April 13, 2012

At 6 feet 5 inches, Alexander Gustafsson would tower over Rashad Evans and stand taller even than lanky Jon Jones if the three UFC light heavyweights were in the same room. But they're not standing anywhere near each other. They're half a world apart, figuratively and literally, and the svelte Swede is hidden deep in those other men's shadows.

With Jones and Evans mesmerizing the mixed martial arts world with their relentless crossfire of verbal jabs in the lead-up to next weekend's championship bout, Gustafsson is quietly going about his business in the city near where he grew up and where he now mostly trains. Of course, that city, Stockholm, also happens to be the site of Saturday's UFC on Fuel TV 2 (3 p.m. ET, Fuel TV), and Gustafsson happens to be atop the card, taking on Thiago Silva.

It will be the first UFC main event for Gustafsson, and he's earned it. He's 13-1, his only loss coming against Phil Davis two years ago in his second UFC bout. Since then, the 25-year-old Swede has run off four straight wins, two by submission and two by knockout. That gives him nine KO wins, three subs and just one decision for his career. This is a guy who hasn't had to worry much about the whims of fickle cageside judges.

But it's not simply about numbers with Gustafsson. It's also important to note whom he's finished and how he's done it. In his first two fights following the loss to Davis, "The Mauler" put a sudden stop to some serious momentum, ending the six-fight winning streaks of Cyrille Diabaté and James Te-Huna, both via rear-naked choke. Then, last August, he finished Matt Hamill not just for the night but for good, knocking him out and sending him into retirement. In December, Gustafsson KO'd Vladimir Matyushenko in just 2:13 -- nearly as fast as Jon Jones had disposed of the Belarussian tough guy a year earlier.

That's where this all is leading, isn't it? Gustafsson is being put in the spotlight -- or at least what there's left of it after Jones and Evans have hogged so much of the attention -- because the UFC views him as a potential challenger to "Bones." He wouldn't be out-sized, he's shown he can avoid being manhandled by a wrestler (although Davis did a job on him) and boy can he strike.

"When that day comes, when I get the chance to fight for the title, I will be more than ready," Gustafsson said this week when the inevitable question about the light heavyweight championship came his way during a UFC on Fuel TV 2 press conference in Stockholm. But that's all he would say about Jon Jones. He wanted to talk about Thiago Silva. "He's a great opponent and the biggest test in my career," said Gustafsson. "So I'm 100 percent focused on this fight now."

That's a smart plan. Thoughts of "Bones" Jones (or perhaps Rashad Evans?) are something to stash away for future consideration. Of far more immediate concern is Silva, a dangerous opponent under any circumstances but now with the added drive of one who's seeking redemption.

There was a time when Silva was, like Gustafsson is now, a light heavyweight being talked about as a title contender. He fights a little like the Swede, with 11 of his 14 wins coming by KO, and two others by sub. Back in 2008 he was 13-0, with four finishes in the UFC, when he stepped into the octagon with another undefeated fighter. Lyoto Machida got the better of him that night, via first-round knockout, but Silva bounced back seven months later with quick KO of Keith Jardine. He then fought Rashad Evans, and while he did drop the ex-champ at one point, he was controlled on the ground and lost a unanimous decision.

End of story for Silva as a contender? Not quite. He revealed after the fight that he had suffered three herniated discs in his back during training, and he would require a year to heal. When he finally stepped in against Brandon Vera on New Year's Day, he put on a dominant performance to win a unanimous decision. So all was well and the Brazilian was back on track? Again, not quite. A post-fight drug test came back dirty, and Silva admitted that he'd taken injections for his back that contained banned substances, then sought to mask his usage in his urine sample. He would sit out another year, this time for a Nevada State Athletic Commission ban. The Vera result was changed to a no contest.

Now Silva is back. You can be sure the UFC has him on a short leash, but the Dana White Fight Club has nonetheless handed him an opportunity to make fans forget the past. He believes he's ready to do it. "I don't have my back problem anymore," Silva said at the press conference. "I'm 100 percent healthy."

That puts a big target squarely on Gustafsson, who is big enough as a man and as a light heavyweight contender to be the focal point of another man's shot at redemption. He understands that he's fighting a guy who's been knocked down a few pegs and is trying to make a stand. "Thiago's a tough guy and he goes in for the kill," said the Swede, "so I've got to be prepared."

After all, Saturday in Stockholm, just 125 kilometers (about 78 miles) from his Arboga hometown, Alexander Gustafsson has his own upward mobility to think about.

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