LAS VEGAS — Jon Jones was so dominant in 2013 and was winning his fights so handily that when the UFC pitted him against Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of UFC 165 that year, it struggled for a way to promote the event.
Jones entered that event having won nine in a row, and had finished eight of the nine. The only opponent to make it to the finish in that span was Rashad Evans, his former teammate, though it wasn’t remotely close.
So the UFC did what promoters have done historically when trying to drive interest in a dominant fighter’s upcoming bout: They took the slightest thing that seemed to be even between the two, and made it the focus of the promotion.
In this case, it was height and reach. At 6-feet-4 with an 84-inch reach, Jones was unusually tall and rangy for his division. It was only part of what made him so great, but after Jones had literally destroyed the likes of Ryan Bader, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Evans, Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen in the two-plus years leading up to the Gustafsson fight, they had to take whatever they could get to try to sell tickets and pay-per-views.
At 6-5, Gustafsson was the only fighter Jones had faced who was taller, and his 79-inch reach meant he, like most prior Jones’ opponents, wouldn’t be at a significant disadvantage when the bell rang.
Fans openly mocked the idea, but something strange occurred when the first bell rang: Gustafsson was giving Jones everything he could handle and, for a while at least, more.
Gustafsson said that his size and reach pose issues for Jones that Jones doesn’t face against any other light heavyweight.
“I’m his kryptonite,” Gustafsson said. “He doesn’t like to fight me. I’m bringing something that he can’t really handle. That’s what makes it such a good fight.”
UFC 165 was more than just a good fight.
It turned out to be one of the greatest matches in not only UFC history, but in mixed martial arts history. Jones won a unanimous decision, roaring from behind to win a bout that left both men in the hospital after the event.
There was a considerable debate about who should have won, though Gustafsson said he now accepts the result that he lost. But other than when he was disqualified as he was about to finish Matt “The Hammer” Hamill, this fight was the closest anyone ever came to defeating Jones.
“It was the best fight in the light heavyweight division in the UFC ever,” Gustafsson said. “We did something good. We did something right in that fight. But I can promise that this fight will be even better. It will be even better. I’m prepared for 10 rounds, and I’ll push it from Round 1.”
Gustafsson will meet Jones on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California, in the main event of UFC 232 for the vacant light heavyweight title which is being stripped from Daniel Cormier.
The rematch comes at a fascinating time for both men. Jones, of course, is coming off a 17-month USADA-imposed layoff after a banned substance was discovered in his system following a UFC 214 finish of Cormier. Jones, who was ultimately cleared by USADA of intentionally cheating, has fought only once in the last 30 months.
Gustafsson hasn’t had issues outside of the ring, as Jones has, but his path to the rematch has been difficult, as well. Since the loss to Jones, he’s gone 3-2. He was knocked out in the first round by Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and then was pummeled over five rounds by Cormier in another title shot.
The loss to Jones, though, sticks in his craw because he allowed a chance at history to slip through his fingers. Given how their first fight went, it wouldn’t have taken much different for him to come out on top.
He was knocked out with one hellacious punch by Johnson, and while that was disappointing, the bout didn’t carry the same significance as the historic bout with Jones did. And, as Gustafsson pointed out, a one-punch KO doesn’t mean a fighter was necessarily better than the other. It simply means he was caught.
Gustafsson said that for the last five years, he’s thought of Jones nearly every single day, and that in every practice he’s had since, he’s done something to prepare him for what he felt was an inevitable rematch.
“Losing to Jon, for sure, [was toughest on me],” Gustafsson said. “Everybody can get hit [with a single punch]. Anthony is a big hitter and all it takes is just one punch. Losing by a very small measure like I lost to Jon, it hurts more.”
He said that in addition to his height and reach, his footwork and quickness make him a bad matchup for Jones.
Gustafsson said he’s going to try for a finish, which could be just prefight talk, but also could be his intention given Jones’ reputation as the greatest fighter ever and the perception that MMA judges often favor the big names.
Gustafsson is confident of a win, but he isn’t as confident of getting the win if it goes to the cards. That, he said, will impact the way he approaches the bout.
“If I see an opportunity [to finish Jones], I’ll take it and I’ll give everything I have,” he said. “I don’t trust the judges at all. I’m going to push him for five rounds. I’m going to make sure that if I beat him on points, I’m going to be strong in every round. That’s how I have to look at it, that I’m going to take every round from him. If you give that guy an inch, he grows.”
This opportunity is what has motivated him for these last five years. The first time they fought, he believed he could win. He’d never been in the cage with Jones, though, and he only had his opinion. But after having gone 25 minutes with the man widely considered to be the greatest fighter in MMA history, Gustafsson knows he can win.
He knows Jones’ speed and power and knows the way he likes to set up his attacks.
He’s dreamed of a second opportunity ever since he sat in an emergency room at a hospital in Toronto and exchanged friendly banter with Jones.
“I’m living the dream,” Gustafsson said. “ … This fight is amazing. It’s everything I want.”
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