April 14, 2012

"Come to me," Thiago Silva said not with his words but his hands, gesturing for Alexander Gustafsson to come forward.

Gustafsson didn't flinch. He didn't laugh, either, although no one would have blamed him if he had.

After all, there were about 10 seconds remaining in a fight Silva was clearly losing. And, he had spent the better part of the final round not throwing caution to the wind but throwing out weak left jabs into the wind. Except when he was backpedaling and covering up against another assault by the big Swede.

Gustafsson was masterful at keeping his distance. He also was masterful at closing the distance. On his own terms.

And so it was that Gustafsson earned a unanimous decision before a spirited hometown crowd in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 2 Saturday in Stockholm. Two judges scored all three rounds for Gustafsson, while one gave the middle round to Silva.

It's a pity more Americans didn't get to see the UFC's first visit to Sweden. Gustafsson looked like a force in the light heavyweight division. Brian Stann just looked like a force, quickly knocking out Alessio Sakara in the middleweight co-main event. And between the main card and prelims, we had a United Nations of winners, with hands raised from England, Norway, Iran, France, Germany and Afghanistan -- in addition, of course, to Sweden and the United States. The fans in the arena fittingly called The Globe knew their stuff, cheering for advances in grappling position, not just nose-busting fisticuffs. And when their homeboy came out for the main event, they got deafeningly raucous. (Unless that was the crowd at the NHL playoff game being shown on the other TVs in the bar where I watched, being one of the millions whose cable company doesn't get Fuel TV.)

Gustafsson (14-1) didn't finish Silva, as he had all but one of his previous victims, but he did douse the Brazilian's spirit. That's an accomplishment, as Silva (14-3, 1 no-contest) is a finisher, too. But you can't finish what you cannot find. And Gustafsson's constant movement left Silva flailing. And falling. Within the first minute of the fight, the big Swede caught a lunging Thiago with a sneaky uppercut, sending him to the mat. Gustafsson pounced, but Silva had his wits about him and was able to defend well from his back. So Alexander did the smart thing. He backed off, allowing Thiago to stand . . . and get picked apart for another 14 minutes.

"Alexander is a tough guy," Silva said afterward. "I couldn't close the distance. He deserved it."

And he deserves whatever comes next, which one would assume -- after five straight wins -- will be a big step up the ladder. That Gustafsson was selected as the main event draw for the Stockholm event suggests he's being groomed by the UFC, perhaps as a standard bearer for European mixed martial artists, like Michael Bisping before him, or maybe as something more. His lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame and unorthodox movement have drawn comparisons to the champion in his division, Jon "Bones" Jones. And we might see those prodigious wingspans flying in the same airspace sometime in the not-too-distant future if the Swede can take out a Top 5 guy next time. "Shogun" Rua? Lyoto Machida? (Of course, "Bones" has to do his part, too, and hold onto his belt next weekend.)

However, Gustafsson isn't calling out anyone. "I just want to take the fights the UFC gives me," he said, "and do what I love to do: fight."

On that note, let's slip in a few words about another guy who loves to fight. Boy, did all the hard work Brian Stann put in at the Greg Jackson-Mike Winklejohn gym sure shine brightly. He came out on his toes, all movement, feinting, in and out. Sakara, while a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, was an opponent tailor-made for the rugged Marine, as the Italian relies mainly on his background in professional boxing. He did crack Stann one time with a quick combination, but when the distance closed he didn't have the strength to stay in the game.

Within two minutes Stann landed a series of hard knee in the clinch, the last one dropping Sakara. Then the old Stann took over, following his opponent to the mat and flurrying with fists. Sakara survived for a short while, but eventually a left elbow snuck in on his chin, then a short left hand stiffened him. Stann threw one more left, seemingly recognizing that it was unnecessary just as the punch was landing. He put up his hands as if to apologize even before referee Marc Goddard could jump in to end the fight at 2:26.

Afterward, he had no challenges to issue, either. Asked who's next, Stann said, "Whoever is next up the ladder."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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