At least in theory, Alexander Gustafsson was once the UFC light-heavyweight division's top contender. Back in December, just days before Gustafsson fought Mauricio Rua, UFC president Dana White made the declaration that the winner would get the next title shot.
"Unless there's some crazy s--- that happens, which always does," he added in a caveat, leaving himself some wiggle room that would later prove to be quite necessary.
Well, we all know what happened. Gustafsson took take of his part of the deal, handily defeating Rua, but then the "crazy s---" happened when White and company decided that Chael Sonnen, loser of two middleweight title bouts, would make a more marketable foil for champ Jon Jones.
So, instead, Gustafsson has moved on to a matchup with former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi in the main event of UFC on FUEL 9.
As consolation prizes go, it's not great shakes. Mousasi is a dangerous opponent who has lost only once in his last 22 fights. That includes wins over heavyweight Mark Hunt, Hector Lombard and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, among others. But Mousasi does not have a high profile among American MMA fans. So that makes it a high-risk fight for Gustafsson.
On top of that, White recently declared that Lyoto Machida had jumped the line and was waiting in the wings for the Jones-Sonnen victor.
Nevertheless, Gustafsson is unfazed. He's hoping to use the matchup as a showcase of his talents, and then the post-fight to make a pitch to fight for that top contender spot he lost without ever actually losing.
"My biggest concern right now is Mousasi," he said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "That’s my biggest focus. It's the only thing I think of right now. I don't really think about [being No. 1] that much. I’m going to grab the mic from whoever has it after the fight and I'm going to challenge the champ after this fight, so let's see what happens."
While that may seem a bit out of character for Gustafsson given his normally genial presence, he says that's about to change.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," he said. "No more running. It's time."
Gustafsson says that part of his strategy is to wow the sport's onlookers. After starting his UFC career with finishes in each of his first victories, he's gone to the judges' scorecards in each of his last two. In the first, he was competing in the main event for the first time, and in his native Sweden, no less. In the second, he was fighting a veritable legend of the sport, Rua.
He believes those career firsts affected him on fight night, but that the experiences will help him as he continues to progress.
"I’m not a decision guy," he said. "I want to finish guys. That's what I did before, and that's what I want to get back to. It’s going to be a finish for sure."
His participation in the April 2012 Stockholm, Sweden card should yield the first dividends, as UFC on FUEL 9 will emanate from the same venue as his fight with Silva. Since that time, he says that the sport has grown quickly, as the Scandinavian nation of less than 10 million embraces it. According to Gustafsson, several new gyms are sprouting up, and new talent has already emerged.
While hockey and soccer are far and away the most popular sports in Sweden, Gustafsson says he does get noticed these days, and that by and large, the feedback is "very good."
Of course, that stands to change greatly as his stature inside the UFC grows. His aim is to take it to the top. So if he wins on April 6, the winner of the upcoming Jones-Sonnen fight should be put on notice. He's coming. Whether it's now or in the future, he's coming.
"You never know in this business, anything can happen so I'll just keep training and fight whoever they give me," he said. "I just want to win. My big focus is to win every fight. I know I will get the title shot in the future. I’ll win this fight and after that fight, I’ll look for the title."