So, Alexander Gustafsson signed a new deal with the UFC and Jon Jones wasted zero seconds in crushing his spirit with a simple tweet: You will never beat me. Damn. It brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it? That these old rivals have drifted so far apart after The Great Encounter, yet still carry a flame? This thing won’t soon go away, not after what happened. Not after all they put each other through.
Back in 2013, after going toe-to-toe for five rounds at UFC 165 in Toronto, Gustafsson posted a classic shot of him standing next to Jones at the hospital. The image was classic for many reasons. For starters, maybe three hours before the photo was snapped, Jones was still an omnipotent deity of the light heavyweight ranks who trotted out to the cage wearing Nike and Gatorade emblems on his trunks. Now here he was, the niche Michael Jordan, within a hospital being attended to because — and this was the poetic part — Gustafsson had put him there.
Gustafsson is standing bedside to Jones wearing a scarf with Swedish colors, a hat cocked in the hobo fashion, with a curious piece of gauze shooting out the side. Both men are swollen, bruised, battered and happy. The photo, which Gustafsson posted on social media, meant something more because this was a ceasefire between comrades who’d just gone to war; they nearly killed each other, but here they were paying respect in the way that Joe Frazier had with Ali when he gave the “Lawdy, lawdy, he’s great” spiel to Mark Kram the morning after in Manila.
It remains one of the great fights in UFC history, in part because Jones, for the first time, had to truly persevere and dig deep in a fight. And in part because Gustafsson, Sweden’s next best thing since Ingemar Johansson, had made him do that unexpectedly. He had taken Jones down. He had cut Jones. He had Jones on the short end of the scorecards at a time when such a thing was unthinkable. Yet Jones came back, and astonishment became a pendulum between the two principals. The word “epic” gets tossed around in MMA to the point that it loses meaning. But Gustafsson-Jones was epic.
And the burning question after it was all said and done was: When is the rematch?
Four-and-a-half years later that question has remained suspended, just like Jones himself. It’s been a million little things that have prevented it from occurring. It was Gustafsson getting knocked out in Stockholm by Anthony Johnson, in a tailor-made fight to get him back. It was Jones’ ongoing struggle with himself, getting in trouble both in and out of competition and shaving years off his career. It was Daniel Cormier, the interloper who is always standing behind every ruined narrative wearing a shit-eating grin. It was the cruel passage of time, in conjunction with the cruel nature of the sport. People don’t think of Jones like they did then; and Gustafsson has gone just 3-2 since, returning him to the land of ordinary.
The fight is a cold campfire.
But at one point, it was a blaze. The kind of blaze that could warm all hands. And on Thursday when MMA Fighting reported that Gustafsson had reached a new deal, that was the first thing that popped back to mind. Though Gustafsson has moved on, he can never move on, if you know what I mean. Then Jones lit into him from far-off Albuquerque, where he lives in perpetual penitence, and there it was again. Kindling for a new fire. Resolution to a fight that was emphatic enough the first time, yet begged for 25 more minutes. Gustafsson has wanted that rematch forever. His every motivation returns to Jones, time and again.
And Jones? Jones is right now behind a band of quickly vanishing red tape. Soon, he’ll be eligible to fight again. Who will he fight? Probably not Cormier a third time. Unless Brock Lesnar is back from his own red-tape entanglements, the most logical fight would be Gustafsson. Good old Gusty, the man who humanized him in real time, who helped define him as a champion by making him vulnerable, and later posed with him at the hospital.
“Beat me in three? Your hands were the only thing you had over me in our first fight,” Jones tweeted to Gustafsson. “That gap is closing fast. Our first fight will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done inside of that octagon. You will never beat me, that’s my promise to you.”
All this is true, unless it isn’t. There’s one way to find out. But it’s that line in the middle there — “Our first fight will be the greatest thing you’ve ever done inside the octagon” — that becomes as classic as that photo from the hospital. At one point in time, Gustafsson took Jones to the brink. The only other man to do that to Jones has been Jones himself. There’s something profound about it all. UFC 165 really might be Gustafsson’s greatest accomplishment, but Gustafsson’s not the one most bothered by that possibility.
Jones is bothered by it, too, and he wants to make sure that becomes the case. If he took Gustafsson lightly the first time, he won’t if they fight again. In between is four-plus years of glorious doubt, doubt which can turn a rematch between a now beleaguered former champion and a diminished contender into something heated and welcome.
Something like fire.