The main event for the UFC’s return to Stockholm, Sweden, an event that takes place on June 1, is a fairly interesting one in a vacuum, but it’s also difficult to discern what it truly means to the division. There, multi-time UFC title challenger Alexander Gustafsson (18-5) and recent UFC title challenger Anthony Smith (31-14) will square off in a battle of top-ranked light heavyweights.
Both Gustafsson and Smith share current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones as their last opponent, and neither got anywhere; Gustafsson was finished in the third round after finding very little success in the rounds prior, and Smith went into full defensive-mode to survive five rounds en route to an extremely lopsided decision. Unless Jones loses his championship to Thiago Santos (a bout set for the upcoming UFC 239), the winner and loser of this bout are essentially in the same position: irrelevant to the title scene.
With the chances of Jones losing his title seemingly slim for the near future, this is essentially a stay-busy fight for both Gustafsson and Smith, an opportunity to get a fairly well-esteemed name on their resume, and a way for Gustafsson to reinforce – or Smith to break down – the historically hard ceiling separating the top-three slots from the rest of the light heavyweight division.
The Mauler: Alexander Gustafsson
Alexander Gustafsson seemed to come out of nowhere as a true light-heavyweight contender in 2013. Jon Jones had taken out most of the top light heavyweights with relative ease and needed a contender, so Alexander Gustafsson got his shot, but was widely considered as just the next lamb to the slaughter.
Fresh off of a fairly unimpressive win over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, the best that the promotion could do as far as hyping Gustafsson’s chances against Jones for UFC 165 was, “Gustafsson is tall, maybe Jones can’t deal with that”. Suffice it to say, this wasn’t too convincing to the public; Jones was a -1000 favorite at points, and Gustafsson was expected to get beaten up badly.
Instead, however, Gustafsson spent long portions of five rounds boxing Jones up; while he lost the fight (largely due to the well-documented, prodigious adaptability of the champion), he was cemented as a difficult challenge for anyone to halt.
Despite his losses to the other truly elite fighters in the division (heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and now-retired Anthony Johnson), that impression endures.
Gustafsson’s primary skillset is as a boxer, but he’s a bit of a mixed bag in that sense; while he’s a strong technical operator in a variety of contexts, it doesn’t take a ton to push him out of his comfort zone. Gustafsson’s strongest showings tend to come in fights where he can outfight comfortably, but he isn’t under pressure; essentially, when he’s able to float around in the open.
Gustafsson has a good lead hand, with a reasonably versatile jab (dipping jab, jabbing to the body, and building combinations off of both), and pairs it with his lead hook well. Gustafsson showed against Glover Teixeira that, given the space, he can build brutal chains of offense; one of the stronger sequences of Gustafsson’s career saw him fake a takedown into a spinning elbow, land in southpaw to lever off the right hand (hook-uppercut-hook), and shift through a clean left hook to land back in orthodox and try to follow up with his favorite rear-uppercut.
Gustafsson’s love of that uppercut should be a double-edged sword, but it mostly isn’t; light heavyweight doesn’t really have the counterpunchers on-hand to punish leading with it, so Gustafsson gets away with long naked uppercuts regularly.
Where Gustafsson’s reasonably polished boxing goes completely haywire is on the back foot; “The Mauler” can work well under his own conditions, but under pressure, he doesn’t do well. A big part of that is footwork; Gustafsson doesn’t have many ways to keep himself in his stance as he’s pushed back, and that keeps him from being a real counterpunching threat or a ring general. This means that he’s fairly easy to push back to the fence (since essentially not having a stance makes it hard to pivot out) and he often just runs out to reset.
Daniel Cormier repeatedly exploited that tendency of Gustafsson’s; Cormier isn’t defensively sound, but he could afford to just walk Gustafsson down (and force the clinch) because Gustafsson presented no real threat moving back.
Jan Blachowicz also got away with throwing long shifting combinations a lot, since Gustafsson couldn’t counter him while trying to back away.
Alexander Gustafsson can shoot takedowns as his opponents run in on him (which is how he ended up beating Jan Blachowicz), and he’s fairly good in the clinch (landing big knees on Cormier and Jimi Manuwa from the double-collar tie).
He’s a rounded threat, but he isn’t overwhelmingly good in any phase.
Lionheart: Anthony Smith
There’s significantly less to say about Anthony Smith than there is about Gustafsson; Smith was a decidedly middling middleweight journeyman for most of his career who became an action fighter in the UFC and fell into unlikely title contention with his move to light heavyweight.
The degree to which Smith improved to make that happen (as opposed to it just being light heavyweight’s weakness) is unknown; Smith faced two beyond-shot legends upon his move up, outlasted Volkan Oezdemir, and was shut out by Jones. Gustafsson would be Smith’s best win by a huge margin, a win over the Swede would suggest that Smith’s rise was more than just facing the right guys at the right time.
Smith is a bit of an all-rounder in the sense that he isn’t helpless anywhere, but he generally prefers to stand and strike; while his lack of defensive skills gets him in trouble (especially against offensive dynamos like Thiago Santos), Smith is an extremely tough and fairly powerful light heavyweight. For the most part, his striking isn’t technically all that impressive; he ran Oezdemir onto a few left hooks, but against Santos, he largely just ran forward with straights.
Smith’s most potent offense often comes from the clinch; the elbow he landed off a collar-tie on Elvis Mutapcic was one of the best examples, as was the knee he landed off an overhook and a frame on Rashad Evans (of course, Evans’ retirement was long-overdue at this point, so it doesn’t mean much).
Smith is a fairly slow starter, but tends to come on strong later in the fight; while this doesn’t make for sustained impressive performances, it has made for good comeback finishes against opponents with suspect endurance. Against Hector Lombard and Andrew Sanchez (both fighters with known cardio liabilities), Smith lost the first two only to get knockouts in the third; the Oezdemir fight followed a similar pattern, but ended with a submission.
It’s tough to see what Smith does at an elite level; he’s durable and can go for a while, he can strike decently and grapple decently, and he’s gotten bizarre wins centered around his opponents being typical 170lbs-plus gassers.
A win over a threat like Gustafsson is Smith’s opportunity to show more clearly what he brings to the table at the highest tier of 205 lbs.
Conclusions and Capping
As expected, this fight is a tough one for Smith; while Gustafsson has extremely well-defined weaknesses, Smith isn’t really poised to take advantage of any of them.
Smith doesn’t really have a dedicated pressure game; while even a bad one (in addition to durability and footspeed) is generally enough to fluster Gustafsson badly, Smith tends to operate in the same sort of fight that Gustafsson does. Without that pressure game, he’ll have to contend with a more proven and craftier boxer who (while he isn’t defensively great) does more to keep from getting hit than Smith does.
Smith likely does well if he just commits to moving forward, but he hasn’t really shown that in the past. Gustafsson also isn’t a cardio liability, involved in several hard 5-round fights without dropping off as catastrophically as most light-heavyweights seem to, and he probably wins the clinch battles.
Gustafsson’s approach is fragile, but it should work in Stockholm.
Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson via TKO in Round 2. This writer caps Gustafsson at -250.