During the month of January, Stockholm, Sweden averages only two hours of daylight and daytime temperatures can fall to -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a challenging environment, but one that has helped to cultivate the UFC’s number No.1 ranked light heavyweight, Alexander Gustafsson.
Standing a lofty 6-feet-5 inches and topped by the clichéd Swedish blonde hair, Gustafsson’s appearance is reminiscent of a Viking warrior. He is distinguished from the populous by his cauliflowered ears, a sort of badge he wears proudly. Despite his large physical frame, Gustafsson, 27, does not have an imposing look and he wears a smile that you would identify with someone from a loving, close-knit family unit.
It is the smile that he promises to wear in the final moments before making the walk into battle with the No. 3 ranked light heavyweight, Anthony Johnson, in Stockholm’s Tele2 Arena before an estimated 30,000 fans at UFC Fight Night on Saturday.
The event is a massive one for Gustafsson, his opponent and the UFC. Scandinavia has proved to be a hot-bed of mixed martial arts talent, none more so than Gustafsson, who is one of only two Europeans to have ever challenged for a UFC world title. Through his exploits inside the Octagon, Gustafsson has garnered international acclaim and a place as the second most popular sports star in his native home behind international soccer star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
A successful homecoming for Gustafsson will result in a rematch with the current pound for pound best fighter in the world and current light heavyweight champion, Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. But Gustafsson told UFC.com that it’s not a stimulus that he either needs or is even considering.
“I don’t think about Jon Jones right now. He’s not in the picture right now for me. I know that I’ve got a force coming up right now in Anthony Johnson and he’s not a game for me,” Gustafsson said. “I’ve got to take him seriously. I just have Anthony Johnson in my mind”.
Gustafsson is currently staying on a boat in a harbor in San Diego while he trains at Alliance MMA. He confesses that these days, he’s living a different life than when he first started in the sport. But he’s keen to point out he’s enjoying life and having fun.
Despite his rising stock and popularity, Gustafsson keeps a close circle and remains grounded. His entourage in San Diego consists of his head coach from the Allstars Gym in Stockholm, Andreas Michael, his Thai Boxing coach Joakim Karlsson, and his long-time friend, Jimmy Eriksson.
The matchup with Anthony Johnson wasn’t, however, Gustafsson’s preferred choice of opponent.
On Sept. 21, 2013, Bruce Buffer delivered a line to the world that inadvertently acted like an Ulfberht sword to Gustafsson’s heart: “and still Light Heavyweight Champion of the World…”. Never had the UFC Light Heavyweight champ been pushed so hard or looked so vulnerable.
But despite Gustafsson’s performance in that contest, it still signified a loss and one that he badly wanted to avenge. The plaudits he received did little to ease the pain of the blemish on his record. That’s why it made perfect sense to set about a sequel to the 2013 Fight of the Year.
In June 2014, it was announced that Gustafsson would get a second chance at Jon Jones. That was the best-case scenario. But revenge would have to wait after Gustafsson suffered a serious knee injury – a huge blow, both physically and mentally, to the No. 1 contender.
At the same time, Jones’ golden perch was being grabbed at by another top contender- Daniel Cormier. Consequently, Gustafsson was pushed back in the queue.
The title fight with Jones affirmed to the fans and the rest of the division where Gustafsson stood among his peers. He now had a target on his back and the ascending Anthony Johnson started to draw his bow.
Rather than wait it out, Gustafsson agreed to the bout.
“I’ve been in his shoes, too, and I feel everyone should get their chance and if (Johnson) wants to fight me I’m down with that,” Gustafsson explained. “We’re both professional. I like the guy, he’s very humble, so it’s just respect; two pro athletes going to compete with each other.
“He’s coming in with everything to gain in this fight. He’s going to be in the best shape of his life. He’s like a train coming at you, so I have to be ready for it. And that’s what I’m gonna be. Whatever he throws, whatever he does, I’m going to have an answer for it. It’s gonna be one hell of a fight and I know for sure that I’m going to be the winner. It’s not going to be a judge’s decision.”
Gustafsson’s return to action follows another period of retooling though this time it was physical rebuilding.
His team decided to enlist a top Swedish surgeon to repair Gustafsson’s torn meniscus, an injury he suffered while training. The option of traveling to California for the procedure was offered by the UFC, but staying near to home was preferred.
“Mainly I’ve been focusing on developing my skills and making progress in my training to be a better fighter and then we had my injury, so I had to stay motivated,” Gustafsson said. “But I haven’t trained for a fight. I haven’t had that intensity in my training. I’ve basically been recovering my body and fighting skills and my motivation.”
