mma / Columns

The Road Back Starts Saturday for Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Smith

May 27, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

There have been four great light heavyweights of the last six years. Jon Jones is, of course, at the top of the list. Daniel Cormier looks up directly below him, having only lost to Jones. The tier below Cormier is occupied by Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson, two fighters that would have been champions if not for the two above them. In the final five years of his career, Johnson lost only to Cormier, and knocked out Gustafsson. Unfortunately, he never fought Jones. Gustafsson holds an 0-4 record against the group, but he made his name by giving Jones and Cormier the toughest fights of their lives.

Twice, Gustafsson was so close. He was perhaps a minute away from beating Jones, but a late fourth round rally and a good fifth round gave Jones the three rounds he needed to keep his title. He was perhaps even closer against Cormier—one judge scored the fight for Gustafsson. But after ten rounds with the two best fighters in his division’s history, Gustafsson didn’t have the one thing he wanted to show for it.

Gustafsson fought back to Jones, getting his rematch five years later. The rematch did not follow in the footsteps of the first fight. Jones dominated Gustafsson. The Swede could get nothing going, and his paths to victory were demolished when Jones put him on his back in the third. It was a swift, efficient victory for Jones, and a sobering loss for Gustafsson.

Five months later, Gustafsson returns against a fighter in a similar position.

Anthony Smith marked something of an MMA Cinderella story. After a bumpy start to his career—he held a 5-6 record at one point—Smith went from journeyman to solid fighter to good action fighter to a very sudden contender. Within a year of a stoppage loss to Thiago Santos sending him up to the light heavyweight division, Smith was set to challenge Jones for the title. The fight was predictably dominated by Jones. Smith couldn’t make it a competitive bout, but he proved his mettle in going the distance.

Jones batted Gustafsson and Smith down to equal rungs on the ladder. Despite their respective talents and the lack of depth at light heavyweight, it’s going to take a lot to get back to a title fight with Jones. Realistically, the best chance both have at another title shot is if Jones—whether willingly or by force—drops the light heavyweight title. His wins over Gustafsson and Smith were that dominant.

It’s extremely rare for a fighter in a title fight to be thoroughly dominated in a long bout, and then come back and challenge that same fighter for the title. The best example that comes to mind is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with Fedor Emelianenko. Nogueira lost his Pride heavyweight title to Emelianenko in 2003 in a very decisive decision loss. However, there was a feeling that it was an off night for Nogueira and few outright presumed Emelianenko would take the rematch.

Other fighters have come close to getting back to the title, but each example demonstrates what a long, tough road it is.

Jon Fitch won eight UFC bouts in a row before getting to challenge Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title in 2008. St-Pierre obliterated Fitch over five rounds, but in subsequent outings Fitch made it clear he was still second-best welterweight around. After five dominant wins in two years, including a win over Thiago Alves in what was promoted as a number one contender’s fight, Fitch still didn’t get a rematch.

The way back for Gustafsson and Smith begins on Saturday. The journey each aims to embark on is essentially unprecedented. They are looking to go from title fights against a dominant champion where they showed no indication that they would fare better in a rematch, all the way back to a rematch (or a third fight in Gustafsson’s case). Every fight is critical, because a loss puts them even further away from that title fight, and it will take something significantly impressive to give them a real chance at challenging Jones again.

Against Smith, Gustafsson also has his status to protect. In addition to Jones, Cormier, and Johnson, the only other loss on his record was an early career fight against Phil Davis. Gustafsson is clearly elite, and a loss to Smith would represent a fall from his perch.

Smith isn’t as highly regarded as Gustafsson, and so even if a win doesn’t put him close to a title shot, it will certainly earn him a lot of respect. If you were to look at it from a negative perspective, you could say Smith got to a title shot by beating two old fighters and one overhyped contender. Beating Gustafsson would be a real boost to Smith’s career.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.