Move to US paying off for Team Gustafsson

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Alexander Gustafsson and his team have no problem praising Jon Jones.

They have no problem declaring that they’ll beat the UFC champion, either.

Something special likely needs to happen for the 26-year-old Swede to topple Jones on Saturday in Toronto during the main event for UFC 165.

The American light heavyweight star is as talented a mixed martial artist as there's ever been, which is partly the reason why Jones is on the verge of breaking the record for most consecutive title defenses in the division with six.

Still, Gustafsson, the first Nordic fighter to get a crack at a UFC belt, is convinced it’ll be his night, which alone could give him an edge over some of Jones’s previous challengers.

“When I see other fighters [against Jones], no disrespect to anyone, but I don't think they're there to win. They're more there to survive than anything else,” said Andreas Michael, Gustafsson’s head coach for the past eight years.

Mauricio Rua. Quinton Jackson. Lyoto Machida. Rashad Evans. Vitor Belfort. Chael Sonnen. These, so far, are the men offed by Jones (18-1) during his time atop the 205-pound class. All but the apprehensive Evans were finished before the fifth round. The rest, it could be argued, were on the downside of their careers, or fighting out of their weight class.

This is why Gustafsson expects to do more than just show up on fight night. As the story goes, Gustafsson is the same age as Jones.

Gustafsson’s reactions and speed on the feet could be better than Jones’s. Gustafsson is as tall as Jones. And most importantly, Gustafsson is stepping into a cage against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in mixed martial arts with winning on his mind and in his soul.

"Whatever he throws -- whatever he brings to the table -- I have a defense and an answer for it," Gustafsson said eight days before the fight.

A significant underdog, his hands hardened by rounds and rounds of abuse, Gustafsson speaks from a foundation of well-earned convictions.

Three years ago, after tapping to Phil Davis early in Abu Dhabi at UFC 112, he was little more than a lanky European prospect with a killer instinct who couldn't handle wrestlers. “The Mauler” and his team immediately took steps. Michael struck up a conversation with Davis's trainer, Eric Del Fierro, and a few drinks later Gustafsson was invited to train in San Diego at Alliance MMA.

"What was funny about Alex is he was so mad," Del Fierro remembered. "Hours after the fight he was so mad. I see certain things in guys and I know they have it. I've been doing it over 14 years and you know they have it."

If Del Fierro thought Gustafsson had the right stuff, Michael was sure of it. That's why he pushed Gustafsson to change. Michael himself focused more on MMA than coaching boxing in Sweden.

"I followed the road that was best for the people who cared the most about me,” Michael said.

That path could have led them to England and the Wolfslair team, which included Quinton Jackson and Cheick Kongo.

But, for several reasons, San Diego was the right decision.

"For me it was an obvious choice because I wanted him to face his demons," Michael said. "I wanted him to face the guy he lost to and see that he doesn't have to run away from that loss, but embrace it."

A couple months after losing to Davis, Gustafsson called Del Fierro to talk about heading to the U.S. for his next camp. Within a week of making good on that, Gustafsson was "terrorizing people and being competitive," Del Fierro said. Michael saw Gustafsson's confidence skyrocket. Working with Davis, sparring with top talent, and facing the growing demands of a UFC fighter in America all aided his development.

This is why he felt at ease during a week-long media tour over the summer to hype myriad UFC title fights featuring myriad UFC stars over the final half of 2013. Sitting on stage with Jones and other champions, Gustafsson said he felt comfortable, as if he was “here to stay.”

During the tour Gustafsson realized he’s not a "really big fan" of Jon Jones the person. Gustafsson said Jones looks down on people and can come off as arrogant. This is not the Swede's style, though none of that matters because he’s “not here to make best friends." No, Gustafsson wants Jones’s belt, which thus far has been a poor move for light heavyweight contenders.

"He's always dictating what's happening," Cruz said of his fellow UFC champion. "Alex is the first person that can make him deal with that."

"I've been working my ass off,” said Gustafsson, who broke personal best records in sprinting and conditioning drills this camp. “If we're at distance. If we're in the clinch. If he's on top of me. If I'm on top of him. It doesn't matter. It's a fight and I'm going to feel comfortable and I'm ready to work my ass off for five rounds to get a win."

The consensus among his supporters: speed and pace will make that possible.

Cruz, Del Fierro, Michael and Gustafsson all think Jones can get caught with strikes. Considering the champion carried a punching and kicking advantage in his last 26 rounds dating back to a 2009 fight with Stephan Bonnar, that's suggesting a lot. Too much, perhaps, but this is where they feel Jones can be had, especially in light of his recent comments about boxing the Klitschko brothers, who just so happened to lend Gustafsson support in the form of sparring partners.

Michael called out Jones, saying if he wanted to stand with Wladimir or Vitali, he “shouldn’t be scared of a farm boy from Sweden” and start with Gustafsson.

“We're not out for the paycheck,” Michael said. “We're not out there to survive five rounds. We're out to win. We're training to win. It's a different type of level. A different type of mentality. When you're training to win that means you're going to take what the other guy has, not just to survive. That's the attitude Alex is going in with.

“He wants to win, and he's gonna win."