Zarum: It’s time to get to know Gustafsson

Gustafsson takes on Jon Jones Saturday night in Toronto.

Alexander Gustafsson doesn’t need any help standing out from the crowd.

On a bright summer day at Canada’s Wonderland this much is obvious — his mutilated ears reveal he’s a professional fighter, as do the Thor-like frame and hulking shoulders that make the safety restraints on a roller coaster look like a little kid attempting to put him in a rear-naked choke; when he stands straight, a layer of coiffed blond hair pushes above the line indicating he’s too tall for the waterslides. But none of it means anyone recognizes him. Even with a camera crew documenting his every move through the crowd, people still can’t piece it together.

On his way to a roller coaster, the 26-year-old Swede stops at a koi pond and is approached by a middle-aged father and his young son. The dad steps forward to shake the big man’s hand and pauses awkwardly, as if he’s just forgotten his name. “Alexander Gustafsson,” a member of the camera crew says. It doesn’t register. “He’s fighting Jon Jones in September,” the cameraman continues. Dad’s face lights up. “Son!” he yells. “Get over here! Take a picture with this guy — he’s fighting Jon Jones!”

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If all goes well, if Gustafsson shocks the world and beats the UFC’s long-reigning light heavyweight champ in the main event of UFC 165, there’ll soon be a time when he covets this kind of anonymity. But for now, Gustafsson, the No. 1 challenger to Jones’s crown, is stuck being recognized by his opponents. For now.

At six-foot-five, 205 lb. and blessed with natural athletic ability, Gustafsson could be a contender in any sport he wanted. Growing up in Arboga, Sweden, he chose boxing, first entering the ring when he was 10. By 22, Gustafsson was well on his way to a successful boxing career, amassing seven knockouts and a perfect 9-0 record in Sweden while earning himself the apt nickname “The Mauler.” But by then, Gustafsson had already powered his way into the octagon, competing in grappling tournaments and training in mixed martial arts on the side. As the UFC gained popularity in Sweden, Gustafsson shifted his focus and rolled out to an 8-0 record in various smaller promotions before making his UFC debut. “Because of my boxing background, the transition was pretty natural,” says Gustafsson, whose Swedish accent is masked by perfect English. “So I picked up technique quickly.” No kidding. In his first UFC fight in late 2009, Gustafsson scored a KO, connecting with a mean right hook that sent Jared Hamman to the canvas just 41 seconds into the first round.

His second fight was a different story. Phil Davis exposed Gustafsson’s lack of experience, trapping him in an anaconda choke and forcing him to tap out with five seconds remaining in the opening round. “I think about that fight every day,” says Gustafsson. That, he says, was the day he became a professional UFC fighter. “I wasn’t doing MMA as work then,” Gustafsson says. “It wasn’t a job, it was just a hobby for me and I didn’t take it very seriously.”

Gustafsson refocused and began training with Davis and Team Alliance in San Diego. “That’s when I realized all these guys are training harder than me, and that I need to stop whatever I was doing on the side and just focus on the sport.” He hasn’t lost since, taking a 15-1 MMA record into the Jones bout.

That mindset has not only helped hone his skills — Gustafsson’s ground game is far superior to that of most fighters rooted in boxing, with a pair of submission finishes to his name-but also gave him the confidence to fight some of the best in the biz, guys like Thiago Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, whom he beat in his last two fights to earn his title shot.

“I learned that knowing you worked hard in training is good for your head; there’s a natural confidence built into that way of thinking. If you’ve done your work then all that’s left is the fight. That’s the fun part.”

It remains to be seen if he’ll still feel that way after his upcoming bout against Jones, who has successfully defended his belt nine consecutive times. After all, Gustafsson’s never fought in a main event, has never before been the focus of the UFC’s hype machine and has never faced a fighter of Jones’s calibre. That said, Jones hasn’t exactly seen a fighter like Gustafsson before, the rare breed of light heavyweight who can match Jones’s size. In his last five matches, Jones has enjoyed at least a three-inch height advantage and nearly 10-inch reach advantage over each of his opponents; Gustafsson is an inch taller than the champ. What’s more, Gustafsson has a chance to become the first European champion of the millennium and could be the UFC’s gateway to mainstream success on the continent, the way Anderson Silva was to South America and the way recent European contenders Alistair Overeem and Michael Bisping should have been.

“The MMA scene in Sweden and Europe is getting bigger and bigger,” says Gustafsson, one of five Swedes in the UFC right now. “It’s one of the top five sports, and when I take the belt you won’t be able to stop the sport from growing-it’s going to explode.”

More than half a million people tuned into UFC 162 in June, but nobody was watching closer than Gustafsson. In a match echoing the storyline of this one, Chris Weidman was presumed to be just another in a long line of overmatched opponents for Anderson Silva. Nobody gave Weidman a shot, but that’s all it took for the underdog to take Silva down and wrestle control of the middleweight division. Knowing he’d be in a similar situation in Toronto in September, one thought ran on repeat in Gustafsson’s mind. “Watching that match,” he says, “I kept thinking, ‘That’s going to be me.'”

In the lead-up to UFC 165, Jones can sense his opponent’s hunger. “He has an ambition to win this fight that I maybe haven’t seen in a few opponents,” Jones said. “A lot of the guys I’ve fought have had the life, have been there, done that already. Alexander doesn’t have that, and he wants that. I’ve got a young lion on my hands.”

Back at Canada’s Wonderland, the dad and his son finish posing for pictures, thank Gustafsson, offer a quick pointer (“Knock him out!”) and move on. “Do you want to go on Behemoth?” a crew member asks the contender. “It’s the second-biggest roller coaster here.” “Sure,” Gustafsson responds. “But then I want to go on the biggest one.” That, of course, awaits in Toronto on Sept. 21.

Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, and enjoy the ride.

This article first appeared in Sportsnet Magazine

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