Light heavyweight (205 lbs)
Alexander "The Mauler" Gustafsson
Anthony "Rumble" Johnson
Single line summary:
The light heavyweight divisions hardest hitter meets its most indestructible chin
The biggest welterweight in history looks to take out the biggest Swede in the UFC.
Video preview from Dallas Winston, Zane Simon and Connor Ruebusch:
History Lesson / Introduction:
Phil: Anthony "Rumble" Johnson was a comically oversized welterweight, whose achievements in-cage were often overshadowed by speculation over just how gigantic he was. When he finally moved up to middleweight, he massively overshot, ending up at 197lbs for a fight with Vitor Belfort, almost killing himself in the process, and being summarily booted from the ranks of the UFC. His time off was spent at heavyweight as the face of World Series of Fighting, after which he returned to the UFC for crushing victories over Phil Davis and Lil' Nog.
David: I'm still trying to wrap my liver around the notion that Anthony Johnson could ever make weight. It's like when Lisa Randall tries to explain baryogenesis, and my only brain's only response is to throw my arms up in the air in order to ask the age old question, "is this reality?" Perhaps the oddest thing isn't even the weight gain/loss. It's just how effective he's been going up in weight while retaining none of his previous flaws.
Phil: Alexander Gustafsson was the third (and nominally weakest) member of the 205lb prospect trifecta, after Davis and Jon Jones. He was tapped out by Davis in an early contest between the two, which in many ways helped him out: he was able to sneak his way up through the ranks before ambushing Jon Jones in 2013's Fight of the Year. At this point everyone realized: hey, this guy is really good. In many ways, he represents the first of the modern wave of elite European prospects.
David: I think Michael Bisping deserves some credit there. He brought a fresh face (and a loud mouth) to the European contingent, and became a reasonable draw for a fighter of his caliber while rising above the TUF status typically thought of as 'mere TV prospect'. But Gustafsson is certainly the best European fighting right now. I'm not sure what to think about Gustafsson in a Jones rematch, but this is bizarro world if Gustafsson ends up being the best of those three amigos.
What are the stakes?
Phil: High. Jon Jones has finally proven that he's a bona-fide star, and Zuffa will want to capitalize on that while he's still hot from the Cormier rivalry. There's no better potential foe for him than Gustafsson, the man who gave him his toughest test. The UFC can capitalize on their European momentum while putting together the most enticing matchup that they can at the moment. There's no doubting who they want to win this fight. But, things don't always go the way the UFC want them to.
David: I don't think the UFC would have a problem with Johnson winning though. He's got that "what did you say about my mama?!" pugnacious swagger that I think would not only sell well, but the fight itself would be interesting as long as stayed on the feet. Gustafsson is still the better fight. In preparation of this, I naturally went back to his title fight with Jones and that was a special performance.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Back when he was a welterweight, Rumble was a robotic kickboxer-wrestler hybrid. He threw some mechanically ugly 1-2s which hurt opponents by dint of mass rather than technique, a surprisingly crisp headkick from either leg, and possessed good functional wrestling. Under the tuition of Henri Hooft, Johnson has become a genuinely scary tank of a kickboxer. He throws chopping leg kicks to open up opponents, blocking return shots with a high guard, and then throwing power punches on the counter. When he does, he hits HARD, and is debatably the most purely concussive puncher in the division. Plus, he still has those headkicks.
Gustafsson is a much more mobile fighter than the stalking Johnson. One of the reasons why I think he didn't get much hype on the come-up is that he doesn't look much like the elite athlete that he is. However, he posses speed and pace, and has a surprising amount of loose, snapping power packed into his punches. He's a much more volume-based and attritional fighter than Rumble, throwing the jab to the head and body, and mixing up the power between a pat to test distance, and a hard, jarring shot to stop opponents in their tracks. He's a good kicker, occasionally chaining probing low kicks into his combinations.
All this nuanced offense comes at something of a cost, though, which is that he gets caught up the whys and wherefores of how he's going to land it. A particularly nasty habit is his tendency to overuse his beloved right uppercut, an extremely tricky and high-risk strike.
He's one of those fighters who seems like he always takes his opponent's best shot. Worse, he seems so fundamentally unimpressed when this happens that he often disregards preventative measures to stop the opponent from doing it again. Getting tagged repeatedly by the overhand from Shogun, eating countless headkicks and spinning elbows from Jones.
He's able to get away with it because his chin appears to be made from Mjolnir's uru, but is Johnson the kind of hitter that Alex can afford to grant free shots?
