Confidence is a good thing, and Alexander Gustafsson seems to have plenty of it. Gustafsson is clearly one of the best 205-pound fighters in the world, and he's been bullish about his ability to defeat Jon Jones and win the light heavyweight belt on Saturday in the main event of UFC 165 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
The Swede is one of the few light heavyweights who can compare with Jones physically. Jones is 6-foot-4, with an 84 1/2-inch reach – the longest in the UFC. Gustafsson is 6-foot-5 with an 81 ½-inch reach.
Jones, though, is more than just a tall, long-armed guy who can manage to make the division's 205-pound weight limit.
He's one of the most physically gifted and instinctual fighters in the sport's history, and beating him in a title match is tantamount to defeating those dominant UCLA basketball teams coached by John Wooden in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gustafsson is 15-1 and on a nice run – since losing to Phil Davis at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi in 2010, he's beaten Cyrille Diabate, James Te Huna, Matt "The Hammer" Hamill, Vladimir Matyushenko, Thiago Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua – but he hasn't beaten anyone remotely as tough and smart and as skilled as Jones.
He was asked about the reach disadvantage he'll face, but turned it into a positive, as he has done throughout his camp. If no one else believes in Gustafsson, it's plainly obvious that Gustafsson has plenty of belief in himself.
"It's not always about reach, it's about footwork, it's being fast, in and out, stuff like that," Gustafsson said. "And I'm really making sure I've really done my homework here and I'm super motivated."
Jones is able to do things in the cage that no one else has done, but he's not one of those athletes whose feats translate into other sports. He can't dunk a basketball and, despite having two brothers who play in the NFL, he says he's wholly unsuited for football.
He's in the perfect sport for his skill set, and it's going to be a major upset for Gustafsson to come close, let alone win. That's no slight to Gustafsson, who has markedly improved since his loss to Davis. It's more that Jones appears to be built to be an MMA fighter.
Jones' most dangerous opponent at this stage is more complacency rather than a foe in the ring. Perhaps it's worth noting then that Gustafsson is exuding confidence in the buildup to the fight while Jones seems not to be all that concerned.
"Any fighter can be beaten by anybody on any day, and I think what makes me different in a lot of ways is that I know what I'm getting into, I know where I need to be the sharpest, where I need to have my confidence the sharpest," Jones said. "Where I need to have go-to moves. So I study my opponent and so when I get in there I tend to stay one step ahead of the game. And I know it comes from the studying. So that's what studying does for me. I feel it's like a test. If you do your homework and study, you should be nice, relaxed and calm when it comes to that final exam. And that's just how it's been for me."
There will be challenges for Gustafsson at every turn. He's never faced anyone with the variety of offensive moves that Jones has at his disposal. One of Jones' biggest advantages is his wrestling, but he hasn't really had to use it much in getting to the point where he is on the verge of setting the divisional record for most successful title defenses.
To this stage of his title reign, Jones has pretty much used his wrestling similar to the way ex-champion Chuck Liddell did, in a defensive manner designed to allow him to use his strikes.
Jones doesn't have the kind of one-punch knockout power that Liddell had, but his elbows are among the most lethal in the sport's history. He's found a way to put together combinations others can't conceive of, and Gustafsson has to find a way to counter all that.
For his part, Gustafsson is nothing if not a believer. He, too, has studied plenty of film and believes he's unlocked the key to beating Jones.
"We try to break down Jon [and] his last fights into pieces and try to move through everything," Gustafsson said. "That's what we do and how my coaches do it. And I've got 100 percent full trust in my coaches. I'm doing my homework here, too, so I'm just getting ready."
Most would tell him he's getting ready for a face-arranging beating; history would suggest a devastating Jones win.
Gustafsson, though, is convinced that the end of the Jones Era is at hand.
He'll make a lot of skeptics look silly if he's correct.
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- Martial Arts
- Jon Jones
- Alexander Gustafsson