As a pure athletic matchup, Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Smith is intriguing, even if the UFC Stockholm competitive stakes are almost incomprehensibly besides the point. This is what happens when a champion has already smashed his way through a couple of top contenders; they are left to fight for pride and not much else. A win is unlikely to move either one any closer to Jones, who has beaten both within the last six months. They are already in his orbit, but can only continue to circle him from afar.
The undefined prize is problematic in a sport where both the athletes and fans want to be able to anticipate a route toward the title, or at least to understand what forward momentum looks like. Most fights feature some element of that. In lieu of it, Gustafsson and Smith have had to create their own stakes. To be blunt, it has not gone too well. Gustafsson lobbed his opener just days after the fight was announced, implying that a loss could cause him to consider retirement.
“If I don’t beat him, if he beats me, then maybe I don’t have it anymore,” he told MMA Fighting back in March. “So I’ll just take it from there.”
Gustafsson is not a trash talker. He is known to be a respectful athlete. Still, if you analyze his words, they can be interpreted to be as much of a putdown against Smith as a challenge to himself. By design, fighters must project unshakable, nearly impenetrable self-belief. But the truth is, many are plagued by self-doubts in the same way that blue-collar humans are. Gustafsson’s admission suggests he can’t see a realistic way he can lose this fight, and ramps up the stakes in a way to make it clear his feelings are genuine. He truly believes Smith has no business beating him and isn’t afraid to put his own neck on the line. In this scenario, Smith isn’t his equal, or anything close to it. That doesn’t exactly make it compelling from the outside looking in.
In a way, you can’t blame him, because Smith didn’t even really want to be here, at least not right in this moment. He accepted the fight just a few days’ removed from his loss to Jones, at a time when he was still literally wearing the injuries from the fight on his face. After a 25-minute beating, Smith should have been afforded some time off; instead, he was put on the hot seat. At the time, he admitted he would have preferred a break.
Not surprisingly, he sounds like he is still looking for answers. On this week’s edition of The MMA Hour, Smith bluntly said he doesn’t care what happens in this fight, that winning or losing was not nearly as important to him as shaking the “s—tty feeling from his stomach” stemming from his recent defeat. It is, it sounds, equal parts therapy session and fight.
Again, this is not a compelling selling point for most.
While the UFC is locked into a lucrative contract with ESPN and is not so susceptible to the peaks and valleys of business as it has been in the past, fights need stakes. Narratives are what compel people to tune in and watch, no matter the sport or entertainment.
With Smith vs. Gustafsson, there is nothing much compelling except the personal meaning behind the fight, which may be enough for a fight-fiend like you or me but is not even known by most Saturday afternoon channel-surfers. It mostly seems like a color-by-number main event for the local market.
It is important to note that for now, this remains the exception and not the rule. The UFC generally tends to make meaningful main events. Even when a championship is not at stake, it tends to pit two fighters rising up the ranks, or a younger fighter looking to make the leap by taking out a longtime star. But it is happening more frequently than it used to. In mid-May, we saw Rafael dos Anjos fight Kevin Lee, a welterweight fight that was put together even though Lee refused to commit to commit to the 170-pound class. In March, we got a matchup pitting Stephen Thompson, who had two losses against then-champion Tyron Woodley, facing Anthony Pettis, as Pettis tried out his third division in his last six fights. These fights weren’t meaningless, but they also weren’t brimming with future promise for the winner.
Mostly, this is something to keep an eye on. Every fight matters to the two people involved, but the rest of us need a larger perspective. When that is absent, sometimes, so are we.