With light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier readying for UFC 226, Gustafsson has been forced to look elsewhere for his next opponent. That search led him to Rockhold, the former UFC middleweight king and a longtime teammate of Cormier’s at the American Kickboxing Academy. After hearing Rockhold talk openly about a potential move to 205 pounds, Gustafsson called out Rockhold in mid-February, which led to an ongoing back-and-forth that has seen both fighters express interest in the matchup.
And for Gustafsson, the reason behind his interest is simple.
He wants to shut Rockhold’s mouth.
“First of all, he’s a good fighter, but he was saying a lot, that it’s easier to fight at 205 and just a lot of stuff,” Gustafsson said Monday on The MMA Hour.
“It feels like, to him, he was going up in weight just to have an easier fight, more or less, and I just told him that’s not case and here I am. So basically he was the one who started all of this, and I just followed up on it.”
Gustafsson, 31, hasn’t been shy about pursuing the bout either. After Rockhold promised that he was “coming for that ass,” Gustafsson clapped back on Twitter by writing that Rockhold was “chinny” as a middleweight and will get “KO’d” as a light heavyweight.
Rockhold has lost two of his last three fights via brutal knockouts, losing at the hands of Michael Bisping and, most recently, Yoel Romero at UFC 221. Rockhold said after the Romero loss that the dramatic weight cut he undergoes to reach the 185-pound middleweight limit has begun to impact his abilities more as he gets older, and he believes a move to light heavyweight could potentially help his durability and overall performance.
Nonetheless, Gustafsson stands by his words regarding Rockhold’s chin.
“I just go by facts,” Gustafsson said. “That’s all we’ve seen so far. And he thinks an easy thing coming up to light heavyweight, but I’m there to welcome him.”
For Gustafsson, Rockhold was always Plan B though. The two-time title challenger expected to get the next shot at Cormier — a fighter to whom he narrowly lost a split decision against in 2015 at UFC 192 — but lost out on that opportunity when the UFC opted to stage a champion vs. champion match between Cormier and record-breaking heavyweight titleholder Stipe Miocic at UFC 226. Gustafsson admitted Monday to being both disappointed and frustrated by the decision, but despite the noise surrounding a potential Rockhold booking, “The Mauler” insists that the title remains his primary focus.
“For me, it’s the belt basically,” Gustafsson said. “That’s my top priority right now because I feel like I’m the No. 1 contender and I’ve been fighting most of the guys in my division. So that’s my top priority. But if that can’t happen, I’m up for suggestions and we’re looking at, for example, Luke Rockhold, and then see if we can [figure] something good out.”
One other option that Gustafsson has long coveted but continues to remain unavailable is former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Jones was issued a $205,000 fine and had his MMA license revoked at a February hearing of the California State Athletic Commission stemming from his failed drug test for UFC 214. Jones tested positive for the anabolic steroid Turinabol in an in-competition drug test in relation to his rematch with Cormier last July — his second failed drug test over a two-year span. He is expected to receive further sanctions at an upcoming hearing with USADA. The ex-champion could be subject to a potential four-year suspension.
Gustafsson and Jones memorably competed in one of the greatest title fights in UFC history back in 2013, with Jones narrowly defeating Gustafsson via unanimous decision at UFC 165. Gustafsson has wanted a rematch with Jones ever since, but recently “The Mauler” has come to grips with the idea that what he wants may never actually happen.
“He’s in a tough situation,” Gustafsson said of Jones.
“He feels like he’s too far away now. But if somehow he comes back, he has a way and he comes back, that’s also a fight I have to do. We need to do a second round, him and me, but let’s see how it plays out for him.”
As it stands now, with Cormier eyeing retirement in 2019 and Jones facing a potentially lengthy suspension, Gustafsson knows there’s a chance he doesn’t get either of the title rematches he has long called for. If that’s the case, and he doesn’t get his opportunity to even the score against “DC” and “Bones,” Gustafsson admitted that he’ll be extremely disappointed, but he vows that it won’t change his ultimate goals.
“I just need to redirect my focus and take that belt from whoever has it or whatever happens in our division,” Gustafsson said.
“It’s two fights that I really, really want, because I want to take back those losses and beat them, and that’s something that I want. But if they both disappear from the division, there’s nothing more that I can do more than taking that belt.”