I started looking at Gustafsson in a new light after he choked out Cyrille Diabate.
Sure, submission defense has historically been the Achilles heel for Diabate, an elite kickboxer, but navigating through the deadly forest of his precision striking is no easy task.
Gustaffson's combat career began with boxing at age ten and evolved to MMA in 2007. The Swede blasted through European promotions with a penchant for first-round stoppages, compiling a flawless eight-fight record with six TKOs, one submission and one decision before entering the UFC.
He upheld that trend with a ruthless shellacking of Jared Hamman in the opening frame at UFC 105, but then encountered the unstoppable force of Phil Davis and became entangled in the D1 wrestler's anaconda choke. Gustafsson returned from his first loss with guns blazing, latching consecutive rear-naked chokes on Diabate and James Te Huna.
The detailed breakdown of both Spike TV preliminary fights continues in the full entry.
Matt Hamill just had his win streak snapped by Quinton Jackson at UFC 130; a five-fight hitch that was capped off by the two biggest wins of his career over Keith Jardine and former mentor Tito Ortiz.
It's no secret what the hefty wrestler brings to the table: basic but capable boxing skills distributing big leather, good standing defense and excellent clinch and takedown skills. All of his losses came from accomplished strikers in Rampage, Michael Bisping and Rich Franklin, but the inventive kickboxing of Jon Jones was also finding its way through Hamill's defense before the No Contest fiasco occurred.
Those fighters are all top-shelf stand up artists (yes, even Bisping), and I'm more inclined to credit their abilities rather than knock Hamill for too many striking deficiencies.
Though the lanky Jones has an utterly unparalleled reach measurement (84"), it's worth noting that Gustafsson is similarly proportioned (6'4") and equally inclined to blister heat-seeking punches with a purpose.
Hamill's Mack truck base, durable chin and quick reactions make up for some of his iffy footwork. However, the animation to the left shows Franklin capitalizing on what is probably Hamill's most careless tendency.
His double-forearm defense to block punches works so well that he gets a little too confident with it; wading forward and planting his feet to absorb counter-fire.
He protects his head and upper-body efficiently, but he also rocks back on his heels to ward off potential takedown attempts and often leaves his body exposed.
To the right is a classic example of Rampage punishing Hamill for this habit. Every time he's assaulted with crisp flurries, Hamill dips his head into the pocket and either stays stationary or retreats in a predictable pattern.
He is lumbering around with some circling and angles, but you can see Rampage keying in on his head and going downstairs with body punches.
Gustafsson is easily the more dynamic fighter, but the question is how much of that diversity he can make use of against Hamill.
For as strong and beefy as Hamill is, he's not what I'd call the most graceful cat.
One of Gustafsson's unique threats is that he's a gangly 205-pounder who fights like a lightweight. Hamill will have trouble matching his hand-speed and overall agility, and since it's unlikely that Gustaffson will flat-out overpower Hamill, his explosive quickness is the best outlet to impose his will.
The sequence to the left depicts how the Swede has the frenetic swarming abilities and short, thunderous punches to cleave through Hamill's guard.
Gustafsson is just as relentlessly aggressive on the mat and in transitions and scrambles as he is standing.
I don't think he can land takedowns on Hamill head on, but he seamlessly integrates his attempts with his striking and pounces on any opportunities with a built-in killer instinct.
He's shown a decent guard, but that's just never a good idea against Hamill. The big fella has improved his submission defense and loves to posture up and drop jackhammers.
In addition to Hamill's stout elbows and punches from the top, Gustafsson has to be wary of over-committing on his punches to maintain the balance to sprawl.
This duck-under double leg is timed perfectly, and Hamill is not an easy person to scramble free of once he settles in.
I am a little surprised to see Gustafsson as a substantial favorite on the betting lines. I figured the prestige of Hamill's past opponents and a style corresponding with Phil Davis would have him in front.
I suppose that shouldn't stop me from picking Gustafsson, though the odds seem to be under-appreciating Hamill. I think Gustaffson will be hell on wheels for the first few minutes, but he'll have to uphold that strong pace because Hamill is so difficult to finish. Even though it still seems like it should be an upset pick ...
My Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson by decision
Chad Mendes (10-0) vs. Rani Yahya (16-6)
Team Alpha Male takedown artist Chad Mendes will look to continue his untenable tear against submission specialist Rani Yahya in Spike TV's second bout.
Mendes was voted the third best featherweight in the world in the latest edition of rankings, he's yet to lose a fight, and he'll undoubtedly be next in line to challenge the winner of Kenny Florian vs. Jose Aldo.
The two-time D1 All American wrestler's defeat of Javier Vazquez shattered any speculation that he was one-dimensional. Vazquez, albeit a little out of his prime, has a tortuous guard game that Mendes endured quite handily.
I assumed Mendes would have to be ultra-cautious to survive Vazquez on the floor, but as you can see to the left, he was far from tentative.
The front-flip guard pass is ballsy, but the front roll while Vazquez has the rear waist cinch is both entertaining and effective. Notice how, in the midst of the chaos, Mendes just hooks one of Vazquez's legs for leverage, scrambles to get his strong center of gravity underneath him and explodes into a dominant position.
He maintains good defense, keeps his chin tucked well and has excelled in adapting his footwork; an area that high-level wrestlers usually struggle with.
Brazilian Rani Yahya is a richly decorated grappler and probably the best BJJ purist in the division.
It started in 1999 when Yahya won the juvenile division of the Mundials at age fourteen as a blue belt, then repeated in 2001 at age seventeen as a purple belt. Next up was a silver medal finish at the 2005 ADCC tournament and he was the outright ADCC champion in 2007.
His MMA career began overseas as a lightweight, then he submitted featherweight Mark Hominick in his WEC debut before plummeting all the way down to bantamweight, where he split six fights against the WEC's best. His decision defeat of Mike Brown marked his return to featherweight.
Two distinct characteristics differentiate Yahya from the standard BJJ phenom in MMA: he's not a butt-flopper and he can take a punch ... several, in fact.
His background in Judo makes him a force to be reckoned with in the clinch and when defending takedowns (shown above vs. Brown), and the best example of his scrappy durability is probably the prolonged beating he suffered at the hands of Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto.
Yahya is simply not the type of BJJ player who is surprised and offended that people are punching him in the face.
I have to be honest: I expected Brown to win a fairly straightforward decision over Yahya. That was one of those outcomes where you scratch your head in bewilderment, wondering if you over-rated the loser or under-rated the winner.
Chad Mendes made his intentions quite clear on his UFC.com profile:
Thoughts on opponent, Rani Yahya? Yahya is probably the best BJJ practitioner in our division, but he really lacks standup. For this fight I want to use my wrestling to defend his takedown attempts and Keep it standing as much as possible. I believe my speed, power and strength are gonna be too much for him to keep up with.
Though Yahya represents a level on the ground that few can replicate and he could catch Mendes being brash were Vazquez could not, his stand up is rudimentary at best, and Mendes should have a field day on the feet.
My Prediction: Chad Mendes by decision
Gifs via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Franklin x Hamill and Gustaffson x Diabate gifs from MMA-Core.com