When Jon Jones defends his UFC light heavyweight title against Glover Teixeira on April 26 in Baltimore, there will be one particularly interested onlooker.
The 19-1 Jones has technically been defeated – thanks to a sketchy disqualification in a 2009 fight against Matt Hamill – but the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter has only looked human once in combat competition.
That came against UFC 172’s most engaged onlooker, Alexander Gustafsson. In a bout widely hailed as 2013’s Fight of the Year, Gustafsson and Jones engaged in a 25-minute classic before Jones retained his title by the skin of his teeth.
Seven months later, the lanky Swede doesn’t hold the title, but finds himself the key cog in the UFC’s 2014 plans for the light heavyweight division.
“It’s not a bad spot to be in,” said Gustafsson in a telephone interview with Yahoo Sports. “When you work hard, good things will usually follow.”
Regardless who wins at UFC 172, Gustafsson is expected to get the next shot at the light heavyweight title. While many clamored for an immediate Jones-Gustafsson rematch, the UFC opted to place the duo in separate fights before a potential rematch.
Gustafsson cleared his hurdle last month with a vicious second-round finish of Jimi Manuwa in London.
“I didn’t mind taking the fight,” Gustafsson said. “I liked the challenge of fighting him in his hometown and I wanted to send the message, leave no doubt, that I’m the man who should get the next title shot. I think I accomplished my goal.”
And he expects that Jones will do his part as well.
“I think [Glover’s] a dangerous fighter,” Gustafsson said. “He’s good all around and he hits very hard, a very hard striker. But he also just kind of wades forward and doesn’t use any movement, and I think that’s the style Jon is just going to pick apart once he figures out his range. So I expect Jones to win the fight.”
In the meantime, Gustafsson had the opportunity to review his September fight. Most observers agree Gustafsson took the fight’s first two rounds and that Jones, with his title hanging in the balance, put on a tremendous show of heart in rallying over the final two stanzas. The fight, then, came down to a close third round.
All three judges gave it to Jones. Gustafsson felt that night in Toronto he should have been given the decision. He’s since rewatched the fight and still feels he should have gotten the nod.
But rather than cry over spilled milk, Gustafsson is learning lessons.
“I still think I won the fight,” Gustafsson said. “I’ll grant you that Jon really got me in the fourth round and that slowed me down in the final two rounds. But this time I’m not going to let the judges decide. This time, I’ll have a better idea of what it takes. This time I plan on knocking him out and I don’t care if he knows that.”
If another rumored fight stipulation comes to fruition, Gustafsson could have his next two fights on tap. Though not yet official, reports have had a bout between Daniel Cormier and Dan Henderson on tap, with a title shot to the winner.
But Gustafsson has seen enough from this business to know he shouldn’t even attempt to project a title defense for a belt he hasn’t won yet.
“That’s interesting,” Gustafsson said. “I’m not going to speculate on fighting one of those guys. I don’t even know who I’m fighting yet. If you want me to pick a winner, I think Cormier wins that fight. Dan Henderson is a legend but this is Cormier’s time.”
But one name is absent from this extended light heavyweight title talk: Phil Davis, Gustafsson’s friend, foe, and sometimes training partner.
Davis handed Gustafsson (15-2) his first career loss at UFC 112 in 2010, submitting him with an anaconda choke in the first round. Gustafsson seized on the situation and decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and he began to train at San Diego’s Alliance MMA.
The relationship paid immediate dividends, as Gustafsson went on the six-fight win streak which got him his first title shot. But Davis, who has a 12-1 record, finds himself on the outside looking in at the UFC’s light heavyweight title plans, and meets a UFC castoff making his return in Anthony Johnson at UFC 172.
Asked for what advice he’d give Davis, Gustafsson says to stay patient.
“It’s tough for him and I feel for him,” said Gustafsson, who still splits his training time between Sweden and San Diego. “You know the way this sport can be. All it takes is one person to have to pull out of a fight, and an opportunity can come out of nowhere. The best thing he can do is keep winning his fights and be ready.”
Judging by the way he’s handled his title-shot situation, it sounds like Gustafsson has heeded his own advice.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA