In fight journalism you get a lot of opportunities to be wrong. Fighters will rise to the occasion, perform out of their skin, or just look nothing like you've seen them look before. I can't think of anyone who I underestimated quite as severely as UFC light heavyweight Alexander Gustafsson.
In December 2012, Gustafsson met established, but declining, light heavyweight legend Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC on Fox: Henderson vs. Diaz. Gustafsson’s performance earned him a title shot but made me critical of his chances once he got there.
At this stage in his long, illustrious career Rua swings between phases of legitimate brilliance and being a shadow of his best self, usually based on whether or not he has the ability to kick during a particular fight. Knee surgeries have ravaged Shogun's legs, affecting how he can train for fights and what he can do in them. Shogun's kicks are hard, fast, and some of the best in mixed martial arts. They also serve to set up his power punches. This is important because his boxing game doesn't do much to set up his power punches at all.
Against Gustafsson, Shogun showed few kicks. It looked as though it was going to be another sad, swinging-and-missing performance. Except Gustafsson didn't make it into that. He let Shogun hit him. I'd say perhaps a little too much, but any time you let a knockout artist like Rua hit you with free shots it’s too much.
A lot of this stemmed from the way Gustafsson would throw a couple of long strikes then attempt a low kick from directly in front of Rua. Rua would meet the kick with a punch. Rua was even able to run through Gustafsson into a takedown. Naturally this made me incredibly pessimistic about Gustafsson's chances against Jones.
Gustafsson also routinely gave up his reach by throwing long, set-up-free right uppercuts. Leading with a right uppercut is generally a no-no because it's slow and telegraphed. Consequently Gustafsson ate a good few heavy counters while throwing out that long uppercut.
In September 2013 I wrote a piece called, “Alexander Gustafsson: Strategically Sound, Defensively Flawed," in which I examined the Rua fight and noted:
It is unlikely that Gustafsson's sloppy defense during strikes has gone unnoticed by Team Jackson/Winkeljohn. Let us remember that it was only Rashad Evans' decent defensive form that stopped him from being put to sleep by the counter elbows which Jones was chucking at him every time he stepped in.
What's more, though Shogun kicked little, the low kicks he did throw were effective against Gustafsson, who uses a good deal of lateral movement. It certainly seemed that in a prospective match against Jon Jones, who has a fantastic attrition low kick game, Gustafsson was headed for trouble.
But fight night came, and, goodness, was I surprised. For almost four full rounds, Gustafsson gave the champion—who had looked largely untroubled in his MMA career to that point—a boxing lesson. And I don't mean he was hitting the champion hard; I mean he was boxing him.
Boxing in the Cage
Jones has fought plenty of hard punchers—Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson, Ryan Bader, Mauricio Rua—yet none of them is a good boxer. The punch is just the brush stroke; boxing is the art.
Boxing is an art form that recognizes that not all punches are created equal. It’s not a case of the “he only needs to land one” mindset that so many fans and fighters use to delude themselves. “How will he react when he tastes fighter x's power?!” is a line used to sell fights, not a reason to bet on an upset. Boxing, as an art and a science, is about landing the light blows early to set up the big shots later on.
Gustafsson didn't pick Jones apart by relying on any one method; he consummately worked the champion over, showcasing multiple strategies and techniques. His beautiful dipping jab, for instance, was the way he worked inside of Jones' typical stiff-arming tactics.
By putting the fear of the jab into Jones, Gustafsson created other openings for himself. Nobody lands their jab every time, but if your opponent is worried about your jab, you have an opportunity to use other techniques that will further the fight. When Jones began to parry jabs, for example, Gustafsson hooked off of the jab.
Hooking off of the jab is the kind of move that separates good, scientific boxers from plain old fighters. The technique consists of throwing a jab, followed immediately by a hook off the same hand. It doesn't have the power of a 1-2, and there isn't so much the threat of the knockout if the hook lands, but it uses the threat of one punch to land another, and that in turn flusters the opponent and creates further possibilities.
A dexterous lead hand is one of the marks of a skilled boxer. Another is the use of level changes and straights to the body. Again, like the hook off the jab, body jabs are not an especially damaging strike. But they score points both with judges and in the mind of an opponent.
It’s a great shame that the body jab is so overlooked because if an opponent doesn't respect it a fighter can use it all night and start slamming it in with some power (as Junior Dos Santos has demonstrated). If the opponent starts being proactive in dealing with the body jab, he starts opening himself up to more orthodox punches.
