UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Smith takes place Saturday, headlined by two men who have stepped into the Octagon as challengers for the light heavyweight championship only to come up short.
In the case of Alexander Gustafsson (18-5), three of his five career losses have come in bids for UFC gold at 205 pounds. His opponent, Anthony Smith (31-14) lost a championship bout in his most recent trip to the cage.
Since March 2011, only two men have held the UFC belt in the light heavyweight division: Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier. And, in all honesty, Cormier’s time with the belt was purely the result of Jones’s own missteps in his personal life leading to suspensions. Make no mistake, light heavyweight is Jones’s division.
Since 2014, Jones (21-1) has only fought once per year — again, largely a consequence of his own actions — but his presence has been smothering. Jones’s trips to the cage afford the opportunity for fans to see an all-time great talent ply his trade on the biggest stage in the sport.
And every time he sets foot in the Octagon serves as a reminder the light heavyweight division — once the UFC’s marquee weight class — has fallen several steps behind its champion.
So, what is someone like Gustafsson, who has lost two championship fights against Jones and one against Cormier, to do?
Gustafsson holds the #2 spot in the UFC’s official light heavyweight rankings. He’s taking on Smith, who holds the #4 spot. A fight between the second and fourth ranked fighters in a division generally puts the winner in position to fight for the belt, but with both men coming off losses to Jones, is that realistic?
Would the UFC even consider giving Gustafsson a third shot at Jones (and fourth shot at a title) after his third-round stoppage loss in December? It seems his answer to this question is to stop worrying about it.
“I’m not even thinking about Jon or the title or any of that anymore,” Gustafsson said in an interview with MMAjunkie. “It’s been too much and too long in my head. I just don’t really care anymore. I just take one fight at a time and just get back to it.
“I want to stack up my wins again. I want to beat the best guys. Of course I want to beat the top guys, too. I tried. I just have to go back to where I started and take one fight at a time, try to be a better fighter, be a better competitor and take one fight at a time, and win every fight, and stack them up, and let’s see what the future brings. My motivation right now is to support my family and have fun doing what I love to do.”
While Gustafsson’s cool, measured steps forward out of a title-focused mindset is a match for his personality, Smith finds himself consumed by poor performance against Jones. The fight with Gustafsson is being taken by Smith as a cure to the disease of a bad fight.
“It’s not even about Gus, or winning and losing,” Smith told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. “It’s not even about getting back to the title. I’m not sitting here saying I don’t want to win, that’s not what I’m saying. I haven’t even considered the fight a win vs lose situation.
“Honestly I don’t give a shit what happens, I just want to perform. I want to go in there and I need to destroy something to get this feeling out of my stomach. This burning, sick feeling that I can’t shake. The only way I am going to do that is I got to let it out on somebody because I wasn’t able to let it out on Jon.”
There are two other light heavyweight fights on the main card this Saturday.
In the co-main event, Volkan Oezdemir takes on Ilir Latifi. Also on the card, Jimi Manuwa and Aleksandar Rakic square off.
Latifi vs. Oezdemir is another battle of top 10 light heavyweights, but Oezdemir (15-4) fought Cormier for the title in January 2018, losing by second round TKO and lost to Smith in the following fight. So a win and his #7 ranking aren’t likely to put him in title contention while #9 Latifi (14-6) is coming off his own loss and a win over Oezdemir doesn’t have the shine it once did.
Manuwa (17-5) is ranked #11 but has lost three in a row and also has losses on his record to Oezdemir and Gustafsson. Rakic is riding an 11-fight winning streak, including his first three in the UFC. He is, however, not ranked.
And this is a small picture of what happens in a division full of sharks but with a megalodon on top. The talent battles, dinging each other and damaging resumes before eventually the megalodon has to eat.
Jones’s next meal looks to be Thiago “Marreta” Santos (21-6) at UFC 239 in July.
Santos is ranked #3 in the division and has wins over Manuwa and fellow ranked fighter Jan Błachowicz. He only moved to light heavyweight three fights ago after a somewhat uneven middleweight career, but he is 3-0 with three knockout wins.
All he has to do now is solve a puzzle no one else has been able to solve, including numerous legends of the sport.
“We haven’t really been able to see a weakness in his game,” Santos told MMAjunkie. “But we have never seen him with his back against the ground – better yet, with his back to the ground and a hand landing heavily. Then, we’ll see. That’s something we haven’t seen, how he reacts to a powerful ground-and-pound from the top. But anyway, more than ever I need to be ready for anything. He’s a very well-rounded guy, he adjusts to wherever the fight is, so my strategy is to make him feel bad wherever he is.”
Another fighter looking to find Jones’s weakness in the Octagon a few weeks after several of light heavyweight’s best pick each other off.
This is Jon Jones’ world … and it keeps on turning as it has for years.