Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Smith headlines UFC Stockholm this June 1, 2019 at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.
One sentence summary
David: Red rover, red rover, let Jon Jones’ leftovers come over
Phil: Asking the eternal question of “Are they good or is it just light heavyweight”
Record: Alexander Gustafsson 18-5 |Anthony Smith 31-14
Odds: Alexander Gustafsson -320 | Anthony Smith +290
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Gustafsson’s career thus far has felt more like the sum of his struggles than his achievements. He’s one of the more accomplished fighters in the LHW division, but lately it’s been a case of ‘close but no cigar, just more scars.’ Gustafsson is in a tough spot. With his straight forward, technical, but bloody style of pugilism, there are no easy matchups, which means he has to work twice as hard as his body ages out of some of his toughness. That’ll be key in this fight against Smith: a fighter who has a lot in common with Gustafsson, thematically.
Phil: Gustafsson’s resume is remarkably sparse considering how well-regarded he is. His best wins are probably a somewhat faded Shogun (one who admittedly looked like quicksilver and gunpowder compared to the shell we see nowadays), Teixeira just as Glover hit the skids, and... Jan Blachowicz? None of them have aged particularly well. It’s not that Gustafsson has been can-crushing, it’s just that consistent injuries have meant that he hasn’t fought very often. As we saw with Cain Velasquez, a career of soaking up damage outside of the cage can catch up to you fast inside it.
David: Smith is not a fighter I thought we’d ever be previewing in a main event. Oh; have I said this before? For a guy who has been the headliner in his last three events, you’d think we’d treat him like such. I guess dragging Rashad and Shogun’s corpse across the octagon floor didn’t leave much of an impression. Wherever Smith’s game was previously lacking, that’s just no longer the case. We’re so used to watching fighters develop in a linear path, it’s hard to see it clearly when a guy’s fighting communication simply clicks. Maybe that’s it. Maybe Smith is just a late bloomer. It’s one of the things that has noticeably changed in his game. He doesn’t just seem like a better technician. He seems like a better athlete.
Phil: Like you said, Smith has a fair few commonalities with Gus, right down to the Shogun win. When it comes down to it he has the same basic problem, to an even greater extent: a lack of quality wins on his resume. You can see the outline of a good, promotable fighter there: he has skills everywhere, is tough, finishes fights, and is a smart and candid interview. It’s just always an open question as to whether much of that is going to coalesce when it matters.
What’s at stake?
David: Well certainly not a title fight anytime soon. Pieces of each guy are still in pickled jars in Jon Jones’ basement.
Phil: This basically seems like a referendum on Gustafsson’s claim to being part of that nebulous “elite” at 205. People at least refer to him in the same conversation as DC and Jones, due to him giving them tough fights, but with a loss to Smith he likely drops out of that comparison for good.
Where do they want it?
David: The thing about Gustafsson — something made clear in the Jones rematch — is that his game is hit doubly hard as age winds his career down. He was never super fast, powerful, or even especially dynamic. So instead of experience chiseling away at one thing, it has begun to chisel away at all things. With a strong, almost rigid focus on chaining punch combinations together in the center of the cage, Gustafsson has to work with a limited toolbox. Despite all of this neg-head criticism, he remains one of the UFC’s premiere lightweights (that’s one mark for Gus, two marks against the division). Much of this is due to the fact that pace is not a trait in abundance at LHW: the ability to sequence offense in the middle of fast, medium, and slow movement, but movement nonetheless that is critical to fighting in the pockets you want to fight in — whether it’s the center of the octagon, against the cage, in the clinch, etc. Sometimes it’s bad movement, granted, like when Gus literally runs away from offense. But usually it’s the good movement but stepping into a knee for an effective entry, a clean left jab, or a slicing uppercut. His uppercut / uppercut / uppercut / overhand right sequence against Glover Teixiera is one of my favorite punch combinations ever. But at this point, it’s all a waiting game.
