As far as fighter trajectories go, Alexander Gustafsson’s feels a little bit backwards. Just last September the Swede fought Jon Jones for the UFC’s light heavyweight belt, put the until-then invincible champion on the brink, did things that no man had ever done before against Jones, and came within a judge’s squint of bringing the strap back to Stockholm.
The fight was so inspiring that he got ten times more famous in defeat than he did in any of his seven UFC victories. His reward? To face the up-and-coming Jimi Manuwa in London, not on a pay-per-view or through any of the FOX platforms, but on the Internet. Instead of an immediate rematch with Jones, which for a moment seemed inevitable, Gustafsson will trade dukes with a relatively unknown knockout artist via stream.
So, what’s it like to go from one extreme to the other? Gustafsson appeared alongside his coach Andreas Michael on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour and said, hey, ultimately, at the end of the day, you know what? It is what it is.
"Well, yeah, that sucks a little bit," he told host Ariel Helwani. "I didn’t even know about that until just a few weeks ago. But a fight is a fight, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m just going to go in there and win the fight. That’s all, it doesn’t matter. I had a great camp and I’m more than ready."
Asked what his initial reaction was when he made the realization that he’d be on the UFC’s new Fight Pass on Saturday -- which as of March 1 fell behind a pay wall -- Gustafsson went through the short range of emotions.
"I was a little bit shocked because I went from a title fight to a fight that only shows on the Internet, so I was a little bit…I didn’t know what to think," he said. "But it doesn’t matter to me actually, it’s nothing that I’ve put a lot of energy in thinking about. I’m just going to win there on Saturday and fight the best fight I’ve done so far."
Of course, Gustafsson was originally supposed to fight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in the spot, but Nogueira had to pull out with an injury. That fight, given the dearth of available top-tier opponents, made a certain kind of sense on paper. Yet the fight game is a combination of timing, opportunity and the nearest merit, so his opponent ended up being Manuwa -- a fellow European with a big chance to catapult himself into contention in one fell swoop.
And regardless of how the fight’s being broadcast, this is a precarious spot for Gustafsson, who is trying to get back into a title fight with Jones. Should he slip against Manuwa, those aspirations will go away in the short term (and possibly for good). Yet if he wins, he remains atop the light heavyweight division to face the winner of Jones-Glover Teixeira, which takes place at UFC 172 in April.
"I think Manuwa is a very dangerous fighter," Gustafsson said. "I think with this ranking system I think he’s a lot better than the guys who are actually high ranked in the division. He’s a very dangerous fighter, and he’s sneaking around in the shadows, and nobody knows about him. But he’s very dangerous and I’m really looking forward to the fight on Saturday."
And as far as where Manuwa being too anonymous of an opponent for a fighter in his coveted position, Gustafsson scoffed.
"No, not really, I didn’t think about it that much actually," he said. "I’ll fight anyone, it doesn’t matter to me. I think it’s a good match-up because he’s a European, and I’m European. He’s a very entertaining fighter, and I think we have a similar style, so I think it’s a great match-up."
On the subject of Jones, whom Gustafsson battled for five rounds only to come up on the losing end, the man they call "The Mauler" says he’s moved on.
"Yeah, it took me a while because I wanted that fight really bad, directly after our first fight," he said. "It’s always tough, because I want that belt so much. But when I heard that I was fighting Jimi I knew I had to let the past go and see the future and focus on that, because Jimi’s not a guy you can look past and take like a walk in the park. He’s a really tough guy and you have to be on edge when you’re fighting a guy like that."
Even still, Gustafsson knows he got to Jones like nobody else has been able to do. Not just in the fight, but in general attitude.
"Well, he said himself he’s been more down to earth, or humbler now," Gustafsson said. "I don’t know, maybe."
And it’s been talked about for months. In the subsequent months since UFC 165, Jones has appeared a little more selective, a little more reticent, a little more "vincible." Some people -- like fellow light heavyweight contender Phil Davis -- have even accused Jones of wanting to face "the softer side" of the division. All of this has only become a topic since his encounter with Gustafsson in Toronto.
In the game of moral victories, Gustafsson might have gained one by changing the champion.
"I think I have," he told Helwani "And the next time we fight I’m not just going to change him, I’m going to take his belt, too."