It was shaping up as a magnificent start to the year for European mixed martial arts.
First, the Irish carnival of Conor McGregor paid a spellbinding visit stateside that drummed up the sweet-sounding fervor for a UFC championship fight, the drumbeat resonating all the way down by the Tropic of Capricorn.
And one week later, on Saturday night, Stockholm stayed up all night to watch one of its own seize a title opportunity for himself as well. But instead, ambition itself seized up. On this night, the thudding sounds resonating off in the distance were, first, Alexander Gustafsson crashing to the canvas and, then, the gloomy buzz of 30,000 Swedish jaws dropping.
Alex the Near-Conqueror -- he has, after all, taken light heavyweight virtuoso Jon Jones to a deep darkness that no one else has managed to navigate -- became Alex the Conquered. All it took was a rumble with one Anthony Johnson, who hushed the second-biggest crowd in UFC history with a first-round TKO at Tele2 Arena in Stockholm.
And so Jones-Gustafsson II -- much anticipated and twice postponed -- has been pushed aside again, this time replaced emphatically by Jones vs. Johnson. The pound-for-pound king vs. the pound-you-and-pound-you king.
Johnson staked his claim with a ferocious beatdown that commenced when he floored the tall Swede with a thunderous right hand to the jaw 1:10 in. The bout had just been paused briefly for Johnson to recover from an eye poke, and no sooner had the fighters touched gloves to resume when Gustafsson let fly with a front kick toward the face. Johnson leaned in with his counter right, and while the Swede was able to bounce back up off the canvas, he was never the same. “Rumble” chased him down, flinging overhand rights and head kicks, and while most of them missed, the mere act of evading them kept Gustsfsson off balance. Finally, an uppercut sent him back to the floor, and Johnson followed him with a swarm of punches that ceased only when referee Marc Goddard jumped in at 2:15.
With that the enormous building was awash in murmurs and gasps. It was around 4 a.m. local time, the fight having been scheduled in the middle of the night so Fox could televise it in prime time in the United States. This was a bad dream, especially for Gustafsson (16-3), who could be seen weeping as his cornermen hugged him.
The heartbreaking scene did not go unnoticed by Johnson (19-4). While being interviewed in the cage, he cast a gaze toward his vanquished opponent and said, softly, “I’m an emotional, so I feel his pain.”
Johnson was no less gracious when addressing his next step. “Jon Jones, I hope you get well, brother,” he said. “Let’s get this championship fight on, make these fans excited.”
Who would have ever expected this? It’s not simply that Gustafsson was a 3-1 favorite in this fight. The 30-year-old Johnson’s unlikely ascent has been a longterm and jagged trajectory.
He entered the UFC in 2007 as a welterweight and won his debut in 13 seconds. But his next fight served as a precursor to turmoil on the horizon. It wasn’t just that he lost, but that he missed weight. He would do so again two years later, prompting a move up to middleweight -- where he proceeded to miss weight by 11 pounds. That got Johnson cut from the UFC, and in his debut with the minor-league Titan Fighting Championships, he once again missed weight by a mile. He finally settled in at light heavyweight -- although he also took a heavyweight bout during a stint in the World Series of Fighting and beat former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski -- and after his winning streak reached six in a row, Johnson received a call-back from the UFC.
Johnson’s second stint in the UFC has seen nothing but winning, as this was his third straight victory, but that hasn’t prevented it from being rocky in a different way. Just four months ago, he was suspended by the fight promotion after a news report of surfaced that the mother of his two children had sought a restraining order, alleging domestic violence. Subsequently, two previous cases came to light involving Johnson: domestic violence allegations by different women, one dismissed, the other resolved with a no contest plea. In November the latest civil case was dismissed, and the UFC cleared “Rumble” to fight.
And to break the hearts of northern Europe. And to act a good bit more like a champion than the fellow who wears the belt.
Moments after Johnson stopped Gustafsson, Jones took to Twitter with this: “Not impressed Alex.” Then, in typical “Bones” fashion, he quickly deleted the tweet.
The man who’d administered the beating had a different take. “Alex had a goal,” Johnson said at the post-fight press conference. “I felt really bad. I saw him crying. And I knew how it is whenever you have a goal and then something gets in the way and basically sidetracks you, or whatever you want to call it. I’d felt his pain before. So I just, I don’t know, I guess I’m human.”
Johnson then was asked what he thought of Jones’ tweet, and he came as close to drawing a line in the sand as he would all night, with a thinly veiled reference to the champ’s recent drug test failure. “This world is screwed up,” he said. “When somebody’s down, people all want to step on you and keep you down. Nobody wants to help you up. That’s why I think the world is screwed up. Jon is who he is. He’s got bigger things to worry about than Alex.”
He sure does. He has Anthony “Rumble” Johnson to worry about.