Phil: I mentioned Velasquez earlier and while they have few commonalities in terms of build, temperament or directionality, Gus does share one thing with the former Heavyweight champ: a basic lack of defense which he was able to cloak with excellent durability. Gustafsson moves a lot, which makes certain techniques difficult to line up on him: it’s difficult to get him with a clean penetration step for a double leg, for example. However, he doesn’t have any real striking defense past those wide steps, a jab and an intercepting uppercut to catch level changes. Back in the Shogun fight he was getting tagged clean with overhands, and it’s genuinely hard to catch much innovation since then. He’s always been an excellent offensive and defensive wrestler (since the Phil Davis fight, anyway) and is tireless and difficult to keep down. However, it also feels like the main changes are in the intangibles, and that they are primarily negative: he has less of the confidence in his own immortality that he had when he was going toe to toe, and his unreal durability has been chipped away at by wars and injuries.
David: For a guy who started out losing to Vitor Belfort’s hatched egg, Smith’s game is remarkably similar now to what it used to be. As a I mentioned above, the difference wasn’t in degree, but in kind. Smith just isn’t the same athlete. Like a big hulking winger who can suddenly skate in stride, Smith has managed to channel all of his persistence into an encyclopedia attack of long range weaponry. “That guy is a dog!” you can hear Rogan say in the background, describing Smith’s forward movement and general can-do-ness. And he is. What separates Smith from other LHW strikers is that he can weave wide and straight attacks into the same sequence. Along the way, front kicks and well-timed takedowns contribute to his package of “How the Hell did He Get Here?” efficiency.
Phil: Much like Gustafsson, Smith is tall, offensively potent and a defensive sieve. Where Gustafsson has a fairly defined approach built around the jab, wrestling and uppercut, Smith is more of a grab-bag: inside leg kicks, teeps and front kicks, etc. It’s tempting to say that he lacks in technique what he makes up for in diversity, but it’s not exactly true: sometimes Smith can look genuinely impressive, like when he’s working behind a feint and a long one-two, but he can also just start curling up into a ball or freezing into complete quiescence. Similarly, he’s as physically tough as you need to be at light heavyweight, but while he doesn’t panic himself into TKOs any more, it’s hard to look at that Jones fight and be full of confidence in his ability to pull the trigger.
Insight from past fights
David: Since Smith has basically reinvented himself, I’d like to focus on a non-Jones fight in which a reinvented-Smith fight had a competitive component (and yes, I know I picked Shogun against Smith). Namely, the Oezdemir fight. Something that you see a lot in Smith’s fights (mostly his older ones) is watching him retreat. It’s very similar to Gus (hence their “thematic” similarities), except where Gus moves out of the way, Smith stays right there, and shells up. Against a fighter like Gus, who can move the pace of the fight even when he’s not throwing, I don’t expect this to be an asset. Since it never is. Oezdemir’s problem in that fight is that he forgot to take in oxygen.
Phil: They did not have helpful fights against Jones, where both of them checked out almost immediately. Gustafsson at least had the excuse of a genuinely hideous-sounding groin injury (a “haematoma the size of a tennis ball” behind his testicles which “felt like a knife” and “cracked and scratched” and various other horrors which I would frankly like to forget. The main thing that jumps out at me is that it was an uncharacteristic performance for Gus, but really the kind of fight which has periodically damned Smith throughout his MMA career.
David: Smith’s entire career is an x-factor, while Gustafsson’s age and injuries are an x-factor. This is all incredibly redundant.
Phil: I suspect Gustafsson’s durability is waning. Smith’s gradually increasing confidence and his durability now that he’s not cutting weight may mean that they end up meeting in the middle. I suspect this fight may be weird.
David: Gus, all the way. Smith just doesn’t have the counterattack and reset toolbox to threaten Gus consistently. Even at half speed, Gustafsson is a nightmare on the feet. They say that every great fighter has one last great fight left on him. I imagine that’s true of the ‘merely good, borderline great’ as well. Gustafsson at least has that unspoken title. Smith does not. Alexander Gustafsson by TKO, round 1.
Phil: You kind of have to pick Gus. His wins aren’t fantastic, but they still outclass the senior citizens that Smith has put away. While Gustafsson has lost to the elite, he conversely doesn’t have losses to the likes of Josh Neer on his record. In matchups with tall fighters he’s actually performed reasonably well, as he’s less likely to get bombed on with overhands, and I still don’t fully trust Smith’s takedown defense- he was able to defend against Jones reasonably well, but at the cost of doing literally nothing else. Alexander Gustafsson by TKO, round 3.