(A torn-up Jon Jones spins for an elbow during his title-fight war against Alexander Gustafsson in Toronto. / Photo via Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com)
By George Shunick
Let’s be honest here. No one saw last night coming. No one. That’s not to say that nobody believed Alexander Gustafsson was capable of beating or challenging Jon Jones, although those people were probably Swedish, rabid Jones-haters, or height aficionados. But no one predicted that Gustafsson would take the fight to Jones in such a complete manner that in addition to being the first man consistently hurt the champion, he would become the only man to ever land a takedown on Jones in the UFC. And if there was some visionary out there who managed to foresee this twist of fate, he didn’t expect the next wrinkle; that Jones, bent but unbroken, would rise to this challenge in the final two rounds with an onslaught that the challenger seemed to persevere through with only sheer will holding him up. When all was said and done, UFC 165 saw the best light-heavyweight title fight in history, possibly the fight of the year and most significantly, the birth of a rivalry between two young fighters in the sport’s marquee division.
So, first things first…I might have been a little hasty in dismissing Alexander Gustafsson. If there’s some small solace to take in being so incredibly wrong, it’s that there was plenty of company in that regard. The UFC focused on the challenger’s height as opposed to any of his actual skills — although to hear Dana White tell it, that’s because “he’s so tall” was considered a better selling point for UFC fans than constructing an intricate narrative contextualizing Gustafsson and his abilities within the history of Swedish combat sports. (In other words, the UFC thinks its fans are stupid. They’re not entirely wrong.) Others focused on Gustafsson’s relative lack of competition, or his performances relative to those of Jones’s. Almost every pundit came away with the same conclusion; this was Jones’s fight to lose.
That was completely incorrect. In the first round, Gustafsson got in his face, pressured Jones backwards as he landed punches. He took the fight to Jones. It was a smart strategy; Jones likes to keep his distance while he’s standing up through kicks, and moving in takes away the range required to successfully land those kicks. However, this normally comes with a caveat; moving in puts a fighter in danger of being taken down by Jones, which is the last thing they want. But Gustafsson didn’t let that deter him; in fact, he landed the first takedown attempt of the fight, the first in UFC history against Jones. It turned out there was a reason for his confidence. Throughout the fight, try as he might, Jones could not take Gustafsson down. For all the talk you hear about how fighter X is “in the best shape of his life” or “has shown massive improvements,” it rarely rings true. But Gustafsson was the exception to the rule last night.