David: Damn. Mjolnir's uru? I was gonna use a Wakandan Vibranium reference, so at least our nerd brains are in sync. I think what makes this fight so interesting is that Gustafsson will likely entertain the bout on the feet for as long as it does and does not suit him. In that respect, he has to acknowledge Johnson's abilities. One of Jones' most potent moves against Alex was that high kick. Not only was it effective, but Gustafsson was uniquely vulnerable to it, in succession no less.
Johnson has even quicker release on his kicks and doesn't have the awkward stance that Jones has, to boot. This fight could easily lull Gus into a false sense of security. But Gus is more than just a kick to the face. His jab is excellent, and he has a quick release with his right hand. Most importantly, he utilizes the uppercut more than most fighters. While he doesn't throw it like a knockout strike, it's a crisp punch that adds to his overall effectiveness. In addition, his foot movement is much better than Johnson's previous opponents.
Phil: Let's talk grappling. As he proved against Phil Davis, Rumble is superb at defending takedowns, and much like many of his team-mates, has an "active" takedown defense where he will throw a knee on the break from the clinch, or will flash a short uppercut to discourage the opponent from ducking in to get on his hips. The effectiveness of his offensive wrestling has deteriorated as his size has normalized for his division, however. He throws a decent double leg, but he hasn't shown much chain wrestling abilities. The most worrying tendency he showed was that in past fights, he would often give up position and get choked out, often by men not known for their lightning-fast RNCs like Vitor Belfort or Josh Koscheck. Although I am running on a limited sample size, I do not generally consider choke defense to be a strong point of Blackzilians fighters in general, so it's not necessarily a gap that I'm willing to believe is shored up.
Gustaffson is roughly similar grappler in that he's better defensively than he is offensively. However, as in the stand-up, he's a more generally diverse fighter, with a deeper toolbox than Rumble's few strong, simple tools. The Mauler has a lovely clinch knee from the double collar that he throws, and a sneaky array of upper body takedowns, including an outside trip where he drives forward, and a Metzger from over-unders, where he converts rotational motion from the clinch by snatching up the opponent by the crotch and dumping them into side control.
David: Yea the grappling portion is not something I expect to play a factor except in the clinch. In the past Johnson wasn't adept at punishing opponents for closing in on him, but now he is, which partially explains his improved takedown defense. If grappling does become a thing, it'll be because someone got rocked.
Insight from past fights:
Phil: In terms of approach and general physical dimensions, I think Gustafsson's closest analogue among Rumble's opponents is Andrei Arlovski. This gruelling fight showed good and bad things for Rumble: firstly that he himself has a superb chin, as he was cracked several times by the heavy-handed Belarussian. The bad thing was that he visibly tired from the high pace. Despite having advantages in the standup, he threw himself into Arlovski's hips on pointless double-leg attempts more and more as the fight went on, and just looked physically and mentally exhausted.
David: True, but Arlovski has more pop than Gus. I was actually surprised that fight played out like it did. Then again AA has some very stiff movement, and certainly includes his head juking.
This is gonna sound stupid, but I like going back to Johnson's fights with Kevin Burns. Burns was a tough as nails WW who could move a bit sort of but not really similar to Gus. Obviously, Burns' first win over Johnson is an absolute joke but Johnson had difficult even then dealing with guys who could wade through his firepower. It's also just a fun pair of fights to watch. The KO in the 2nd fight is as brutal as it gets, and it's also the perfect display of what makes Johnson's kicks so dangerous; they are thrown almost effortlessly and yet they're as deadly a strike as there is in the sport.
Phil: Eye pokes? Rumble has been eye-poked before. A lot. To the extent that he needed surgery. Unfortunately for him, he's in the eye-pokingest division around. From the legendary Chuck "The Eyes-Man" Liddell, through to Jon Jones's well known proclivities for cornea-caressing, to underrated pupil-poppers like Phil Davis and, yes, Alexander Gustafsson. 205 lbs is not the place to be if you value your ocular cohesion.
David: Oh absolutely. Gus may not be known for his sclera shattering, but no one is safe at 205 from iris infliction.
Phil: Gustafsson's tendency to allow bombs to explode directly in his face may lead to his own personal nuclear Fimbulwinter one day, and Rumble has the kind of power to oblige. However, if Gustafsson doesn't get knocked out, his superior array of attritional tools and better gas tank will allow him to take over the fight. Rumble has shown that he goes towards grappling exchanges as he gets tired, and eventually I think this will spell his doom. Alexander Gustaffson by RNC, round 3
David: I think Gus' movement will shield him from more high kicks then he'd take otherwise. Meanwhile, his jab and counter uppercut keep Johnson more defensive until it's too late in the fight for him to mount a meaningful, threatening offense. Gustafsson by Decision.