In what has recently been deemed a #1 contender bout, light-heavyweights Alexander Gustafsson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua will clash in the co-main event of UFC on Fox 5 this Saturday night. The show is captained by UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson defending his title against Nate Diaz and airs on the Fox channel at 8:00 p.m. ET after the FX preliminary card, which begins at 5:00 p.m. ET, runs its course.
Alexander Gustafsson (14-1) is a lanky Swedish boxer who's been steadily ascending the 205-pound ranks. Barring an understandable loss to a Kryptonite opponent in decorated wrestler Phil Davis, the only of Gustafsson's career, "The Mauler" has been on fire. The baby-faced blond stands his ground behind a blistering array of long, scorching punches and merely kick-starts his vastly improved takedown defense when that force-field of unfriendly fire is breached.
That simple game-plan has allowed Gustafsson to accrue a menacing finishing ratio with 9 TKOs, 3 submissions and 8 stoppages in the 1st round while propelling him to the apex of the weight class in the process. The only UFC light-heavyweight taller than Gustafsson (6'4" on Sherdog.com; 6'5" on UFC.com) is 6'6" Cyrille Diabate, who Gustafsson handily dispatched by rear-naked choke at UFC 120. His length shakes out to a frightening 76.5" reach measurement; a perfect complement to his crisp boxing and sprawl-and-brawl routine.
Gustafsson has faced and defeated elite wrestling specialists in Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko, and the same applies to feared strikers in Diabate, James Te Huna and Thiago Silva. He has not, however, encountered an opponent who can blend his striking and wrestling as well as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (21-6), nor has he faced anyone with such a prestigious level of past competition.
Rua was arguably the most heralded crossover from the Pride Fighting Championship promotion, where he mesmerized the audience with the poetic violence of his unruly Muay Thai onslaught. Shogun stamped his legacy into the annals of MMA with a resounding journey through Pride's 2005 Middleweight (205-pounds) Grand Prix, which featured a stacked lineup of global talent that included teammate and then-reigning champion Wanderlei Silva, current UFC heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem, current UFC middleweight Vitor Belfort and current UFC light-heavyweights Dan Henderson, Quinton Jackson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira -- just to name the big shooters.
Carnage ensued. When the dust settled, Shogun was the last man standing, having pelted "Rampage" Jackson with a salvo of knees for a quick and demonstrative stoppage, traded hands with Nogueira to earn the decision in the 2005 Fight of the Year, blasted Overeem into outer space with ungodly ground-and-pound and hammer-fisted Ricardo Arona into unconsciousness in the finals.
Of course, Shogun's UFC premiere was unforgettable as well, but for all the wrong reasons. Forrest Griffin finished him with a rear-naked choke in what was ultimately the most horrendous performance of Rua's career, and the unimpressive win over a dilapidated Mark Coleman that followed did little to allay his plummeting stock. He seemed back in top form when lamping Chuck Liddell with a left hook next, which turned out to be Shogun's only UFC win streak. However, he's been a front-runner in the title race since, eventually dethroning Lyoto Machida but toppling off his perch immediately after against Jon Jones.
Shogun's been plagued with ongoing issues and surgeries on his knee, which seems to largely dictate his success. His snoozers in the UFC were not coincidentally accented by a noticeable degradation in the explosive quickness that's so integral to his striking acumen; just like his stellar performances were accented by the graceful, fleet-footed motion that we associate with "the old Shogun."
If there was ever a situation in which Shogun direly needed his peak level of agility and quickness, this is it. Not since Machida has Shogun faced an elusive counter-striker like Gustafsson -- while the Swede's footwork isn't quite as elaborate as Machida's, his daunting height and reach will emphasize the need for technical footwork, unpredictable angles of attack and speed just as much. Even a Shogun in tip-top shape would have his hands full with Gustafsson, so the condition of his knee looms as the biggest X-factor here.
Both fighters have an exemplary range of diverse skill, but this match up boils down to Shogun's ability to crack through Gustafsson's deadly perimeter. Gustafsson will camp out on the striking fringe and lance some of the cleanest 1-2's in the sport all night long. Shogun is still one of the most feared and effective strikers in MMA, but he'll have to pass safely through Gustafsson's lengthy heaters in order to land. Even if he decides to employ his under-rated takedown game, Shogun handles that business with his trusty outside trip in the clinch and is not the type to spring for double-legs from a distance.
This means that 100% of Shogun's offense hinges on his ability to find his range with footwork and movement. Now, while Gustafsson is top-notch in keeping opponents at bay with his boxing and movement, Shogun is phenomenal in cutting angles and measuring the distance, as both of his fights with Machida showed. Rua's Muay Thai hearkens back to the classic Chute Boxe style that prioritized brutal power and effectiveness over traditional fundamentals, i.e. it's scary as hell but you can see small windows where precise punches could slip through. However, his footwork and movement is extremely technical and heartily proven against the sport's elite.
What seems to deflate Shogun's chances is how vulnerable to counters he is when unloading his hands and, mostly, how respectably dedicated Gustafsson is to his defense. His chin is always tucked, both hands are almost always glued to his chin, his head is constantly moving and his footwork regularly shuttle him out of harm's way. When you combine Gustafsson's proportions, power, and fundamentally complete offensive and defensive tendencies, the end result is simply a ridiculously efficient striker. He rarely gets hit but lands often and can pull the curtains with one shot.
Even though Shogun has more proven skill in more areas, Gustafsson is a unique fighter in that he forces opponents to duel where he's strongest. Thus far, he hasn't had any mental lapses; he never coasts through a round, or loses his intensity or composure. Gustafsson is very consistent and machine-like, which is unusual for such a young fighter and a frightening complement to his striking potency.
I do feel the betting lines that elevate the Swede as high as -245 are a little skewed. There's no question that the style match-up favors Gustafsson but Shogun's experience and high-level diversity will be unfamiliar territory for the rising phenom. If Rua can exploit his cunning submission game, corner Gustafsson, lure him into a brawl, or capitalize on any option what so ever that will solve the range riddle -- I'd not only give him a decent chance, but take him for the win. While I was still tempted to do so, I'll play it safe with the disclaimer that Shogun's worth a look for an underdog wager. At the end of the day, he just has a lot more work to do in order to impose his specialty than Gustafsson does, and I don't think Shogun's experience is enough to compensate.
My Prediction: Alexander Gustafsson by decision.