The last time we saw Alexander Gustafsson, he had puffiness and bruising under both eyes. He looked like he'd been in a fight. He looked like he'd won a fight, actually, if you compared his visage to that of the other guy in the cage.
The other guy was Jon Jones, who appeared to have been run over by a truck. Busted up and swollen lips. Strip of gauze covering a leaking cut above his right eye. Facial expression of beaten-down relief, rather than the usual triumphant glow, as the judges' decision was being read. "Bones" did manage to walk out of the octagon still in possession of the UFC light heavyweight championship belt that night last September, but his next stop was a Toronto hospital.
The record book indicates that Gustafsson was the loser of the main event of UFC 165. But in the eyes of many, the 27-year-old former amateur boxer was a big winner. "The Mauler" sure had lived up to his nickname, dishing out more punishment than we'd ever seen Jones withstand. Even among those who had no quarrel with the official verdict, a close but unanimous decision in favor of the champ, it was universally acknowledged that this tussle -- SI.com's 2013 Fight of the Year -- was not the last word on Jones vs. Gustafsson. A groundswell for a rematch swiftly picked up steam.
And then fizzled into a vapor of a presumed promise.
Jones and the UFC opted to move on to the next name on the list of contenders, Glover Teixeira, whom the champ will take on next month. And Gustafsson (15-2) was slated to face someone significantly farther down the list on Saturday in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in London (3 p.m. ET, UFC Fight Pass). If the big Swede can survive the Jimi Manuwa experience, he'll likely get a second date with Jones -- assuming Jon can derail Teixeira and his 20-fight win streak.
In the UFC, there is no such thing as a tuneup fight. But this is as close as it gets.
Manuwa is no slouch. He's more of an enigma. The 34-year-old Nigerian-born Englishman is 14-0 with 14 finishes, all but one of them a knockout. A combat sports resume doesn't get any more watertight than that. However, his three UFC victories -- all KOs -- have come against the likes of Kyle Kingsbury, Cyrille Diabaté, and Ryan Jimmo. They're all credible fighters, but not one of them is in the light heavyweight top-10, which is to say they all reside many miles south of the hilltop where No. 1 contender Alexander Gustafsson lives.
Can Manuwa take the big step up in competition without tripping? Or will the Swede take care of business and do his part to secure the rematch so many MMA fans yearn to see?
Gustafsson has the means to make this fight fully his. His length allows him to maintain the safe distance from where he can hit while not getting hit. He succeeded at that for much of the Jones fight. But as with past bouts, he occasionally couldn't help himself from venturing into firing range. He didn't suffer the consequences of that until late in the title fight, and perhaps that experience -- having to struggle for survival in a bout he seemed to be controlling while he was keeping his distance -- has taught him a thing or two that'll keep him in control this time out. Manuwa has a puncher's chance, basically, but what a puncher he is.
As with last weekend's fights in Macau, this card will be available only on UFC Fight Pass, the promotion's new digital service. However, there are two differences, which likely go hand in hand. First, the event in China had just a few fighters known outside the Beijing city limits, while the London card features not just the top light heavyweight contender but also some other significant players. Second, last weekend's was during the service's two-month free preview, whereas now fans have to pay $10 a month for Fight Pass.
That's business. It's a different kind of commerce, though, than what's on Alexander Gustafsson's agenda.