mma / Columns

UFC 232: Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson 2 is Finally Here

December 24, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
UFC 232 Alexander Gustafsson Ryan Hall

There have been four great light heavyweights in the past five years. At the top sits Jon Jones, who has beaten everyone in his path. Just beneath him is Daniel Cormier, who has defeated everyone save Jones. Then there is Anthony Johnson, who lost twice to Cormier. Lastly, we reach Alexander Gustafsson, who has lost to all three of the others, but gave the two best light heavyweights of his (or any) generation the fights of their lives.

Gustafsson, 31, is the type of fighter that rises to the occasion. By 2013, he’d been defeated just once, but he still carried the stigma of a major underdog (about five-to-one) heading into his light heavyweight title challenge against Jon Jones. The UFC promoted the fight as Jones finally going up against someone of a similar height (Jones is 6’4” to Gustafsson’s 6’5”), but the public didn’t buy into the narrative. What did Gustafsson bring to the table that Jones hadn’t seen before? What could Gustafsson do once Jones inevitably got on top of him?

The relative lack of interest compared to Jones’s past bouts was clear. Five months before facing Gustafsson, Jones drew a reported 530,000 buys against Chael Sonnen. A report had the Gustafsson fight barely scraping the 300,000-buy mark. Up to this point, Jones had been totally dominant, losing perhaps only one round in his entire career. Even if you haven’t seen the fight, it’s easy to envision the excited surprise of the live audience when they realized in the first round that Jones was finally faced with a real challenge.

Gustafsson won the first round, putting an exclamation point on it by taking Jones down, which nobody had done before. After dropping the second round, Gustafsson returned to win the third round, placing him in the driver’s seat. That meant that in all likelihood, Jones would either have to finish Gustafsson, or win both of the final rounds.

The fourth round was going in Gustafsson’s favor until a spinning elbow changed the course of the fight. If it hadn’t landed, Jones would have likely found himself in a three-to-one hole heading into the last round. But it did land, rocking Gustafsson and swinging the round in Jones’s favor. When the fifth round rolled around, Gustafsson had spent almost all of his energy, and Jones willed himself to take the round and the fight.

When you factor in the story of the unbeatable champion facing an unexpected challenge, it was arguably the best fight in UFC history. Back then, it would have been very hard to believe that it would take five years to get Jones and Gustafsson back in the cage together.

There was minor talk of an immediate rematch, but the UFC abandoned it in favor of Jones fighting a new challenge in Glover Teixeira. Instead, Gustafsson was promised a rematch with a win in his next fight. He fulfilled his end of the bargain, stopping Jimi Manuwa in March 2014, and the UFC plotted Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 for September.

That July, Gustafsson fell out of the Jones rematch with a meniscus tear. The UFC tapped Daniel Cormier to replace him, and a subsequent press conference brawl made Jones vs. Cormier the hottest light heavyweight fight in years. Due to that, even when Jones couldn’t make the September date with an injury, the UFC kept Jones vs. Cormier intact for January.

That was the last time Jones and Gustafsson had been paired together until now, a delay that can mainly be blamed on inactivity. A combination of legal issues and drug test failures have resulted in Jones competing just four times since he first met Gustafsson. Gustafsson’s path back to Jones has been plagued with injuries and slowed by key losses. In 2015, Anthony Johnson knocked out Gustafsson in two minutes. Later that year, in his second classic title challenge, Gustafsson fell short against Cormier.

Five years on from the initial battle, the circumstances leading into the rematch are very different, but the stakes seem more important.

Gustafsson is now around a two-and-a-half-to-one underdog; it’s far from outlandish to expect him to repeat his strong performance from the first fight, and there is a path for him to win. It’s been more than eighteen months since his last fight, but Gustafsson’s last performance—an absolute whooping of Glover Teixeira—was the best of his career. Jon Jones has an uncomfortable number of tools at his disposal to break his opponent down, but he can still be hit. Gustafsson has the hands to hit Jones consistently.

This is a fight of redemption for both athletes. Jones’s career has stalled due to poor decision-making, but almost eight years after he first won the title, he can prove that he is still the pinnacle of the sport. Gustafsson can erase every bad memory—the close losses to Jones and Cormier, the hometown knockout loss to Johnson—by defeating Jones. In all likelihood, Jon Jones is going to lose at some point, and the fighter that hands him that loss will go down in history. That would be the crowning achievement of Alexander Gustafsson’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.