Alexander Gustafsson is tall, and his arms are pretty long. Remember? That was the only thing the UFC's marketing team seemed to know about him prior to his barn burner with light heavyweight king Jon Jones. Now Gustafsson has picked up considerably more hype after nearly taking the belt from one of the UFC's most dominant champions, but a lot of that buzz still centers around the Swede's impressive 6'5" frame and considerable wingspan which, despite some miraculous and nature-defying fluctuation, now seems to have settled at about 81".
There's nothing wrong with that, either. Though the focus on his dimensions before the Jones fight was overblown, Gustafsson's frame plays a definite role in the style of striking he chooses to employ. In his past few fights he has refined himself, ending up with a pared down striking game that consists of a rangy jab, a long left hook, a straight right, and a whole lot of right uppercuts. His selection and application of tools is simple and effective, and he continues to develop his style to match his build.
Now Gustafsson is set to fight Jimi Manuwa, a recent addition to the UFC whose relative obscurity seems to be overshadowing the fact that he will be a very real threat to the Swede. Unlike Jones, however, Manuwa is at a significant height disadvantage, giving up about four inches of height and at least two inches of reach.
The first aspect of Gustafsson's game is to measure the range between himself and his opponent. This can be done in a number of ways--one of Gustafsson's favorites is to absorb a leg kick from the opponent and then counter with an uppercut or straight right. Once the opponent is capable of kicking him, he knows he is capable of punching them. Against Manuwa, however, Gustafsson would be well advised to keep from purposely absorbing too many kicks. Rather, his best bet will be to rely on a more traditional measuring stick: the jab.
For Gustafsson, the jab is all about range and balance. He only occasionally sits down to throw a truly hard jab, opting instead to paw and feint at his opponents to force reactions and get a sense of the gap between them and himself.
1a. Gustafsson and Shogun are out of range.
2a. Gustafsson steps in with a jab, and sees Shogun drop his weight and wind up for a counter.
3a. Gustafsson abandons his attack and slips to his left, the right hand of Shogun sailing harmlessly past his head.
1b. In this second sequence, Gustafsson and Shogun are once again out of punching range.
2b. Again, Gustafsson steps in behind a feeler jab, and this time Shogun reacts defensively, shelling up and lifting his left leg to check a potential kick--a classic Muay Thai universal defense.
3b. Gustafsson spies the opportunity, snatching Shogun's raised left leg and driving him to the mat.
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The Mauler's long arms allow him to feel his opponents long before they are close enough to hit him. He may not have taken advantage of this luxury often enough against Shogun, but his performance against Jones (and, before that, against Phil Davis) says a lot about his ability to adapt and learn from past mistakes.
Instead of simply stepping into range, Gustafsson comes in behind a jab. This ensures that A) the opponent has something to worry about, making him think twice about countering, and B) Gus knows how far to move forward by how easily his left hand is able to reach the opponent. If the opponent is determined to counter, as Shogun was in the first sequence above, then Gustafsson has plenty of time to react, since he has forced them to act on the end of his very long jab. Having long arms is one thing, but using that reach--actively enforcing the space between oneself and the opponent--is an entire skillset in and of itself.
It wouldn't be a Gustafsson breakdown if I didn't mention his favorite punch, his baby: the right uppercut. Gustafsson has thrown this punch throughout his UFC career, sometimes falling a little too in love with it, and throwing uppercut after uppercut when a straight right would have served much better. At its best, however, Gustafsson's uppercut is a potent weapon, perfectly designed to punish shorter opponents.
Before Gus' fight with Jones, I wrote about the idea of fighting tall. A taller fighter's best advantage is almost always his reach, which is actually utilized best by getting on the opponent's eye level. At a certain point, however, the shorter man will always be able to lower himself more than the taller one. This is when the uppercut comes into play.
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1. Circling off the cage, Gustafsson leads with a jab. Matt Hamill bends his knees and moves to avoid it.
2. Gustafsson follows up with a right hand, but Hamill shells up and catches the punch on his left shoulder.
3. As Hamill lowers his head into his shell, Gustafsson cracks him with an uppercut.
4. This forces Hamill to stand up tall again and back up into the fence.
5. Now Gustafsson throws the straight right, clipping Hamill on the temple before he can cover up again.
This sequence shows Gus' understanding of an advanced concept, one you'll find prevalent in Cuban boxing. Gustafsson controls Hamill's elevation with his punches, first forcing him to lower himself with a right hand, then sneaking beneath his guard with an uppercut that knocks him upright. The follow-up right hand is perfect not only because of Hamill's changing elevation, but also because of the range. As Hamill backs away, Gustafsson keeps pressing the attack, electing to throw a long straight right even as Hamill reaches the end of his range.
Of course, Gustafsson's footwork in this sequence deserves a mention as well. Notice how, in every subsequent frame, Gustafsson is a bit farther to Hamill's left. Gustafsson is excellent at using his combinations to disguise his footwork. In this sequence, Gustafsson throws away several punches (watch the GIF), with no real intention of landing, while he gets his feet into position. He is thinking several steps ahead, keeping Hamill defensive even as he positions himself to sneak past those defenses.
Manuwa may not test Gustafsson's ability to outbox someone as long and tall as he is, but he will certainly test the sharpness of the Swede's tools. Check back tomorrow for my breakdown of Manuwa's skills, particularly the ones best suited to cracking Gustafsson's granite chin.
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