The main attraction for this Saturday's show features a light-heavyweight melee aligning proven showstoppers 2Alexander Gustafsson vs. Thiago Silva. The Fuel TV broadcast begins at 3 p.m. ET and the 6-piece preliminary card will stream live and free on the UFC's Facebook page beforehand at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Hailing from Sweden, Alexander Gustafsson (13-1) will assume the role of the hometown favorite. "The Mauler" has been a rise-and-shine prospect ever since he made his Octagon debut as an undefeated juggernaut, but his stock shot up even more when he ventured stateside to train at Alliance MMA with Phil Davis. The decision came immediately after Davis handed him his first and only career loss, which was via submission (Anaconda choke) at UFC 112 in 2010.
At the time, Gustafsson was even in the UFC after two fights, having trounced Jared Hamman with strikes in his premiere at UFC 105. Regardless of whether his newfound association with Alliance and Davis were responsible, the gangly Swede proceeded to knock off a host of venerable 205ers in succession. Consecutive wins by rear-naked choke (Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna) signified that his wrestling and submission grappling were improving, and Gustafsson blasted out two reputable wrestlers to cement that his boxing foundation was still intact and as deadly as ever.
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On paper, there's nothing more appealing than pairing up one violent finisher with another. Both Gustafsson and his opponent, Brazilian marauder Thiago Silva (14-2), have viciously scorched all but one of their victims and share a respectable finishing rate that exceeds 90%. Silva debuted in the Octagon at UFC 71 in 2007 as undefeated fighter after 9 outings. Having trained with the infamous Chute Boxe team in the past, Silva exemplified their signature style of untethered aggression while bolstering his body count, all but one of which expired in the opening frame. James Irvin (TKO via knee injury), Tomasz Drwal (TKO via punches), Houston Alexander (TKO via mounted punches) and Antonio Mendes (submission due to strikes) all fell to Silva, who menaced the camera after each unruly outburst with some celebratory throat-slashing.
Unfortunately, the sterling sequence would end there. Soon-to-be champ Lyoto Machida dealt Silva his first loss in definitive fashion, introducing a nasty straight left to his chin for a 1st-round TKO in a #1 contender bout. Though Silva returned to form in the follow up against Keith Jardine, which was another devastating performance, a 3rd-round shellacking was not enough to carry him past Rashad Evans, who'd won the previous rounds despite enduring a late combination from Silva that put him on roller-skates.
On January 1st in 2011, Silva shockingly man-handled Brandon Vera with a bad attitude, handing the Alliance MMA fighter a humiliating loss. Word came back that Silva's drug test registered as a falsie, the win was overturned to a No Contest and Silva's been absent ever since. Gustafsson spoke out on Silva's conduct against his training partner in an interview with Brian Hemminger of MMAMania.com:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about your upcoming opponent Thiago Silva. Now Thiago kind of disrespected your Alliance teammate Brandon Vera in his last fight. Does that give you added motivation heading into this or do you try to block that out?
Alexander Gustafsson: Absolutely. He's a great fighter but he's not a good sportsman. He's lacking in respect in his fights and it just makes me more motivated to fight him. He's a very entertaining fighter too, so it's gonna be a good fight for the fans.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
The propellant for Gustafsson's boxing-based stand up is the way he's capitalized on his stretchy limbs (76.5" reach) to thunder long and straight punches from afar. Straight boxing blends very well with takedown defense because it's easier to maintain the necessary balance for sprawling and evasive footwork while the hands are naturally in a position that's conducive to defensive clinch work.
This trait was on full display in Gustafsson's most recent outings, where he shrugged off charging takedown attempts from game wrestlers Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko en route to highlight-reel stoppages with his telephone-pole punches. For having such a tall and thin frame, Gustafsson is a nimble and dexterous athlete with quick and precise footwork.
Since Thiago does all his damage while rooted deep in the pocket, the range-game will be pivotal for Gustafsson again even though he's not facing an aspiring takedown artist. The distance he commands generally requires his opponent to compensate by tacking on an additional feint, angle or full step forward to set up their combinations. Even though these extras transpire in the span of milliseconds, Gustafsson has become adept at back-pedaling to buy more time and create more space -- which can force even more adjustments from his attacker -- while cramming his fists into the slightest opening they leave while on the chase.
It's a game of cat-and-mouse that Chuck Liddell perfected during his heyday, but Gustafsson swallows up even more distance because of his gangly stature.
Though he always pushes the pace, many of Silva's knockouts have come from the counter-punching role. His left hook is blindingly fast and downright crippling, as he proves against Jardine in the clip above.
Not a big kicker, the vast majority of Silva's blitzkrieg unloads in the form of short, ruthless punches with a few clinch knees mixed in. These tight-range sledgehammers are effective on the ground from the top position, with dirty boxing in the clinch and within arm's reach in open space. The one striking zone he doesn't excel in is from long range. Don't get me wrong -- he's far from incapable from outside, but, in both career defeats, his opponents employed a motion-based strategy to counter his venomous in-fighting.
Machida is heralded for his elusive tendencies; Rashad's a quick 205er whose critical evolution was probably the way he's developed his footwork and in-and-out handiwork. In plain terms, I see Gustafsson dictating the action anytime there's a good amount of space between them. The closer to Silva he gets, the more he nestles up to the damage-inducing dynamite of his whirling fists.
That leaves the method in which Silva chooses to shrink the gap as the most influential factor of this encounter. Silva's jaw-dropping beatdown of Brandon Vera, a skilled Greco Roman wrestler who tied up with the sport's most trumpeted clincher (Randy Couture) for 15 minutes, is worth a mention. Having a BJJ black belt and already establishing his striking grit, that display indicated that Silva's clinch and takedown prowess was a lurking third dimension. This is a trap he could spring on Gustafsson in order to exploit his suspect submission defense.
Still, that path to victory and all others for Silva hinge upon his ability to close distance effectively. With the range-game standing as the deciding factor, it's too hard not to pick the surging Gustafsson, whose specialty is fringe fighting, to beat Silva, who's faltered against talented distance-strikers and is appearing on relatively short notice (5 weeks) after a long (1.5 years) layoff. With a slugger like Silva, one punch can end the fight or change its course drastically, but I think the betting odds that average -220 for the Swede are acceptable.
My Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson by TKO.
Thiago Silva vs. Keith Jardine video via Yahoo Sports
Alexander Gustafsson highlight via locatedmma on Youtube