Saturday’s UFC Fight Night from Stockholm, Sweden, ended up being less an MMA event as much as an office retirement party.
Within days of the show, three significant European stars said that they were done, Sweden’s superstar Alexander Gustafsson, fellow longtime ranked light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa and Nick Hein from Germany.
Of course retirements in fighting come with a catch. Even if the fighters are sincere, the public and the fighting community looking at history has been taught not to believe it. We’re about to see Urijah Faber come out of retirement next month at 40. B.J. Penn fights all the time, to the point it’s not even news anymore when one of the sport’s legitimate legends is positioned as a prelim guy. We saw Chuck Liddell fight last year when he could barely move. And exactly how many times has Tito Ortiz retired?
Still, with Manuwa, who was knocked out by Aleksander Rakic’s version of the Mirko Cro Cop ”left high kick, cemetery” catch phrase in 42 seconds, it’s hard to argue it’s not time. Manuwa is 39, and after winning 17 of his first 19 fights, has now lost four in a row, three by knockout, all in less than one minute. Anything can happen in MMA once. The best can and do get caught at times. But when you’re getting caught in the first minute three times in four fights, and you’re approaching 40, logic tells you it’s time to get out of fighting.
Hein, 35, a former judo champion, actor and police officer had lost three in a row. At one time he looked like a guy who could be a national fighting star in Germany, but didn’t progress far enough to be able to take advantage of his notoriety outside of fighting and parlay that past being just a roster member in the ridiculously deep lightweight division.
Gustafsson, on the other hand, was that fighting hero in Sweden. It can be strongly argued the very reason UFC has had continued success running shows in Stockholm is because of Gustafsson’s popularity and drawing power. The Swedish crowd always treated Gustafsson like he was something special, whether he won or lost. In 2013, his popularity in Sweden in particular, but all over Europe, was so strong that he won a worldwide voting contest for the cover of the UFC video game, finishing ahead of Georges St-Pierre and Ronda Rousey, who were expected at the time to battle for that top spot.
In time, his fan base knew he had come perilously close to winning the light heavyweight title in fights with two of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. And he looked like a world beater on May 28, 2017, when he was tearing up Glover Teixeira in what ended up being his last win. It’s possible that the Gustafsson on that night could have beaten almost anyone, but injuries, both to he and scheduled opponents, delayed his return to the Octagon for 19 months, which was his second loss to Jones.
And if Gustafsson doesn’t fight again, those two fights will be his lasting legacy.
His UFC 165 fight with Jones, on Sept. 21, 2013, is among the most memorable fights in company history. It is generally considered the best light heavyweight title fight ever and the only fight where Jones truly looked vulnerable. It’s a lock to be a fight honored some day in the UFC Hall of Fame.
But the story of that fight, and of his next title shot on Oct. 3, 2015, at UFC 192, against Cormier was similar. Had it not been for the Jones fight, Cormier vs. Gustafsson could be argued was the best light heavyweight championship fight in company history.
In both fights, the scores were such that whoever won the fifth round after a great war would be the champion. Gustafsson lost the fifth round in both fights, so one can argue he came as close as anyone to being champion that never ended up with a belt.
But Gustafsson just turned 32 in a heavier weight division, a division fighters often peak later in. His second loss to Jones, on Dec. 29, was devastating because it was conclusive and meant that most likely, as long as Jones was champion, Gustafsson was probably not getting another title shot. And waiting for Jones to lose his championship in the current environment could be a long time. But Saturday’s loss to Anthony Smith took him down another notch.
Few top fighters retire at 32 in this sport, largely because at the level of Gustafsson, for most, there are years left of being able to make far more money at this than at another job. But after two big losses, there is going to be a mental letdown, frustration over mistakes and injuries. In time, those injuries heal and the mental process changes when someone feels better and is rested.
Gustafsson lost via choke, but the fight itself was competitive in the sense he wasn’t being blown out until ending up in a bad position in the fourth round. He wasn’t winning the fight either, nor did he look like peak Gustafsson. He no longer looked like a guy who was at least a threat to be able to win the championship. But he was still a star with plenty of new opponents on the horizon. At least right now, that clearly isn’t enough for him.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars from Saturday who are continuing.
ANTHONY SMITH - Smith (32-14) scored the biggest win of his career, but given the way Jones handled him on March 2, he’s not likely to get another championship fight no matter who he fights going forward. So he’s in that weird limbo position where he should fight top guys, but should be kept away from rising contenders because if he were to beat them, it serves no positive purpose for the company. So the best next opponents for him would be Corey Anderson (12-4) or Teixeira (29-7).
ALEKSANDER RAKIC - Rakic (12-1) is now at his career peak with his knockout of the year candidate finish of Manuwa. He should be promoted the opposite of Smith, meaning he should be in there with other rising names to see who deserves to climb the ladder, with Dominic Reyes (11-0) and Johnny Walker (17-3) as good next foes.
MAKWAN AMIRKHANI - Mr. Finland (15-3) was a big favorite in Sweden and looked strong in his submission win over Chris Fishgold (18-3-1). Next should be an opponent with name recognition to where a win would elevate him in fans’ eyes. Good next foes would be Cub Swanson (25-11) or Grant Dawson (14-1).
CHRISTOS GIAGOS - Giagos (17-7) looked impressive in winning a clear decision over Damir Hadzovic in the deep lightweight division. Yancy Medeiros (15-6) and Jim Miller (30-13) are two name fighters that, if Giagos can get past them, would make him into a player.
LINA LANSBERG - Lansberg (9-4) won a decision over Tonya Evinger (19-8, 1 no contest) in a battle of ranked bantamweights. Lansberg can be used as a test for Macy Chiasson (5-0) to see if Chiasson can rise to a top tier spot in the division.