Sometimes photos can be deceiving, but there’s no doubting the thoughts that were running through Alexander Gustafsson’s head in the snapshot of the post-staredown shove between the Swede and his rival, former light heavyweight king Jon Jones.
Jones shoved Gustafsson following the pair’s faceoff at last Friday’s UFC 232 press conference in New York. The incident was a minor one, as a panicked UFC president Dana White quickly split the two fighters up, but it still kicked off a lead-up that will carry Jones and Gustafsson to Dec. 29, when they rematch in Las Vegas at UFC 232 for the vacant light heavyweight title. And if Gustafsson’s seemingly indifferent face during the shove wasn’t enough of an indication, “The Mauler” wasn’t impressed by Jones’ performance.
“I don’t know [why he shoved me]. He just did that, and the only thing I noticed was that I wasn’t impressed by his power at all,” Gustafsson said Monday on The MMA Hour. “We had some fun up there, and the 29th of December, we’re going to give all the fans a really good show, even better than the first one, I can promise you that.
“I’m excited and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been this motivated before.”
Gustafsson, 31, has faced Jones once before. Back in 2013, the two light heavyweight titans collided at UFC 165 in a fight that is widely hailed as one of the best of all-time. Gustafsson pushed Jones to the brink, and came closer to defeating “Bones” than any other man in UFC history, but ultimately faded in the latter rounds and lost a contentious unanimous decision.
Since that first meeting, neither fighter has had an easy road. Because of injuries and various out-of-the-cage circumstances, Gustafsson has been limited to only five contests in the past five years. Jones, meanwhile, has been stripped of the UFC title twice and faced multiple lengthy layoffs due to a pair of positive PED tests and a hit-and-run accident. By the time UFC 232 rolls around, both light heavyweights will have been sidelined for over 17 months. Gustafsson’s hiatus has been even longer than Jones’, but the Swede isn’t worried about ring rust playing into his performance.
“It’s been tough from time to time, but I’m just happy it’s been busy,” Gustafsson said. “Every day at the gym is a fight, so it won’t affect my competition in any way, it won’t affect my performance in any way. It’s just, you need something to push every day in training, so I feel like the lack of fights has been tough from time to time, but it doesn’t matter, man. I’m here and I’m fighting the best guy in the world for the belt, so [it doesn’t get] bigger than that. I’m just so excited and so motivated.
“I’m so happy to have my return and get my first fight [back] with Jon for the belt. I can’t ask for more, and it’s for sure the biggest [fight for me] ever.”
Even despite the five-year gap between UFC 165 and UFC 232, Gustafsson remains the only man to ever put Jones in any true, sustained sense of danger inside the cage.
In their first meeting, Gustafsson was ahead 29-28 on two of the three judges’ scorecards heading into the championship rounds. He ultimately faltered in his pursuit of history, but he vowed to not make the same mistake again in the rematch.
“It’s been five years, so let’s see what happens,” Gustafsson said. “I’m just going to make sure I’ll be in my best shape ever, and I’m going to make sure I’m going to do my homework for this fight. Everybody knows what Jon brings to the table, and whatever he brings, I’m going to have an answer for it.
“I think I just respected him too much the first time. I didn’t have the same experience like I have now, and these are different times. It’s a new time, and it’s my time. That’s how I see it. I see myself [having evolved], and I’m going to stay busy, we’re going to do this rematch, and everything’s just going to go like I want it to be. Like I said, it’s my time, and no matter what happens, I’m not leaving that Octagon without the belt. I’m going to show the world, the guy who’s never been beaten is beatable.”
Gustafsson also dismissed his rival’s claims regarding the lackadaisical way Jones says he approached the first fight.
Jones has repeatedly stated that he partied throughout his camp for UFC 165 and didn’t take Gustafsson seriously as a challenger, which played a part in his performance once fight night rolled around. This time around, Gustafsson doesn’t want to hear it.
“Whatever Jon comes with — he says he didn’t train for the first fight, whatever, I don’t care — I really hope he brings his A-game,” Gustafsson said. “I really hope he brings his best to the table, because I’m getting ready for the best. I’m getting ready for Jon’s A-game. I don’t want to hear any excuses after I beat him.”