At a division shallow enough that fighters like Glover Teixeira and Mauricio Rua (elderly by the standards of any other division) are still going fairly strong, Alexander Gustafsson’s retirement at the age of 32 seems a bit of an anomaly; 2019 was Gustafsson’s twelfth year as a professional fighter, he likely didn’t have a great deal of time ahead of him, but it was extremely likely that “the Mauler” could collect paychecks beating up the lower rung of the top 15.
That he retired after the loss to Anthony Smith speaks to what had become his legacy since UFC 165 in 2013; since the day he gave an all-time great the fight of his life, Gustafsson had never been anything but top-tier at 205, and he bowed out the moment that his position there evaporated. Compared to BJ Penn sustaining a seventh-straight loss and still not committing to retirement, Gustafsson’s retirement seems premature, but also refreshing; many fighters claim that they’re in the game to fight the best, and Gustafsson proved it at every step.
For as clear a top fighter as Gustafsson proved to be at light-heavy, it’s easy to forget that his ascendance was less due to a breakout win and more due to there simply being no one left; Jon Jones had cut a swathe of destruction through the division, one so thorough that the UFC had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for contenders. Where they landed at UFC 165 (after Jon had put away Chael Sonnen off a loss 20 pounds south) was Gustafsson, a Swede who had defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a fairly uninspiring affair. Compared to Jones’ decimation of the well-regarded Brazilian, Gustafsson’s de facto eliminator was far from impressive and seemingly came down to an athletic difference (in terms of Rua being on the decline since the fall of PRIDE) more than anything else. Unsurprisingly, the promotional efforts for UFC 165’s headliner were somewhat weak; the best the UFC could do was “Greatness Within Reach”, emphasizing the lack of a sizable range advantage for the champion for the first time in a long time.
As it turned out, that mattered a lot; Gustafsson put on one of the best performances of his life at 165, giving a man who neared -1000 on the books the sort of fight that he’d never been through before. As bizarre as Gustafsson’s boxing skillset often was (that signature long-uppercut that seemed to invite counters, a lack of commitment in exchanges, unsound but obsessive movement on the outside), all of it posed serious issues for Jones’ usual skillset when added to a rangy frame. UFC 165 was a good showcase for Gustafsson’s solid combination work (mostly off a versatile lead hand, a good jab to the head and body and a left hook), but ultimately turned into a show of Jones’ prodigious adaptability in the face of his stiffest challenge; as Gustafsson looked to jab in the fourth round, ducking to take his head out of the way of Jones’ defensive frame, Jones spun into an elbow that salvaged the fight for him. Nevertheless, Gustafsson’s legacy was sealed right then; many 205-legends had failed to give Jones a respectable fight, but Gustafsson did, and that forced the world to take notice.
However, while Gustafsson’s moments of overperformance were great enough to prove him on the level of elite fighters, he seemed to underperform just as often; his skillset proved thoroughly annoying for Jones to deal with, but it didn’t carry over to the other elites nearly as well. As Gustafsson locked himself into the elite at 205, his odd idiosyncrasies (all those things that seemed to just somehow not matter anymore when he faced the best light-heavyweight on the planet) coalesced into areas of full-blown incompetence that Jones simply wasn’t the best man to access. A hint of that was shown against Anthony Johnson, but it was tough to know what to make of it; “Rumble” was a potent pressurer who made Gustafsson look terrible on the back foot, but it was also off one of the most egregiously botched corner jobs ever (in which both men heard Gustafsson’s corner call for a front kick, Gustafsson threw a front kick, and Johnson brutally countered the kick that he knew was coming before pushing forward to end it).
More of that specific issue (vulnerability to pressure) was clear in Gustafsson’s following fight, a title opportunity against Daniel Cormier; DC had won the belt in a fight against Johnson after Jones vacated, leaving no proven elite to fight for it but “The Mauler”. Cormier wasn’t a sound pressurer at all (virtually no defense, didn’t cut the cage well, wasn’t as polished a boxer as Gustafsson by any means), but his sheer enthusiasm in pushing forward made the difference; Gustafsson found himself pulled into the clinch too much for his liking without the footwork to defuse the pressure or the power to consistently back DC off (one big knee in the clinch aside), and it made for a profoundly ugly fight that Cormier ground out by just refusing to go away. Even in a bounce-back that was meant to be a tune-up in Jan Blachowicz, Gustafsson ran into more trouble than he should’ve; Blachowicz ran face-first into shifting rushes that seemed ripe for a counter, only for Gustafsson to just get flustered in the pocket and resort to reactive takedowns to bring the fight back into control. Compared to the Gustafsson of UFC 165, Gustafsson disappointed through 2015 and 2016.
For some, the fight against Glover Teixeira was the triumphant return of the old Mauler; while his old flaws were still there, the plodding power-puncher was exactly the opponent to make Gustafsson look excellent. He still didn’t look flawless, with his extreme awkwardness every time Glover stepped forward (to the point of just turning and running when he got pushed too close to the fence), but the fight was offensively all Gustafsson; Teixiera couldn’t find the overhand, but Gustafsson marked him up with long chains of offense and ended the fight with three straight rear-uppercuts. As he called for the title shot over the next year-and-a-half, though, what came to the forefront was Gustafsson’s extreme inactivity (various injury issues, for the most part). It didn’t really matter in a division as barren as light-heavyweight, where someone who fought once a year still had the best non-champion resume in the division (between Manuwa, Teixeira, and a resurgent Blachowicz), but that was Cormier’s explanation for why he didn’t want to face Gustafsson a second time; instead, Gustafsson faced Jon Jones in a rematch at UFC 232.
Gustafsson’s final two fights were his worst showings by far, but one of them was fairly excusable; Jon Jones had looked better than ever in his rematch against Gustafsson, cleanly outstriking Gustafsson at range (where Gustafsson’s attempts to pressure were for naught) and beating him up on the ground to a TKO. The most adaptive fighter in the division decisively overcoming his greatest challenge on his second try was hardly a surprise, but it did take away from the accomplishment that made Gustafsson a man to watch in the first place. The Smith fight just sealed it; whether it was a function of time or of favorable matchups on his way up, Gustafsson was no longer a top fighter as he struggled (and ultimately failed) to get past a journeyman who couldn’t touch Jones nor the top 15 at middleweight. Some of his signatures were there, including the body-head with the jab and his uppercut, but what sunk him was his other traits; his footwork and cage-positioning were worse than ever against an opponent who wasn’t even actively pressuring him, and he just couldn’t pull the trigger on anything until the halfway-point. At the moment that Gustafsson declared that the “show is over”, it was fairly clear that the show was over for quite a while; Gustafsson was still there in a lot of ways (for better or worse), but the legend of “The Mauler” was already a thing of the past.
Gustafsson showing the traits of a shot fighter at only 32 weren’t particularly shocking, considering the length of his career, but it’s also questionable whether Gustafsson was shot or just Gustafsson; after all, throughout his career, Gustafsson has never quite been what was expected of him. When he was meant to be easy work for Jones, he was the most difficult, and yet when he was meant to be a destroyer, he looked oddly vulnerable; when he was supposed to tune up Blachowicz and Smith, he largely failed to, but when he was a questionable challenger for Cormier’s title, he gave Cormier the hardest win of his life. As more of Gustafsson became revealed, the more he seemed bizarrely disjointed; a good fighter in a bad division, with great areas that he didn’t have the game to truly use in the face of adversity. That such a fighter could rise to the heights that he did speaks to the strength of his best areas at his peak; Gustafsson was a true test to the best, as little sense as that made, and that deserves just about as much respect as any light heavyweight ever has.