Alexander Gustafsson will begin the next chapter of his fighting career on June 1 when he welcomes Anthony Smith to his native Sweden in the main event of UFC Stockholm.
For Gustafsson, the matchup presents a chance to reclaim footing in the light heavyweight division following an ill-fated Dec. 2018 title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 232, which Gustafsson lost via third-round TKO. And although UFC Stockholm represents a quick turnaround for his opponent, the 32-year-old Swede is nonetheless expecting the best possible version of Smith to show up at the Ericsson Globe arena, and he understands that another bad night could spell disaster for his future prospects at 205 pounds.
“He’s a big hitter and he has a lot of heart and he has a lot of fights behind him,” Gustafsson said Monday on The MMA Hour. “He’s a guy with a good team behind him, and this is going to be a real challenge. And that’s why I’m doing this, to challenge myself. When I beat him, I’m going to just move in the rankings. If I don’t beat him, if he beats me, then maybe I don’t have it anymore. So I’ll just take it from there.”
It is no secret that Gustafsson and Smith share a common thread. The two light heavyweight contenders are the two most recent victims of Jones and his newfound reign of dominance — Jones routed Gustafsson with a one-sided assault in his comeback fight at UFC 232, then repeated the favor by effortlessly defending his light heavyweight strap earlier this month with a lopsided decision victory over Smith at UFC 235.
So although Gustafsson and Smith have traveled far different paths to get to where they now stand, “The Mauler” can understand all too well Smith’s current mental state.
“He’s in shape and he feels like I feel,” Gustafsson said. “Like, he just lost and he wants to prove that he’s better than what he showed, and he just wants to get back to fighting and winning again. So I think he’s in shape and I think he’s ready for this, and he’s ready to fight me and he wants to beat me, so I understand him perfectly.
“I’m not the right guy to judge him,” added Gustafsson. “I just fought Jon and lost myself. He showed some heart and he took some damage and just kept moving, so he’s a warrior and I can’t wait to have him over and give the fans a really good show.”
Gustafsson noted numerous times on Monday that his mindset is vastly different heading into UFC Stockholm than it has been for past fights. For years, Gustafsson’s goals in the sport revolved solely around obtaining the UFC light heavyweight — and to a lesser extent, avenging his Sept. 2013 first meeting with Jones at UFC 165, which ended in a contentious decision loss but still stands today as the toughest fight of Jones’ career.
But now, with his record against Jones sitting at 0-2 and his place in a fast-changing 205-pound landscape growing uncertain, Gustafsson has shifted his concerns to be less focused on the bigger picture and more focused on the here-and-now of his journey.
“I’m not even thinking about the title,” Gustafsson said. “I’ve been thinking about the title now for a very long time, and it’s just been a stressful thing for me. It’s been there all the time around me — the title, the title, the title. It’s been a very long time between my fights. I just have to sit back for a while and take this fight now and take the next fight after that, and be more active, and try to be a better fighter and be smarter. I’m still 32 years old, I don’t think I’m old in the game yet. I do think I have a lot more to give and my body’s fresh, I feel good, I’m having fun training. So I’m just taking this fight now in Stockholm, and I beat Anthony Smith up, and then we’ll take it from there, see what that next challenge will be.
“One-hundred percent, that’s exactly how I feel right now,” he added. “I’m done thinking about, ‘I have to go up to be a title contender, I have to stress.’ It’s not like that anymore. I’m just taking one fight at a time and trying to fight the best guys, and have fun doing it.”
Gustafsson will still have plenty of good memories to draw on for his return to the Ericsson Globe. “The Mauler” has headlined two other UFC events in the past at the Stockholm venue. He won both of those contests in resounding fashion, first outclassing Thiago Silva en route to a decision win in April 2012, then knocking out Glover Teixeira with a fifth-round demolition in May 2017. And he hopes history will repeat itself once more on June 1.
“I’ve never lost in this arena, The Globe,” Gustafsson said. “I think it’s a really good arena, I have a good vibe in there.
“Having the fans behind me is a really good push. Whenever you’re training and warming up for the fights, you have your friends around you, you have friends that will compete and we push each other. So, the Swedes are going to war, basically, and I can’t wait to just be in there again and prove that I’m better than what I showed the last time.”