Reviewing the Jones/Gustafsson fight, you will be astonished at how big a role the body jab played in creating openings and flustering the light heavyweight champion of the world. In combat sports there is a tendency to focus on immediate results, and jabbing to the body, which is never going to knock anyone out, doesn't seem to fit in with that mindset. What you'll notice is that not every one of Gustafsson's connections is a heavy one, but he lands often and each creates another angle for Jones to worry about. It's a stark contrast to the same old winging of the left hook to right straight of Quinton Jackson or overhand right to left hook of Glover Teixeira.
Need a nice example of how the body jab can throw even the world's best off their games? Shane Mosley was hugely overmatched against Floyd Mayweather. In round two Mosley slammed a couple of hard jabs into Mayweather's solar plexus. They worked, so he did it again. Then he jabbed low and came up with a right hand that wobbled Mayweather to his boots. Mayweather recovered and continued to outbox Mosley, but body jabs can piss a fighter off and get his mind off of what he's doing.
Dealing with the Jones Magic
One of the major threats that Gustafsson faced throughout the fight was Jones' fondness for switching stances. The dynamic of a fight changes depending on which stance an opponent is in relative to yours (orthodox or southpaw stance that is, not monkey or crane stance and such twaddle).
If you are orthodox and the opponent switches to southpaw (as Jones did throughout the fight) you can’t attack him as freely with jabs because his right hand will be in front of him and in the way, and you can’t move your head as freely to your right side. Where before that would have taken your head past his lead shoulder and clear of any danger, now that he’s in southpaw stance it just leans you out into the path of his rear, power hand.
Gustafsson showed a great awareness of what Jones was doing with his stance throughout the fight. Just look at this short clip, as Gustafsson checks the southpaw Jones' lead hand, yanks it down for a quick jab and remains upright. Jones switches stances and comes back with a jab, Gustafsson is now free to slip to the outside with little danger, and he lands a beautiful counter jab. It's a lot going on in a moment, but it shows you the experience and intelligence of Gustafsson.
The gap between the two fighters in boxing ability was really highlighted whenever Jones attempted to jab. What Jones has been able to do against previous punchers is pin them down at range with his attrition low kick game and stand them still long enough to land good, hard jabs and right straights. Whenever Jones jabbed against Gustafsson, however, he would eat a good counter more often than not.
Here is a beautiful instance of Gustafsson countering a jab with a hook, turning Jones onto the fence, landing a combination and a right straight to the body and a body kick as Jones tries to circle out.
That all said, Gustafsson looked sublime but not flawless. For instance, each time he circled near to the fence, Jones would attempt to catch the Swede with a back kick to the breadbasket.
Jones also did well to exploit Gustafsson's constant dipping of his head. The first way he did this was with his repeated attempts to high kick the challenger.
The second method, and the one that really turned the tide of the fight for Jones, was with the spinning back elbow. As Gustafsson's head dipped to the outside of Jones' lead arm, it was completely safe from Jone's boxing arsenal. Boxing, however, does not allow spinning attacks. Bringing his right elbow all the way around, Jones caught Gustafsson leaning late in round four and put the Swede on Queer Street.
Inexperience is a real issue. A fighter who has not been in against big name opposition at the top of their game and who then fights the world champion is at an enormous disadvantage.
The true brain scratcher in combat sports, however, is in pacing a fighter's development. Everyone is working within a very, very small window. You have 10 years of good work in you, if you're lucky. If you rush a fighter, you can ruin him by handing him a devastating loss. If you coddle a fighter, you can waste his entire career working him toward a title fight he never gets, or takes once he's past his best.
Gustafsson seems to be one of those fighters who was improved by the quality of the opponent standing opposite him. Furthermore, the things that made me so pessimistic of his chances after he fought Shogun—namely his standing right on top of Shogun despite his reach advantage—actually showed to be game breakers against Jon Jones. Getting right up in Jones' grill and inside of his reach really allowed Gustafsson to provide an excellent showing.
Of course, styles make fights. Gustafsson could look horrible against Jimi Manuwa on Saturday in London—indeed Manuwa is a scary fighter to be in with—but in his last fight, against perhaps the most skilled light heavyweight in the sport's history, Gustafsson proved to be the nightmare match-up.
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