Ahead of the biggest fight of his career in the coming weeks Alexander Gustafsson is the most commonly misspelled name on everyone's lips at the moment. Going into the bout with declining brawler, Mauricio Rua, Gustafsson has been touted as the future of the division, the next real challenger to Jon Jones, and an excellent striker. Time will tell whether the first two assertions are true, but I can attempt to weigh in on the third. There is plenty of time until UFC on Fox 5, the next UFC event, so I will attempt to give a short breakdown of each of Gustafsson's major fights inside the octagon. Today I felt it best to start with perhaps the biggest name that Gustafsson has beaten, Thiago Silva.
From the beginning of the bout Gustafsson went to his bread and butter - flailing his hands and backpedaling - and it worked a treat. Thiago Silva is an aggressive, emotional fighter and because of this he is extremely easy to pull into traps. It wasn't just Lyoto Machida that made their bout arguably the most flawless stand up clinic in UFC history, Silva simply kept obliging Machida with a chase. When Silva fought Gustafsson he was immediately thrown off by Gustafsson's distracting hand movements and refusal to engage in a brawl. Gustafsson succeeded in getting the passionate Brazilian to lunge in head first and met him with a slapping uppercut which dropped the bigger puncher to his knees.
1. Gustafsson is backing up, Silva chases.
2. Silva dives in with a huge, winging overhand and drops his left hand as he does so. Gustafsson lands his uppercut.
3. As Silva crumbles Gustafsson misses the left hook he intended to lift Silva's head into.
From this point on Silva was a little less willing to run in wildly and to his credit tried to make Gustafsson bring the fight to him. Gustafsson responded by using dozens upon dozens of faked punches to land a few hard right low kicks and right hooks. Gustafsson would flail and fake punches now not to get Silva frustrated at his lack of offense, but rather to back Silva up. Below Gustafsson pumps a few jabs far short of Silva, Silva raises his hands and backs up, and Gustafsson connects a nice low kick now that the distance between the two men is perfect to throw one without risk of a counter. Poor tactician or not,Thiago Silva can put men to sleep if they rush in too close (G).
From a traditional martial arts standpoint the flailing of the hands to distract the opponent is a very old and sound strategy - in Mas Oyama's Essential Karate it was described under the name Enshin or rotating hands - and entire styles can be built around it. Anyone who has seen any of the nonsense out there about 52 Blocks or Jailhouse Rock - a martial art supposedly only known by black prison inmates - will remember Zab Judah's flailing of arms against Floyd Mayweather that seemed to confuse Floyd and is used to this day to validate the belief in 52 Blocks. Wind to 2:42 of this video to see that.
The final dynamic at play in the fight once Silva had stopped chasing was Alexander attempting to pour on some combinations against the bigger puncher. This was what Silva had been waiting for and he attempted to swing off of his defense. Gustafsson used the interesting tactic of extending both arms to counter Silva's counter flurries. This is something which looks awfully sloppy but was used by men such as Roy Jones Jr. as a method to re-establish the distance, while keeping the shoulder on the defending side high so as to protect the chin. Below are a couple of instances where Gustafsson extended his arms and managed to re-establish the distance between himself and the shorter fighter.
Essentially the dynamic of the fight had gone full circle: beginning with Silva chasing Gustafsson and getting dropped, then moving on to Gustafsson picking Silva apart at range. As Gustafsson became more confident he began to put together combinations, which kept him in the pocket long enough for Silva to attempt a counter. Silva couldn't resist going back to his old self and began chasing again to end round three.
The obvious dangers of Gustafsson's defense of choice are that he is not the tallest light heavyweight, and he doesn't have the longest reach - that title belongs (with the actual light heavyweight title) to Jon Jones - and so for a title fight his go to style will be of no use. Furthermore even against the slow footed Thiago Silva, Gustafsson still found himself getting clipped and caught out as he backed up. Essentially what makes Gustafsson such an interesting commodity is that he is a poor man's Lyoto Machida in terms of his backpedaling to counter strike style - except he does not give up nearly as much height and reach to Jones that Machida does.
Machida is considered a great nemesis to Jones, and in truth his counter fighting excellence seems the perfect foil to Jones' game. Unfortunately Machida is a very small light heavyweight - coming in under 205 routinely up until his bout with Thiago Silva - while Jones is an huge one. A larger counter striker of the Machida model is an enormously exciting prospect - and while his timing, footwork and power are nothing on Machida's, Gustafsson's boxing and grappling offense are also vastly more varied.