On September 21, 2013, Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson paired up to deliver the consensus Fight of the Year - a thrilling, five-round masterpiece where both men landed over 100 significant strikes and each round brought another shift in momentum.
In the end, Jones emerged victorious, retaining the UFC light heavyweight title and continuing his reign atop the 205-pound ranks, while Gustafsson garnered an equal amount of praise for pushing the champion to his limits and silencing the critics that questioned his chances heading into the contest.
In the weeks and months that followed, the 27-year-old’s star continued to burn bright. He arrived home in Sweden to a hero’s welcome and a message of encouragement from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Paris Saint-German striker and Swedish National team captain.
Soon after, “The Mauler” made his way through the fan voting to select the second athlete to appear on the cover of the upcoming EA Sports UFC video game, beating Daniel Cormier, Miesha Tate, Chael Sonnen, and Georges St-Pierre in three close races to stand next to Jones on the shelves of retail stores worldwide later this year.
That Saturday night in Toronto last fall stirs divergent emotions in Gustafsson.
On one hand, the soft-spoken, heavy-hitting contender is grateful for the outpouring of support and praise that has followed, as well as the opportunities his performance at UFC 165 have made available to him. On the other hand, he lost, and the fact that it was deemed the best fight of 2013 still doesn’t take away the sting of defeat.
“As a fighter and as an athlete, I’m looking for perfection all the time; that’s what I do,” offers Gustafsson, whose record now stands at 15-2 after his epic encounter with Jones. “I say this because I want to be the No. 1 guy and even if they chose us to be the Fight of the Year - which is a huge honor for me and I’m very proud - it’s still a loss.
“I really wanted that belt, but it didn’t go my way that night. It was a good fight, a hard fight, and ended up with me losing a decision, but I learned a lot from that loss and I’m improving every day.
“It was a great experience,” he adds, the sentiment almost offered in consolation, a fitting summation of the mixed emotions and feelings Gustafsson carries about the hard fought loss.
While many were clamoring for an instant rematch between the champion Jones and his toughest challenger to date, the UFC opted to go in a different direction, pairing the titleholder with Brazilian finisher Glover Teixeira and partnering Gustafsson with unbeaten British knockout artist Jimi Manuwa.
The two European standouts will step into the cage as the final pairing on tomorrow’s UFC Fight Night event at the O2 Arena in London, and if Gustafsson wants to secure a second date with Jones, he’ll have to get through the unbeaten Londoner Manuwa first.
“It’s a great fight,” Gustafsson says of tomorrow’s showdown with the 14-0 “Poster Boy,” who has yet to see the third round. “It’s a great opportunity for me now because he’s a European light heavyweight and me too, so it’s a lot of prestige (to determine) who’s the best guy from Europe right now in our division.
“He’s very dangerous because he’s undefeated and believes in his own hype - he really comes into this fight with a lot of self-confidence. He’s been knocking out people his whole career and he’s sneaking in there - nobody knows about him, but he’s very dangerous. He’s a striker, I’m a striker - it’s going to be a very entertaining fight.”
Even though Gustafsson will be stepping into the Octagon on Manuwa’s home turf, the popular Swedish fighter won’t exactly be competing on hostile ground on Saturday night. As was evident in Toronto last fall, Swedish fans travel very well, and “The Mauler” has a loyal and vocal contingent of supporters wherever he goes.
He expects that to be the case Saturday night inside the O2 as well, though he does admit halting Manuwa’s unbeaten run on British soil will make a victory that much sweeter.
“Fighting in London is like fighting in my own backyard. We’re maybe two hours (by plane) from my hometown, I’ve fought in the same arena before, and I know there are going to be a lot of Swedish fans coming over to watch this fight.
“It’s going to be a great night, and it’s going to be an even greater win I think - fighting in his hometown, in front of his home crowd. Jimi is a very dangerous guy, so the win is going to be even better.”
If he does win, Gustafsson should find himself right back in line to fight for the light heavyweight title and in a rematch with Jones, if the reigning champion is able to dispatch Teixeira like he has each of the previous six title challengers he’s faced.
Should that come to pass, the talented Swede will have to contend with more questions about September 21, 2013 and continue to find a way to extract the positives from a contest that has fueled his focus and passion to succeed every night since.
“I left everything I had on the table in that fight, but it’s still a loss, and that’s what motivates me even more now. I’m going to make sure when we fight again it’s not going to be the same story again; it’s going to be different.
“It’s been a journey I’ll never forget - a lot of recognition, a lot of media, and I had a great time, but now since I’ve been in camp for this fight, I have my mind in the right place, focused on the right things.”
That includes finding a way to be the first man to defeat Manuwa tomorrow night.
“I’m doing my homework,” he adds with a chuckle. “It’s going to be a hell of a fight. Whatever Jimi is going to throw at me, I’m going to have an answer for it, and it’s going to be a finish - this fight is not going to go the distance.”
To watch UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa exclusively on UFC Fight Pass on Saturday, March 8, sign up here
Gustafsson Searching for Perfection
"Whatever Jimi is going to throw at me, I’m going to have an answer for it, and it’s going to be a finish." - Alexander Gustafsson