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Alexander Gustafsson's Got Talent, But Stop Trying to Force Him Into the Jon Jones Mold

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Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

STOCKHOLM -- As he stood in the cage after a dominant victory in front of his passionate hometown fans, one thing became very clear: Alexander Gustafsson is officially a star. At least in Sweden.

As for the rest of the world, especially back in the U.S. where he does the bulk of his training? That’s a different story. There he’s still just a big blonde kid with a last name that’s easy to misspell. But after battering Thiago Silva for three one-sided rounds in front of the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event in the Ericsson Globe Arena, at least we can put to rest any question of his celebrity status at home.

That’s the good news. The bad, or maybe just the mildly annoying news, is that with this win the comparisons to UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones will likely only intensify, even if we’re not doing the Swede any favors with them.

Gustafsson claims to be unbothered by it, even though, as he pointed out, they are two different fighters and ought to be treated as such.

"But just mentioning my name against a top guy like him, it’s good feedback," he said at the post-fight press conference here early Sunday morning.

UFC president Dana White had another, more realistic take on it.

"It’s a little early" for talk of a Gustafsson-Jones match-up, he said. And he’s right. We’d do well to let the 25-year-old Gustafsson not only develop at his own pace, but also according to his own set of standards.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people want to draw comparisons between a talented young contender and the almost supernaturally gifted champion. They’re both young, both improving at a frightening pace. They’re two tall, lanky light heavyweights who look like they’ve yet to fully grow into their bodies. Aside from skin color and nationality, they do seem to have a lot in common on the surface.

But to think of a contender only in terms of how he is and is not like the champion is not only missing the point, it’s also just plain tiresome. Don’t we remember when we through this just last spring with Phil Davis? Heading into his fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in Seattle, he and his cornermen joked that anyone who mentioned Jones to him should also have to buy him a shot. If you’d played along with that little drinking game during pre and post-fight interviews in Seattle, you’d have been in the hospital in a hurry.

What we seem to forget is, it’s not important whether the challenger is a carbon copy of the champ. What matters is whether he stands a chance of beating him. It’s not as if the only way to defeat Jon Jones is to out-Jon Jones him. We haven’t seen many weaknesses in the champ yet, but dethroning him might require someone who can be what he isn’t, rather than just more of what he is.

Could Gustafsson beat Jones if they fought tomorrow? Probably not. As we saw against Silva, he’s still vulnerable in the striking game at times, and that’s in a fight where his opponent didn’t even think about a takedown at any point. Gustafsson’s lone loss comes against a superior ground technician in Davis, so it’s only reasonable to wonder if he has the wrestling chops to hang with Jones on the mat.

Again though, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The win over Silva was definitely the biggest of Gustafsson’s career, but I don’t think you go from outpointing a guy who’s coming off a long suspension to fighting for a title immediately. We still need to see him against a top contender in top form to know whether he’s really championship material. Even then, we at least owe him the respect of evaluating him for his own skills and unique characteristics rather than thinking of him purely as a Scandinavian "Bones" Jones.

The good news for the UFC is, it has a full-fledged star in this market. It can sell out an arena just by putting his face on the poster, and that never hurts. White is right to hold off on branding him the next top contender, but the businessman in him couldn’t resist noting that "it would not suck doing a fight here [in Sweden] with him and Jon Jones."

Maybe some day soon. Until then, let’s let Gustafsson continue to develop into a first-rate version of himself, and call off the search for a second-rate version of the current champ.