A fighter's career highs are almost always marked by major wins or achievements, but in the case of UFC light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson, that may not be the case. His resume of wins is impressive, but two of his most notable losses might be his two best performances.
The first was an attempt to take the title from then-champion Jon Jones at UFC 165 in September of 2013. The Swede pushed Jones to the brink, but came up on the wrong end of a unanimous decision. Still, his ability to hurt and stifle Jones in the way he did was and remains unprecedented.
Gustafsson looked unable to stand up to the power of Anthony Johnson, but in his most recent bout against UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 192 this month, 'The Mauler' once again showed even in defeat, he can raise his stock.
"I'm feeling good," Gustafsson told Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I've been healing up quite good. It was a good fight and we both just went in and went all in. There's not much more to say about it."
But there is, in fact. Gustafsson lost a split decision to Cormier, but even then, the scores don't tell the story of the fight. Like Jones, Cormier was pushed to the absolute limit and was seemingly badly hurt in the third round, perhaps just moments from being stopped altogether.
There are some notable differences between those fights, however. Unlike the loss to Johnson that sent Gustafsson into a mild depression and made him consider retirement, the loss to Cormier - while painful - isn't the sort to deter him about his future.
"A loss is always a loss. It was hard to deal with, but I'd probably say that this one is easier than the January one against Anthony," Gustafsson confessed. "That was a tough one. It was more because it was in Stockholm and stuff like that. But, you know, it's a loss and it's always tough, man."
In fact, while a grueling contest, Gustafsson claimed he's healed up. There were some injuries to be sure, but he's healed and even back in the gym, ready for the next challenge.
"It looked worse than I actually was. I was just cut everywhere," he said. "I don't know, it's never actually happened to me in a fight. I had a cut over the eye and the nose, but somehow I got a cut in my mouth. That was the worst one, I think. It's just flesh. It heals up quite good. No serious injury, no internal injury. I'm fine.
"I'm actually back in training," he continued. "I trained today and did some drills with my friends and then I did some heavy bag work. I'm feeling fine."
When he thinks about that October 3rd night in Houston, Texas, Gustafsson remembers a lot. He admitted, though, he was never sure if he was going to win when the decision was read. When the judges' scorecards had been read, he wasn't surprised as much as he was disappointed to lose out again.
Of all the things that were surprising, Gustafsson claimed, it was Cormier's brute strength that caught him most off guard.
"I was surprised of his power. He has just some brutal strength. I'm a kinda strong person and kinda heavy. I didn't really see that slam coming, but it didn't hurt me at all. Just mentally, I was still there. I felt fine. I knew that was actually one of his moves. I wasn't that surprised. It was just his strength that surprised me a little bit.
"I just saw the roof and then I saw the mat," he noted. "It was kinda a good move that he did."
The Swede has yet to go back and watch the fight. According to him, it's not a simple exercise. "When you take that step to watch a fight you lost, it's takes some courage. I just need to find that, sit down with my team and watch it and see what I do wrong all the time when it comes the fifth round. I don't know. I'm just no. 2. I need to find out what's the problem and how to win the fifth round and win the fight.
"I'm just going to sit down with the team and see what we can do about it and what we can learn from it."
For Gustafsson, there's a commonality between the Jones and Cormier fights. He fought well in them, yes. He tried to mix things up and was largely successful, sure. But when it comes to pressing the gas pedal in the third, he isn't sure why, but he's just not that.
"Of course I'm tired by the fifth round, but I'm still fresh after the fight. It's just that I don't think I'm working enough," he confessed. "When you're fighting a guy like DC, he's just coming in and pushes you. You have to push him back. I think it's just the technical part and put my things together in the fight.
"It feels like I get one dimensional. I need to work more on how to be more unpredictable."
That, Gustafsson believes, is his core issue. He's doing the things necessary to win, but he's regressing into an outdated version of himself in the waning moments of a battle when the fight is still on the line.
"Just as the fight goes on, I'm getting back to basics and back to what I've always been doing, but as you're competing you're just getting tougher and tougher opponents," he said. "You have to develop yourself. I'm developing myself in practice and sparring, even in fights. As the fight goes, I just go more and more back to in the days.
"I don't know. It's a really hard thing to fix, but I'm going to fix it," he stated. "I'm going to fix it."
The fifth round in his battle with Cormier was almost something he never even had to worry about as a huge knee and series of punches rocked Cormier in a way he's never been hurt in a fight. The champion hung on and took the fight, but it was the furthest anyone's ever taking Cormier to the breaking point.
That said, Gustafsson isn't so sure that with more time, he'd have been able to finish Cormier in that round.
"I don't know, to be honest with you. That guy is just a tank," he confessed. "I've been rocking guys for a lot of years with those punches I hit him with, but he just came at me. I don't think even if I had a baseball bat and hit him with that, he's still coming after me. He's a really tough guy and he can take a beating. It was a tough fight.
"I knew he would be tough. He just took everything I threw at him, just came at me. Maybe he surprised me a little bit, but yeah, he's a tough guy."
The fight itself ended up being a remarkable event, but the moment afterwards was notable was well. While Jones and Gustafsson embraced after their fight, the two are still marked by a bit of rivalry. Outside of the cage, that's less the case with Cormier and Gustafsson. When their contest was over, the two were effusive with praise for the other man. That's especially true in the case of the champion, who told the world after the fight that it was the toughest he'd had, and that Gustafsson had made him a better person.
For Gustafsson, the feeling was largely mutual. For all of the loss and regret about the fifth round, he still has fond feelings about what he was able to accomplish and for the man who forced him to those heights of greatness.
"You go in there and put everything you have in that Octagon and after that, you just share something with that guy you fought. It's very hard me also to put words on it, but it's a special feeling and that much respect for the guy," he said.
"I think it's one of those things that you have to be in that situation to understand the feeling you get from that. Absolutely."