Alex Gustafsson focused on Thiago Silva, not getting shot at light heavyweight title

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Alex Gustafsson almost cringes at the mention. Put his name in the same sentence with the phrase "UFC light heavyweight title" and the protests will follow.

Gustafsson, 25, is one of the division's rising stars, and perhaps the last untested challenger should champion Jon Jones get past arch rival Rashad Evans on April 21 in the main event of UFC 145 in Atlanta.

Fighting for the title or discussing his position in the division is not exactly on Gustafsson's priority list these days. He fights Thiago Silva on Saturday in Stockholm, Sweden, in the headliner of a card televised in the U.S. on Fuel TV, and he's not prepared to discuss much more than that.

He's 13-1 overall and 5-1 in the UFC. In his last two bouts, he's stopped Matt Hamill, probably hastening the Hammer's retirement, and the always tough Vladimir Matyushenko.

Since his only loss, at UFC 112 to current teammate Phil Davis in which he was outwrestled and outgrappled, Gustafsson has looked increasingly better.

[Related: Thiago Silva's return highlights UFC's lax drug testing policy]

To hear him speak, though, it's almost blasphemy to discuss a title shot at this stage of his career.

"I'm super motivated at this point [to fight in my home country], and I'm anxious to test myself against Thiago," Gustafsson said. "When the day comes that the UFC decides I'm ready for a title shot, good, but who am I to say that I should be fighting anyone? I want to fight better and better guys so I can prove myself, but it's not like I'm at a point where I should be calling guys out.

"It's everyone's goal to be a champion and I'm no different. I want to be the champion one day, but I don't want to get ahead of myself."

Gustafsson is ranked ninth at light heavyweight in the USA Today/SB Nation consensus rankings, but it's not inconceivable that he could be in position to fight for the belt later this year.

He trails Jones, Dan Henderson, Evans, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Lyoto Machida, Phil Davis, Ryan Bader and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at this point.

[UFC on Fuel TV 2: Preview Part OnePart Two]

If he defeats Silva, and looks impressive doing it, he likely could leap frog Jackson. If Jones beats Evans, that would make Henderson next in line for a title shot, unless Henderson, who fights at both 185 and 205, opts to fight the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen winner for the middleweight belt.

A Jones win would mean that, of those above Gustafsson in the USA Today/SB Nation light heavyweight rankings, the only ones Jones wouldn't already have beaten would be Henderson and Davis.

That clears a path to the title for Gustafsson. Beat Silva on Saturday and win another fight in the summer and he might be looking across the cage from Jones a lot sooner than he thinks.

"There are so many things that could happen and will happen that are out of my control," he said. "I have to worry about getting better and nothing else."

Silva has been a dominant striker for much of his career, but he's coming off a 16-month layoff after serving a one-year suspension for steroid use. Gustafsson said Silva's inactivity could be an advantage for him, but he's preparing as if Silva will be at his best.

Given what is at stake for him, nothing else would make sense. You don't cut corners when the pot of gold is getting so close.

He was training for Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, but Nogueira had to pull out with an injury and was replaced by Silva. The change, he said, will have little impact upon him.

[Mailbag: Brian Stann trains at home after family tragedy]

"It's not really that big of a deal," he said of the switch. "I know what I need to do and it hasn't really changed. I don't want Thiago on top of me. He's a strong grappler with a very good ground game. That's his thing. He hits hard, but for me, I need to keep him off of me."

If he does it, he'll be one step closer to the thing he doesn't want to talk about, a shot at the UFC light heavyweight belt.

He's coming a long way in a short time, but he concedes he's still got a ways to go.

"When you fight in the UFC and train with the guys that I train with, you learn that there is always still a lot of work to do," he said. "I'm getting better every day, but so are other guys. It's very competitive and you get [passed] if you stay the same."

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