Had Rich Franklin been more privy to Alexander Gustafsson, we’d either be talking about the rung-climbing Swede as a foil to Jon Jones (more than we are now) or not talking about him at all. It was a tailor-made passing of the guard moment that never happened.
That’s because Franklin, who was offered a fight with Gustafsson at UFC 133 on short notice when Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was injured, had only the foggiest notions about “The Mauler,” so he politely declined the bout. Franklin was interested in marquee fights, and was looking for more of “a name.” Gustafsson wasn’t that.
Not yet, anyway -- but the times they are a changin'.
Gustafsson was supposed to fight Vladimir Matyushenko that night in Philadelphia, but ended up with Matt Hamill when Matyushenko was injured. It was a carousel card, full of patchwork matches that soured Joe Silva’s understanding of the cosmos. Nevertheless, Gustafsson made the most of his moment, and knocked out Hamill in the second round. Those who witnessed his rude treatment of James Te Huna and Cyrille Diabate might have seen this coming. That he very abruptly knocked Hamill out of the fight game for good was the surprise.
To cut to the chase, after that performance, Franklin (along with plenty of others) has now heard of Alexander Gustafsson. And that makes his rescheduled match with Matyushenko this weekend at UFC 141 a sort of catapult moment for the 24-year-old. Already a cusp top-10 fighter in the tumultuous 205-pound division, an emphatic win over the stalwart Matyushenko would legitimize Gustafsson as a contender in 2012. As unflattering as it seems, Matyushenko has become a clear definition of the term “gatekeeper.”
And if any of this seems hurried, consider that this was a similar situation that Jon Jones found himself in toward the end of 2010, when he himself had to get through the brute wrestler Matyushenko. He did, and with menacing ease. What happened next? Jones went about tyrannizing 2011 by earning, winning and defending his belt (twice). So much for bringing these guys up slowly. Jones tried to clean out the division in the space of a calendar year. Now the word you hear bandied about with his name right now is “unparalleled.”
Gustafsson’s rise in the ranks has been far quieter, and realistically won’t be the expedited course that Jones got. But when you look at his poise in the Octagon, his versatility (two wins by KO, two by submission in the UFC), and the upside -- precision, length, chin, desire -- he has the feel of a noisemaker. The difference is the landscape. When Jones beat Matyushenko, the light heavyweight belt was a hot-potato accessory. A year later, the belt is part of the man. And the pool of challengers is fairly shallow. In fact, there are only three names that come to mind who are close to challenging Jones -- Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans and Phil Davis.
Gustafsson has a chance to join that company of Friday night.
How “serious” is he as a contender? It boils down to Matyushenko. Win, and momentum builds into top-10 fights, and guys like Franklin begin to appear as a step backward.
Lose, and the road forks from destination Jon Jones towards the tundra of Krzysztof Soszynski.