At this point, it’s all upside for Alexander Gustafsson.
Sorry, my apologies for using one of mainstream sport’s more insipid buzzwords here, but there really is no other way to describe the talented 25-year-old Swede. A few days out from his fight with Thiago Silva at UFC on Fuel 2, Gustafsson has already been issued a ticket to the top of the light heavyweight division.
Now all he has to do is cash it in.
As ESPN.com’s Chuck Mindenhall expertly illuminates, there is a lot riding on this fight. In a sport where we often write the postscript before the action has actually happened, people are expecting big things from Gustafsson. With Rashad Evans at the plate and Dan Henderson on deck, he’s already speculated to be in the hole for Jon Jones.
Never mind the fact that this weekend marks his first ever main event for the UFC.
Never mind that the kid has never been out of the second round, or that the signature win of his career so far is a 9-minute TKO over a version of Matt Hamill who already had one foot out the cage door.
Never mind that we have no idea how he’d fare in the kind of five-round war of attrition it could take to wrest the title from Jones, a champion so young and dominant that he’s forced us to take this long lens view of the light heavyweight ranks in the first place, eager as we are to see what the future holds for him.
Barring the emergence of a breakout presence on the order of Jones himself, it’s Gustafsson or bust for the 205-pound division. Despite a UFC 112 loss to Phil Davis, he’s been judged by most to be further along in his development (to be the most ready for Jones, you might say) after Davis’ unanimous decision loss to Evans in January.
This is no one’s fault, obviously. Gustafsson is simply possessing of the kind of size (he’s listed at 6-foot-5), athleticism and finishing ability that naturally spark the imagination. He’s simply established himself as the most interesting and exciting young light heavyweight not named Jon Jones and that makes him the object of our great expectations.
The flipside of those expectations, of course, is that anything less than claiming that title shot will be judged as a personal failure for Gustafsson. If he slips up and loses to Silva this weekend, not only will he be found wanting by the scores of pundits who’ve already put him in line for that opportunity, but the 205-pound division might well lose its dominant and marketable champion to the heavyweight ranks before the end of this year.
Does all that add up to unneeded and unfair pressure for a kid who is already making his maiden voyage at the top of a card by headlining the first ever UFC show in his home country?
It sure does. Then again, to get to where he’s going, Gustafsson might as well make peace with the fact that his most difficult task won't be simply defeating his opponents, but living up to the hype.