When Alexander Gustafsson makes the walk to the Octagon on Saturday, he’s hoping it will mark a fresh start.
The two-time light heavyweight title challenger meets Anthony Smith in the main event of UFC Stockholm on Saturday, and should he get through the fight without too many bumps and bruises, his goal is to return to action soon and possibly compete twice in a calendar year for the first time since 2015.
Gustafsson’s most recent outing at the close of 2018 was a rematch with Jon Jones, an encounter that failed to match the drama of their epic five-round war at UFC 165. This time around, Jones rarely appeared to be in danger and he finished Gustafsson in the third round with ground-and-pound. Another crack at Jones is a long shot, so Gustafsson is simply focused on taking out Smith and making this year one to remember.
“Just to get the win, take another fight quick,” Gustafsson told host Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour on Monday, when asked what his goal is for his upcoming fight. “I’m tired of waiting and planning and looking for what’s next. I’m just taking one fight at a time now.
“I’m just going to go through Anthony Smith, I want to get that W, beat him, and just look for the next challenge basically. And I want it fast, I want the next fight really fast. Just like, stack them up and go through them one by one, and see what the future brings.”
Injuries have sidelined Gustafsson for long stretches of his career and he fought just one time in 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, and 2013. Just based on strength of schedule, Gustafsson has remained near the top of the contenders’ rankings and whichever cards he’s been booked on, but more activity is desirable for the Swede who turned 32 this past January.
“I don’t know. There’s no guarantees,” Gustafsson said of the possibility of staying busy in 2019. “If I can, that would be perfect. I’m satisfied with three. If I get two—I definitely want more than just this fight, I’m looking for another fight quick and if I get three fights this year I would be really satisfied.”
Both Gustafsson and Smith are coming off of humbling losses to Jones. It was Smith who was the next challenger after Gustafsson, but he too failed to muster up much offense against the elusive champion when the two met at UFC 235. In a sense, that makes Satuday’s headliner a rehabilitation bout for both men, who otherwise have excelled at 205 pounds.
Gustafsson couldn’t take much away from Smith’s fight against Jones, though he noticed that Smith was not his usually aggressive self.
“It felt like it wasn’t really him in that fight,” Gustafsson said. “He wasn’t—he didn’t pull the trigger really. He stood there against the cage and took damage for five rounds, basically. I don’t look at that.
“I saw that fight once or twice, but it’s nothing that I’m planning my strategy on or anything like that because I don’t think he was the same in that fight like he was in other fights. He finished some true legends of the sport and that kid comes in like a truck.”
At light heavyweight, Smith has finished top contender Volkan Oezdemir and former UFC champions Mauricio Rua and Rashad Evans. Undoubtedly, he would like to add Gustafsson to that list and prove that his championship opportunity was not just a product of good timing.
On Gustafsson’s side, he’s simply expecting a fan-friendly fight, one that could keep him fresh in the matchmakers minds as they map out the rest of 2019.
“It poses a different challenge, it’s Anthony Smith,” Gustafsson said. “He’s a good guy, he comes with a lot of fire and a lot of power and he rushes people. He’s a fighter, so it’s a challenge for me, but he’s a perfect matchup.
“It’s going to be a very entertaining fight, he’s a standup guy and I’m a standup guy… he’s dangerous at any weight, in any situation, so a true challenge and I’m ready for it.”