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Alexander Gustafsson: Shogun Rua isn't what he was back in the day

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

SEATTLE -- If you listen to Alexander Gustafsson speak, you'd think he was already standing victorious at UFC on FOX 5, his hands raised over the crumpled body of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. That's not to say Gustafsson is cocky. Far from it, actually. The 25-year-old Swede is one of the most humble fighters you'll ever meet.

But here's the thing. To him, failure is not an option, so failure does not exist. Anytime you ask Gustafsson to forecast his future, expect to inevitably hear back some combination of the words "when I win" or "after I win." It's the same reason he keeps a tally of his win-loss record tattooed on his right bicep. In mixed martial arts, a sport where setbacks are plentiful and a Hall of Famer can rack up 10 losses without batting an eye, keeping such a permanent, visible log of your efforts could be construed as hopeful at best, and short-sighted at worst. But again, failure is not an option with Gustafsson, so he need not worry about such trivialities.

It's also the reason Gustafsson, long one of the division's brightest prospects, has started to look ahead, if only slightly. As a lanky light heavyweight in his mid-twenties, with a game predicated on ranginess, the comparisons to UFC champion Jon Jones seemed predestined. Gustafsson has heard them as long as he can remember, and until recently, he's brushed any title talk aside. But now Gustafsson is on the verge of making "the leap." A hungry young lion being thrown against a weathered legend who he grew up admiring -- we've heard this story before.

"I been thinking about that for a long time now," Gustafsson acknowledged. "I visualize a lot of things, a lot of situations. [Shogun] is a beast, but you know, I'm ready."

There's no question the myth of "Shogun" looms large in Gustafsson's sights. When he first started in this game, Gustafsson uncovered videos on YouTube of the young Brazilian decimating his way through Japan's PRIDE circuit, with a ferocity that bordered on superhuman. That aggression became something Gustafsson strived to emulate, and ultimately, it became the reason Gustafsson now believes Rua to be vulnerable. "It's going to be a fight that I control from the first minute to the last minute," he promised.

"I don't think Shogun is what he was back in the day, in his highlight prime. But Shogun is Shogun. He's a legend."

Rua isn't a stranger to such backhanded criticism. There's little doubting the former champ is an old 31, as a lifetime of wars can only be sustained for so long. When asked for a response to the idea he was passed his prime, Rua simply smiled and laughed. "This sport has changed a lot, the rules," he said through a translator. "Every day you try to (get) better, to improve, so everything in our lives (has) changed."

For "Shogun," that change could become a stark reminder on Saturday night. While a win would vault Rua back into title contention, just the same a loss could seal the end of his reign as a title contender. But that's what the fight game is built on. Young prospects overtaking grizzled stalwarts or being sent to the back of the line, often in violent fashion either way.

"What I want to have is a title fight," admitted Gustafsson. "That's why I'm doing this everyday. That's my drive. That's my motivation. I want to have the title one day.

"Let's see after this fight, when I win against Shogun. I'm going to take those (title) questions then."

There's that confidence showing again. No one knows what will happen when Saturday night arrives, but there's something to be said for fighting someone who simply ignores the existence of failure.