While the light heavyweight division is often maligned as being shallow in talent (with the exception of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier), the main bout of UFC Fight Night 153 stands in direct contradiction to this fallacy.
This Saturday, Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson will be fighting in his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, against the formidable Anthony Smith. Many in the MMA community (fans and media alike) are guilty of viewing Gustafsson only merely the man who almost beat Jon Jones in the first bout back in 2013, failing to recognize the high level of skill that the Swede possesses that allowed him to threaten with the greatest light heavyweight of all time.
Finding the Goldilocks Zone
Alexander Gustafsson is easily identifiable as a boxing specialist, as he looks to hurt his opponents primarily through punches while using defensive footwork to avoid their counter-attacks. Gustafsson’s favorite method of causing harm, and no doubt his most effective, is his rear hand uppercut; the primary objective of his striking game is to place his opponent in the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too far away, not too close) where the right uppercut has the opportunity to land with maximum effect.
Here we see the result of Gustafsson’s ability to locate the perfect range, as “The Mauler” employes multiple uppercuts on Glover Teixeira’s skull as if it were a speed bag, knocking him to the floor.
In the above clip, notice how Teixeira’s head is in the perfect range for an uppercut. Any closer and the punch would have been smothered and unable to achieve its full potential; any further and Gustafsson would have to over-extend to land it.
Looking at the fifth-round finish, we see Gustafsson place Teixeira in the “Goldilocks Zone” again, and this time the Brazilian wouldn’t be able to recover. Notice how Gustafsson extends his left to gauge the range, then launches three consecutive rear uppercuts that put Teixeira out on his feet. A final right to the temple sends the Brazilian to the mat for a fifth-round knockout.
Gustafsson’s fondness for the uppercut is so strong that he will often sacrifice what are supposedly more dominant positions in order to attack with it. Here we see him allow Teixeira off the fence (a position that most fighters would never forfeit) just so he can use his uppercut.
As previously noted, if Gustafsson is on his feet, he is looking to set the “Goldilocks Zone” so that his opponent’s head is in the optimal position for the uppercut. As this range requires that his opponent is within striking range of Gustafsson, there is the possibility that they could hit him first. This is where Gustafsson employs a level of defensive footwork that is far above-average in modern Mixed Martial Arts.
Here we see Gustafsson allow Jan Blachowicz to come forward unhindered, as he needs him somewhat close to achieve the desired range for the uppercut. But Blachowicz comes in with his own strikes, passing through the “Goldilocks Zone” before Gustafsson can throw the uppercut. In order to avoid Blachowicz’s attack, Gustafsson moves out to his left, avoiding both the strikes and the potential of being trapped against the fence.
Such occurrences happen continuously throughout Gustafsson’s bouts. If the opponent enters into the “Goldilocks Zone” lazily, they are tagged with an uppercut; if they come in too aggressively, Gustafsson easily avoids their attacks by moving off-line.
Such footwork is required if a fighter wishes to prioritize the rear hand uppercut as their principal weapon. Without the ability to employ proper defensive footwork, Gustafsson would face a stiff cost of failure as his opponents blasted through the desired range and punched him in the face. By developing a high level of footwork, Gustafsson is able to avoid damage as he seeks the perfect time to employ his deadly rear hand.
A Formidable Plan B
While the primary gameplan is for Gustafsson to work from his feet and rack up damage with the tactics stipulated above, he is also more than able to implement an equally effective “Plan B” of taking down his opponent and beating them up from the top.
For a fighter of Gustafsson’s stature, it can be extremely difficult to take an opponent down with traditional single and double leg shots, as their height makes it difficult to get underneath the opponent. For this reason, Gustafsson’s preferred takedown is the Outside Trip (usually against the fence), which allows him to use his height as a benefit. As his chest and head are usually above his opponent’s while clinching, he can lean down on the opponent, “folding” them back and making the trip almost effortless. Here we see Gustafsson trip down Blachowicz and Teixeira in identical fashion.
Once Gustafsson has gotten his opponent down, he is content to camp in their full guard where he can drop punishing elbow strikes. This is another scenario in which Gustafsson takes advantage of his height advantage, he will often establish double collar ties and crank his opponent’s head in towards their chest. Known as “the can opener,” this position allows Gustafsson to easily drop vicious elbow strikes on his opponent’s head.
The one vulnerability from this position is the armbar, which Gustafsson has been able to avoid successfully so far in his career. Most light heavyweights aren’t spending countless hours developing their guard attacks, so it is unlikely that Gustafsson will face substantial risk with this strategy anytime in the near future. Here we see Gustafsson employ this tactic on Blachowicz, easily defending the armbar and landing punishing elbow strikes.
It is no coincidence that this ground-fighting tactic is an almost carbon copy of the one employed by Jon Jones. Alexander Gustafsson is often credited as giving Jones the toughest bout of his career, even after losing to Jones again at the end of 2018. As he now faces off against Jones’ last victim Anthony Smith, both men will be looking to prove that they – and the light heavyweight roster as a whole – have more to offer the fans then serving as cannon fodder for Jon Jones’ career.