As a fighter going into enemy territory, you dream of silence; of deflecting the crowd energy meant to rattle you back toward them until they fall into stunned stillness. You dream of them standing, mouths agape, at some wizardry they never saw coming. For Anthony Smith, Saturday was a job well done. Smith walked into UFC Stockholm as a sizable underdog, overcame a few rough moments and stopped Alexander Gustafsson in the Swede’s hometown. When Gustafsson tapped to a rear naked choke on Smith’s right arm, the Ericsson Globe deflated. The invader had triumphed, the viking had been slain. It was equal parts thrilling and tragic.
The reaction was understandable. For close to a decade, Gustafsson has represented the best of Nordic MMA on the world stage. During a two-year stretch starting in October 2010, he won six consecutive fights, including a victory over the great Mauricio Rua. In 2012, he came within minutes of upsetting G.O.A.T. Jon Jones, a fight which remains the closest call Jones has ever faced in the cage. Since then, Gustafsson has been a consistent contender, challenging two more times for the UFC light heavyweight championship. One of those, against another all-time great in Daniel Cormier, ended in a close split-decision loss. Still, Cormier candidly admitted that Gustafsson dragged him “through hell and back.” At his best, Gustafsson was that good. Actually, saying “good” is not quite enough. Perhaps he wasn’t great either, but on occasions, he was close enough to grasp out for greatness. He could scrape it.
It’s difficult to imagine the heartbreak he experienced by coming so close yet falling short. Half of the fight world still thinks he beat Jones, a result that may have spawned a best-of-seven series in a division that often struggles to mint new challengers. Oh, what might have been.
But even before facing Smith at UFC Stockholm, Gustafsson seemed to realize that this fight was a bellwether. To make it back to the top contender spot, there was no room for error. Gustafsson felt he had to beat whoever was in front of him, starting with a fighter who for much of his career has been considered something of a journeyman.
In reality, Smith is a late bloomer. You don’t find many fighters who start with a 5-6 record on the regional scene and end up a world-ranked title contender. In a way, his story of tenacity is more impressive than that of the gifted fighter who heads straight to the top. Smith has faced adversity, failures and struggles along so many steps of his journey, yet he’s scratched and clawed back every time.
His win over Gustafsson is just the latest comeback in a late-career surge that continues to defy expectations. Would it have surprised anyone if his loss to Jones at UFC 235 was the last time we heard from Smith as a key contender? After all, he never made a meaningful run in Strikeforce, he was seen as such a marginal player by Bellator that they let him go after two fights, and he needed a seven-fight win streak just to find his way into the UFC. There was nothing to suggest this sudden blossoming was on the way.
Yet Smith is not ready to surrender this magic act. Indeed, his win over Gustafsson actually cements that that this is no sleight of hand; that his career turnaround is the real deal, a success story made through blood and sweat and time.
Smith’s saga now moves on while Gustafsson’s has apparently reached its end. Gustafsson said in both English and Swedish that this was it, and that at 32 years old, he has no desire to build his way back to the top.
“I don’t do this for money or because of anything else,” he said in the event post-fight press conference. “I do this because I want to be the best, and I want to beat the best, and if I can’t do that, then it is what it is.”
It was such a classy, understated, Gustafsson-like way to go out. And that was after Smith sent Gustafsson off with some classy words and actions of his own. After choking out Gustafsson, Smith didn’t run around the like a wild man or jump atop the cage, even though that kind of post-win excitement would have been well-earned. Instead, he comforted Gustafsson, and then publicly noted his sadness about having to upset someone that he respects so much.
These guys are as nice as they are good.
Unfortunately, nice and good are never enough. Somebody has to leave happy and somebody has to leave upset. That happens in every fight, and it is so routine, we often lose sight of it until days like this one, when the moment gets magnified by the men or women creating it. When the arena went silent, it was confirmation of Gustafsson’s brilliant career and Smith’s brilliant win. One dream crashed hard and another floated onward, and on this rare occasion, we experienced both in equal doses.