsson came up short, losing a razor close split decision to Cormier at UFC 192. With three losses in his last four fights, Gustafsson’s title hopes and chances for another crack at Jones were diminishing.

From here with some patience and good timing, the Jones fight and the title shot finally came together. Gustafsson won a fifth-round knockout over Glover Teixeira in Stockholm while Cormier moved up to heavyweight leaving a vacancy at the top of the light heavyweight division. Jones was returning after sorting out his personal and pharmaceutical life and the rematch was on.

Jones vs. Gustafsson II was set for Dec. 29, 2018, in Las Vegas. The fight was moved to Los Angeles the week of the fight after the Nevada Commission was unwilling to license Jones after some questionable drug test results. Gustafsson was unfazed by the drama proclaiming that Jones could be on “rocket fuel” as long as the fight went on.

The fight went on and Gustafsson finally had his opportunity for retribution. This time Jones was ready for him and Gustafsson was never really able to get into the fight. Jones won a third-round TKO after taking down and mounting Gustafsson in a dominant performance.

Gustafsson tried to rebound this weekend with a hometown fight against another of Jones’ casualties, Anthony Smith. The fight was a good stylistic matchup for Gustafsson. Smith likes to press forward and Gustafsson would be able to find his range and catch his opponent rushing in. For the first three rounds, that was largely true. The fight was competitive, but Gustafsson was certainly getting his shots in and he had Smith in big trouble late in the third round. Then in the fourth round, Smith was able to take him down and secure a choke to tap Gustafsson out and seemingly end his career.

It was a winnable fight for Gustafsson. If that third round was a little longer or if Smith didn’t get that trip takedown in the fourth, we might be talking about his next fight and what he needs to do to get another title shot, but instead, all of that was just out of reach and the show is over.

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