Watching from afar, Alexander Gustafsson will be rooting for Jon Jones
When Jon Jones walks out to the octagon on Saturday night, there will be a main event's worth of noise filling Baltimore Arena. Much of it will be cheering, but there will be substantial booing, too. All of that reaction, the welcoming and the spurning, comes with the territory. Jones is the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts, a champion who rocketed skyward at an unripe age, a time of making mistakes and learning from them. That bittersweet gumbo -- ascendance and sustained preeminence as an athlete, spiced with a personal life of amorphous imperfection -- makes the young man named "Bones" impossible to ignore. Or remain neutral on.
All of that plays a role in the rooting interest of one interested observer -- who'll not be in the building for UFC 172 (10 p.m. ET, PPV), but from a distance will be a committed Jones booster. That distance is approximately 4,000 miles. Alexander Gustafsson will be watching the fight in Sweden, perhaps over an early breakfast, and pulling hard for Jones. "Oh, absolutely," he told SI.com last week. "One hundred percent."
This is a change. The last time Jones was in the cage, Gustafsson was not rooting for him. Alex was in the cage with him, punching Jon with shockingly repeated success and bloodying him up, taking him to the canvas like no one before had managed. "The Mauler" lived up to his nickname that September night in Toronto, putting the champ's three-year reign in jeopardy for the first time. Jones (19-1) had to rally in the final two rounds -- the championship rounds -- in order to walk out with his light heavyweight belt. Gustafsson left the octagon empty-handed... unless you count the newfound stardom that comes with an unthinkably stout performance.
In the immediate aftermath, there was a groundswell for a do-over. UFC president Dana White walked into the postfight press conference and gushed, "Who doesn't want to see this rematch?" No one in the room offered an objection or a different option. But within a few days, Gustafsson had been nudged to the back burner by the promotion and a new challenger had stepped to the fore: Glover Teixeira, a 34-year-old Brazilian who has won 20 bouts in a row, a streak extending back nine years.
That's an impressive resume, and Alexander Gustafsson acknowledges as much while also recognizing why the UFC chose to make him wait his turn and give Teixeira a shot. "I think he's a great fighter, all around," said Gustafsson. "He mixes things up very well. He hits very hard."
You just know there's a "but" to follow.
"But I think he doesn't have what it takes to take the belt from Jones," Gustafsson continued. "I think he's a perfect matchup for Jones, actually. He's a very good fighter, but he doesn't move a lot. He doesn't have good footwork. He's not fast in his techniques. He stands there and throws heat, and that's what Jones wants. He wants to fight guys like that."
That sounds like an astute assessment of Teixeira. Of course, any time one fighter talks about another, it's natural for us to question his motives. Is Gustafsson downplaying Glover to make his own brutalizing of Jones all the more impressive? Or is Alex simply allowing his rooting interest to sway him? And for that matter, why is there a rooting interest in the first place?
"Because in my mind, Jones is the No. 1 guy in my division and the pound-for-pound best," said Gustafsson. "It's much better to take the belt from him than from Teixeira."
Well, if Glover wins on Saturday, wouldn't he then be the best 205-pounder? That's logical, in that he'd be the one with the belt. But Gustafsson is looking deeper than that. Jones has a legacy. He beat five straight former UFC champions. And after what went down last fall, a rematch would be payback time.
"There's a little bit of that, of course," said Gustafsson. "But I just want to beat the best in the sport. That's why I do this. I want to fight the best and take the belt from the best."
Gustafsson has been told he has next crack at the champ. He's taking the UFC's word for that, even though he knows promises have been made to top contenders in the past, and some of those promises shriveled up and blew away in the hot air. He's seen Daniel Cormier drop down from heavyweight and make his presence felt near the top of the ladder. He's heard his friend and training partner Phil Davis try to start something with Jones. None of this concerns him.
"I don't think about those things too much," said Gustafsson. "If it happens, it happens. But I'm confident that I'm next in line and I'll have my shot. I don't really worry about what others are doing. I'm happy when somebody gets a title shot. But not before me."
Well, one man does stand before him in line. That business will be taken care of on Saturday night.