Gustafsson suffered a one-sided TKO loss to Jones this past December, delivering an anticlimactic conclusion to a rematch five years in the making following his legendary war of attrition against Jones in Sept. 2013 at UFC 165. The setback sunk Gustafsson’s record in championship contests to 0-3 and continued the Swede’s Sisyphean struggles in title opportunities. But rather than sit back on the sidelines and lick his wounds, as he has sometimes done in the past, “The Mauler” was eager to jump right back into the fray.
Now he will do exactly that on June 1 when he meets fellow recent Jones victim Anthony Smith in the main event of UFC Stockholm. And for Gustafsson, the loss to a rival he chased for a half-decade has only served as further motivation for the road yet to come.
“It was a really bad performance that I did, and I just, I wasn’t myself really,” Gustafsson said recently on The MMA Hour while reflecting on UFC 232. “I just went in there and I tried to stick to the gameplan and everything, but no, he just found a way very early to neutralize my game and he put me away strong.
“I just hate to lose, but it’s a sport and Jon is the best guy out there. I don’t know. I think I could’ve done much better, but it is what it is, and I just take it as a man. It’s a sport, and even if I had my third title shot and I lost the third one, I’m still not feeling bad about it or anything like that. Life moves on, I have a family at home, so I’m just [going to] keep doing what I’m doing and take the next fight and the next fight after that, and start from scratch a little bit.”
Starting from scratch means rediscovering the momentum Gustafsson gathered in the nine-month span from Sept. 2016 to May 2017 with back-to-back wins over Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira. Especially in his Teixeira performance, Gustafsson looked like the most exceptional version of himself. But after long layoff between the Teixeira and Jones fights, then an early inadvertent Jones knee to the groin that Gustafsson says badly hampered him in the rematch, that momentum didn’t carry over to UFC 232.
“The Mauler” ultimately lost to Jones via a hellacious ground-and-pound assault that ended the rematch in a messy third-round stoppage.
“I just didn’t perform like I used to,” Gustafsson said. “I didn’t have the footwork going. And I have no excuses, it’s not that. It’s just like, after when he got me with that knee, I couldn’t really find the rhythm again. I just, I couldn’t move like I did before. I just had a lot of pain after that, and I’ve never had that type of pain in my career before in a fight. Of course, you have pain, you get shots from everywhere and you get back, you just keep pushing. But he just stopped me right there, and I tried to move, work it with my footwork, try to kick him or attack, be explosive. But none of that worked. I just couldn’t with my groin.
“So that’s basically it, and he took me down. Nobody can hold me down. Nobody can hold me down. Not DC, not Jon. Nobody. When he took me down there and when he finished me, I couldn’t move because of my groin. He just passed, he just went to half guard and just went up and did the crucifix stuff on me — and nobody does that to me. I wasn’t 100 percent. I just felt that I had so much pain in my groin that I couldn’t really get back into my rhythm again. And with that said, I don’t use this as an excuse or anything like that. He did what he had to do to beat me, and Jon is the best guy out there, so I don’t feel like I’m thinking about that loss nowadays. It is what it is and I just move forward now.”
Gustafsson said that his philosophy and focus regarding the fight game have shifted significantly since UFC 232. After dwelling so long on his pursuit of the UFC light heavyweight title — and to a lesser extent, his long-awaited rematch with Jones — Gustafsson is now focusing only on the present, and shedding the stresses that he said were brought to his life by worrying solely about the belt.
He also hopes to be more active in 2019 after competing just once per year in each of the past three years, and he jumped at the chance to fight in his home country against Smith, who most recently suffered a lopsided decision loss to Jones at UFC 235.
“I actually wanted to fight earlier than this, but this was just the next one for me,” Gustafsson said. “So, I’m in training, I’ve been training for a while now and I had some time off after the Jones fight and I just healed up, and now I’m ready to go. And it’s in my hometown too, so it can’t be better than this. All the other shows [at the Ericsson Globe] have been a success.
“[Smith] just had a fight, he’s in shape, and he showed some heart in his last fight with Jon, so I think it’s a good matchup for the fans and they will see a really good fight. He has some good skills on his feet and good grappling too, so I’m looking forward to it.”