(Gustafsson celebrates his debut victory at UFC 105)
The 6’5” Swede known as “The Mauler” exploded on to the world scene and into the consciousness of the UFC fans in November of 2009 when he knocked out Jared Hamman just forty-one seconds into their UFC 105 battle. The glamour of taking to the cage at the MEN Arena in Manchester couldn’t be a further cry from Gustafsson’s situation when we caught up with him. Travelling home after a history lecture, the part-time student and full-time fighter catches up on his homework in between honing his skills as one of the hottest prospects in the light-heavyweight division.
Hamman entered their bout with an impressive 10-1 record and the VMAT [UFC veteran Vladimir Matyushenko’s gym] trained fighter had another notch in the loss column with less than a minute’s worth of Octagon time under his belt. An impressive first win against a tough opponent legitimised Gustafsson’s undefeated (9-0) record but only served to leave fans wondering what else he could deliver. Alexander reflected on his debut, telling us how hard it is to not become over-awed at the scale of the event, when he is just a youthful twenty-three years old:
“It was good; it’s like a dream for me. I’m just happy to compete in the UFC and I’m training hard to focus on it. They’re very professional if you compare them to most other events. They take care of everybody really well,” he noted. “You can’t think too much about the other factors though, I just try to think about the fight. You have to, because if you think about all of the other things then you won’t fight at your best and you’ll suffer.”
Referencing the size of the crowd – many thousands in attendance and the large numbers casting their watchful eyes on the event at home – as well as the incandescent rows of spotlights fixating their gaze on your every move and the military-scale operation with production trucks, cameras and the flashing bulbs of cameras, Alexander mused that it was a long way from the shows he had fought on previously. Taking the step up to international class though, he was glad it was against such a worthy opponent.
“Hamman was a good guy and a really good fighter and I think I made an impression by beating him,” Alex stated, in a typically humble fashion considering he devastated the American with a brutal knockout early on. “I think I showed that I’m ready for the big fights and big name opponents.”
On a night where brutal stoppages were the norm rather than the exception, Gustafsson had to compete with the likes of Andre Winner, Dennis Siver and Michael Bisping for the knockout of the night award. He admitted that he didn’t take home an added pay cheque but his efforts were duly noted. “I didn’t get any bonus for my knockout but they told me they were impressed. It was between me and Siver but his was the spectacular one. He deserved it. Maybe I will get it another time,” he laughed.
You don’t doubt that his ferocious style could pave the way for bonuses in the future but, as he prepares for wrestler Phil Davis at UFC 112, he stresses that he doesn’t want to be known as one-dimensional athlete. He was light-hearted and snickered as he acknowledged that being known as a knockout artist isn’t the worst reputation to have, but his effort is spent improving in all ranges.
“I do see myself as a good striker and I have the most faith in that when I fight, it’s a good thing to have. I have the long reach because I’m tall for the 93kg weight class, and I try to use that in my fights,” he said, but continued, “Takedown defence is one of my focuses but I’m still training everything; making my striking better, my wrestling, my submissions and everything.”
For the first time, he faces a high level wrestler in Phil Davis. Davis became the NCAA Division I national wrestling champion in 2008 and took the transition to MMA smoothly by notching up four victories before being invited to fight in the UFC. In his debut, he outpointed the former WEC champion Brian Stann to cement his place on the roster and prove that he is certainly one to watch. Alexander relishes the battle of undefeated prospects though.
“I think Davis is a good step for me. He’s a good wrestler and had an impressive debut.”
Although he is paying attention to Davis’ wrestling pedigree, that doesn’t mean that it is something that fazes Alex. He added, “It’s not exactly harder to face a wrestler than anyone else. Every style has problems, like Hamann was a good striker and now Davis is a good wrestler. I’m looking to defend his takedowns but it’s not everything.”
Continuing to improve all of his skills, he thinks that he could throw a few curveballs of his own,
“If I get the chance and Davis is tired, then I can try and take him down. I can do other things, not just strike.”
His drive to improve hasn’t taken him outside the Swedish borders for training just yet, as he is content at Shooters MMA in Stockholm and rates his coaches and training partners very highly.
“I’ve not had any opportunities yet to go out to America but I do want to go someday to see if I like it. I have great training here and I’m happy. I have good coaches for boxing, MMA and all of the stuff. There are a lot of good wrestling guys that I train with. It’s not necessary yet.”
For now, Gustafsson’s focus is still firmly squared on climbing the ladder at 205lbs, and besting Phil Davis to do so. UFC 112 will signal a return to Abu Dhabi for “The Mauler”, he has acclimatised before and that should help alleviate any teething problems so that he can concentrate firmly on the task at hand. He hopes to stand out on a card of superstars though:
“It’s a really good fight card and I’m happy to be a part of it and we’ll put on a good fight!”
If his debut performance is anything to go by, it’s apparent that Gustafsson is not lying. Bringing his relentless attack to the Octagon for the second time, the world will get to see once again what he is made of.