Alexander Gustafsson has been known to take a loss pretty hard.
Leading up to his UFC 192 title fight against Daniel Cormier, much was made of comments Gustafsson made following his first-round knockout defeat to Anthony Johnson back in January. The six-foot-five Swede, distraught and dejected after coming so close to securing a second title shot against Jon Jones, contemplated retiring from the Octagon at the ripe age of 28.
And while “The Mauler” would ultimately prevail, summoning a renewed motivation to strap on his four-ounce gloves and face DC last Saturday in Houston, there were more than mere murmurs on fight week that Gustafsson may, in fact, hang them up for good, should he lose in his second title bid.
Fall Gustafsson did, but fail he did not. Sweden’s most prominent mixed martial artist looked spectacular in his decision loss to Cormier, even winning the fight on judge Derek Cleary’s scorecard. And following this loss, it’s clear that there is still room for Gustafsson among the UFC’s elite light heavyweights; retirement will need to wait for “The Mauler.”
Known for his boxing and striking at range, Gustafsson became the only man to ever take both Jones and Cormier down in competition. He displayed his trademark footwork and straight punches, coupled with some heavy knees to the body, proving that Gus can still hang with the division’s elite. It’s just tough to imagine that his two finest performances inside the Octagon have come in title losses.
Gustafsson is not the only fighter to drop multiple title shots. Flyweight Joseph Benavidez is nearly two years removed from his second championship loss to Demetrious Johnson, and in the midst of a four fight win streak. And The Ultimate Fighter season one runner up Kenny Florian dropped a trio of title fights, across two weight classes.
Benavidez and Florian, always the bridesmaids, still continued to fight after failed bids, and there’s no reason Gustafsson can’t do the same.
Consider all the fights still out there for Gus. A meeting with the loser of Glover Teixeira and Patrick Cummins, or even dates with Rashad Evans or Ovince St.-Preux, another pair of fighters out there, coming off of losses. Gus may be needed now, more than ever, to keep the light heavyweight division competitive while Jon Jones, and his pending re-match with Cormier, remain in limbo.
Yes, it’s very unlikely that Gustafsson will ever earn the second crack at Jones he so desperately wanted following his UFC 165 coming out party, a fight that is still ranked as one of the finest light heavyweight title fights of all time. But what happens when the 36-year-old DC decides to hang up his gloves for good, or Jones begins to dabble in the heavyweight pool or entertain super fights with the likes of Chris Weidman or Cain Velasquez? Who will remain to pick up the 205-pound torch?
Ryan Bader is still out there, winning by decision, and a re-match with Anthony Johnson could eventually materialize. And for exactly these types of fights, the UFC needs Gustafsson to stick around, to loom large, just outside the championship bubble.
Sure, it’s obvious why Gustafsson would want to consider calling it a day. He’s lost in his biggest moments, in his most high-profile bouts. But unlike his January defeat, in front of 40,000 hometown fans, the loss to DC on Saturday, much like the 2013 matchup with Jones, only served to raise his star, showing what tremendous heart and poise Gus really has.
Even after the bout, Cormier dropped his fight-selling façade and admitted that Gustafsson, a man he previously proclaimed was better off modeling in front of the cameras rather than trading punches, was indeed an elite competitor, delivering more damage than he had ever faced during his 18-fight pro career.
Consider that, the current light heavyweight champ absorbed more significant shots from Gustafsson’s hands, knees, and takedowns, than his previous opponents, which include Jones, “Rumble” Johnson, Frank Mir, Josh Barnett, and Antonio “Big Foot” Silva. Now that’s some proof that Gus can scrap.
And right now, when the light heavyweight division is on the thin side, Gustafsson is needed more than ever, perhaps merely to keep the gate.
So while Gus may eventually (and will most likely) always be remembered for a pair of phenomenal title-fight losses, he still has a chance to one day hold the belt. And after Saturday, there’s no way he can walk away, not when he’s delivering on the level he’s capable of.
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