Light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson has looked impressive inside the Octagon, especially during his current five-fight win streak.
With each fight his striking becomes sharper and more accurate. His footwork has improved to the point that, coupled with a stiff jab, he easily controls how much space exists between himself and an opponent.
Getting hit by Gustafsson is a given; returning the favor is proving more problematic for the opposition. Fighters are finding it very difficult these days to get close to Gustafsson.
But there is much more to his game than what’s been on display thus far.
Gustafsson, who is ranked sixth among 205-pound fighters by ESPN.com, will face former titleholder Mauricio Rua on Saturday night in Seattle.
Both fighters enjoy competing on the feet. But if you think Gustafsson, who is 14-1 with nine knockouts, will only find success against Rua by dominating the stand-up battle, think again.
“Oh man! Alex’s striking has gotten better,” fellow UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis told ESPN.com. “But he’s a guy who’s not content with where he is as a fighter; he’s constantly growing.
“His wrestling has gotten better. He has some really slick takedowns. He’s dangerous on the top and bottom now. He has always been dangerous from the top with his hands, but now he has some pretty good submissions, too.”
This ringing endorsement from Davis isn’t to be taken lightly. He knows first-hand the progress Gustafsson has made in the past two years. Davis is the fighter who handed Gustafsson his lone professional loss. And Davis is quick to admit that Gustafsson is not the same guy he submitted in April 2010.
And Davis should know. After their showdown at UFC 112, Gustafsson and Davis decided to become training partners. It’s a partnership that has paid off handsomely for each fighter: Davis’ striking has improved immensely since sparring regularly with Gustafsson at Alliance MMA in San Diego.
Gustafsson, who still does the majority of his training in Stockholm, has taken his ground skills to a much higher level with Davis’ help.
“I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s learned a lot from me,” Gustafsson told ESPN.com.” We have a great relationship. “We’re teammates; we train together.”
But expanding his training camp would have meant little if Gustafsson hadn’t committed completely to mixed martial arts. Before his bout with Davis, MMA was a part-time gig for Gustafsson. Much of his day was spent working construction.
But the loss to Davis served as an eye-opener. Determined to unearth all his talents, Gustafsson decided to quit the construction job and become a full-time mixed martial artist.
“To be at the top level of the division and to compete in UFC, you have to do this full time,” Gustafsson said. “You can’t just do this as a hobby. You have to fully commit to it.
“Every fight is a learning experience, whether it’s a win or a loss. You have to improve; that’s how you develop. I try to get better with every fight -- my boxing, my wrestling, my jiu-jitsu, everything. It’s been an ongoing process and it hasn’t stopped.”
Striking alone makes Gustafsson competitive with Rua; the improvements he’s made in other areas make him a genuine threat.
Davis for one believes Saturday night will be Gustafsson’s coming-out party. It is in this fight that Gustafsson will likely get to put all his skills on display.
“The timing [of the fight with Rua] couldn’t be any better,” Davis said. “Alex has come into his own as a fighter. There’s so much about his game the public hasn’t seen inside the Octagon.”
Rua (21-6, 18 wins by knockout) is arguably the toughest test of Gustafsson’s career. But that doesn’t concern Gustafsson. He welcomes the opportunity to square off against a seasoned striker like Rua. He’s also confident that his hand will be raised when the bout is over.
While Gustafsson is focused on Rua, his confidence allows him to sneak a peek at what awaits after Saturday night. And Gustafsson likes what he sees.
UFC president Dana White has hinted that the Rua-Gustafsson winner could become the top contender at 205.
“When I win this fight with Shogun, I will be more than ready [to win the light heavyweight title],” Gustafsson said. “I know I have the tools to beat [Jon Jones].
“Shogun is my only focus right now, but when I beat him I know I will be more than ready to fight for the title. And I know I will take the belt. I just know it.”