BY MATTHEW ROTH
IMAGE: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Gustafsson has always been on of the best young fighters in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. After a small setback in a submission loss to Phil Davis, Gustafsson has quickly become the latest member into the elite class of 205-pounders under contract.
At UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle, he was faced with the biggest challenge of his career against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Rua is not just a former-UFC light heavyweight champion, but is a legend in mixed martial arts after his storied PRIDE career that saw him win the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix.
The Pressures of a Fighter
While it could be argued that Saturday’s event was his coming-out party, he didn’t feel as much pressure fighting on network television as he did fighting in front of his hometown crowd in Sweden earlier this year on UFC on Fuel TV against Thiago Silva.
“There was a lot of difference. The Sweden card, I was super nervous when I fought. There was a lot of pressure. And I did well in that fight. I was very confident in this fight and I felt good all the time,” Gustafsson told Bleacher Report.
“The fight against Shogun, I’m nervous before every fight. Shogun is a legend and he’s been around for a while and that was the toughest fight of my career so far.”
It’s interesting to hear a fighter say that. As an American fan, it’s easy to believe that the grander stage would equate to added pressure. The Fox events always garner more eyeballs and those Fuel TV cards never pull massive ratings.
But seeing him around Seattle during fight week, he appeared to be almost peaceful. Outwardly, he never let on that there was any pressure in his fight with Shogun.
Fighting the Legend
Even when he was walking out through the crowd with “Hearts on Fire” blasting over the KeyArena’s PA system, his face was that of a man who was focused on the task at hand.
“The only thing that was in my mind was my game plan and nothing else. Game plan and listening to my coaches. When I stepped into that cage, I didn’t see Shogun as Shogun. I saw him as an opponent like anyone else. It was only game plan and focus.”
What’s most interesting is that fans and media heard something similar that week from Rory MacDonald, who faced B.J. Penn. MacDonald said that he’s not worried about the legacy of his opponent.
Instead, he put it into his mind that he was just facing a man, and that past successes and failures had no real impact on the bout. It was the same way for Gustafsson, who saw Rua as just another opponent instead of the legend.
“It sometimes hits you. It hit me like ‘oh, I’m fighting Shogun and he’s been around’ but you have to have control over your thoughts and your feelings. We’re all professionals. I keep calm and confident.”
That early confidence almost cost him the fight as Shogun rushed forward and quickly rolled for a leg lock. Rua is known for having brutal leg attacks, and getting such a deep submission so early in the fight surely meant the end for Gustafsson.
It’s said by Joe Rogan constantly, and there’s truth to it, that the best chance for finishing a submission happens early in the first round when neither fighter is sweaty. But despite the submission attempt, Gustafsson didn’t lose his focus.
“You know, he had my foot but the submission itself, he didn’t get that far that I felt the submission. I drilled submission defense for foot locks and leg locks so I knew what I was supposed to do. It was under control.”
The Head Coach and Mentor
So whom does he credit for the vast improvements he’s made in his UFC career? His head coach and mentor, Andreas Michael. Michael is not just his boxing coach but also the man in charge of every training camp.
But he plays as big a role outside of the gym as he does inside.
“Andreas is my coach, my mentor, he does everything for me. He’s one of my best friends. He’s there all the time for me. He’s the right man for the job. He’s got such a good eye and he’s such a good coach. We work very well together. He will always be my head coach.”
“Wherever Andreas goes, I’ll go.”
And despite his success with Michael, he knows that there are many who have helped him along the way. When he is stateside, Gustafsson is a member of the Alliance Fight Team, with practices led by head coach Eric Del Fierro.
This one-two combination allows for them to not just improve his already existing skills but also create unique game plans depending on the opponent. In fact, he believes that Michael and Del Fierro may be the best combination in the sport.
“Andreas together with Eric Del Fierro make coaching a masterpiece. They’re both top level coaches. I develop every time and look to improve for every practice. I’m blessed to be part of the team I have at home and at Alliance with Del Fierro. I can’t ask for a better camp.”
The Future of the Division?
Like so many, the end goal is and always will be UFC gold. And after Saturday night, there’s a very legitimate chance that he achieves it in 2013. At the pre-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White stated that the winner of the Gustafsson-Rua bout would be next in line for the belt.
Just don’t expect to see Gustafsson wait around for his opportunity. After only fighting twice in 2012, he wants to be more active next year.
“I want the belt. I want to fight Jon Jones or whoever has the belt. I want the title and I want the title shot. I want to bring the belt back to Sweden. That’s my main goal. But I’m not going to wait eight months for a fight. I want to stay active.”
No matter what the future holds, one thing is clear.
The UFC light heavyweight division has been put on notice. If anyone wants a shot at the title, they have to go through the Swede to get it.