After the meniscus surgery, Gustafsson followed a disciplined strategy.
“I’m working with professionals. I’ve followed a really good schedule,” he said. “I had to work around that injury, but it’s been good and it’s been helpful and here I am 100% ready.”
Remaining close to his roots is a recurring theme for the popular Swede, perhaps a product of being raised in a relatively small community. Along with his four younger sisters, Gustafsson grew up in Arboga, which is just under two hours west of the Swedish capital of Stockholm, and he stayed there until his teenage years. The family home was in the countryside, so he would reluctantly take a bus to school. Recounting those days, it was clear Gustafsson sought a calling outside of academia.
“I didn’t like school,” he confessed. “I had a lot of energy in me as a kid and I only wanted to play sports. I wasn’t a fan of school. I was there because I had to be there. I didn’t have any goals to become an engineer or professor. I knew I wanted to do something else. I knew I wanted to do sport.”
Those motivations led him in a few different directions, from wielding an ice hockey stick to kicking a football. But he really found success in the boxing ring. It was only for fun, though, and a place that he expended some energy with friends while also making a good account for himself on the amateur scene.
In his later teenage years, a combination of high energy levels and lack of direction landed Gustafsson in hot water with the authorities. An aggravated assault charge resulted in a spell in prison. In an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen, he explained his remorse for his troubled past:
“I cannot defend it in any way. It’s something I’m ashamed of. I was young. I was stupid. I left a safe home for a quite precarious existence”.
In 2006 after his release, Gustafsson found his calling.
He had moved his life away from the trouble of his youth and settled in Gothenburg. A martial arts fan and friend, Carlos, introduced Gustafsson to a mixed martial arts training center run by Swedish MMA pioneer, August Wallen.
The Gothenburg coach quickly recognized Gustafsson’s talents and began teaching him the basics which saw the newcomer accelerate to the elite group session inside one season and also claim his first victories as an amateur competitor.
A change in personal circumstances saw Gustafsson move to Stockholm, but he would continue his growth in mixed martial arts at Stockholm Shoot and Nexus Fighting Centre, which led him to develop his close relationship with his current head coach, Andreas Michael.
“Andreas was an instructor at Nexus and we’ve been together since then,” Gustafsson said. “I always want to progress as a fighter. I want to be the best in the world and to be the best you need the right people around you.
“When I found Andreas, I knew that that was my call. I saw what kind of trainer he is. He is a world class trainer and he saw potential in me and that’s how it started.”
Another pattern that has emerged from Gustafsson’s life is his ability to facilitate positive change. When he has faced adversity, he has returned and prospered from analyzing his status quo and seeking opportunities for self-improvement.
He has demonstrated this time after time; after his spell as a young offender and then after his first big loss against Phil Davis at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. After the latter, Gustafsson showed his professionalism and humble nature by following his former foe back to his home team of Alliance MMA, seeking help with his wrestling.
“My loss against Phil made me better,” he said. “I realized that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It brought me back to earth.”
Fight Night Stockholm is a mutually beneficial union of two top-level fighters, who now find themselves expressing their talents and gunning for glory on the same fight card, with Phil Davis taking on Ryan Bader. The affiliation with Alliance MMA is also membership to one of the world’s top mixed martial arts development facilities with a track record in producing champions, and it fits Gustafsson’s ideals of a professional fighter.
“It’s a balance of everything. You need to be strategic, you need to have your game plan, you need to analyze, to
watch your opponent, to train as your opponent fights. And you have to train smart as well and listen to your body. It’s a way of living,” he said.
“It’s a lifestyle. You have to live MMA. You have to think MMA all the time and that’s how it is (with Alliance MMA and Allstars Gym). We help each other out.”
It is clear when speaking with Gustafsson and his camp that he chooses his people carefully. His manager of seven years, Manos Terzitane, explained that Gustafsson prefers to keep his circle small and that he finds it charming that the second most popular athlete in Sweden keeps himself private and remains the same person that he first met.
“I don’t think about Jon Jones right now. He’s not in the picture right now for me. I know that I’ve got a force coming up right now in Anthony Johnson and he’s not a game for me.” -- Light heavyweight No. 1 Contender, Alexander Gustafsson
That’s not to say Gustafsson shuns the spotlight. He and his team accomplished a huge victory in 2013 when he was confirmed to be the face of the forthcoming EA Sports UFC game, beating the likes of more outspoken stars like Chael Sonnen and UFC legend Georges St- Pierre. Gustafsson considers this an honor, one of the biggest wins in his career and for that is he truly grateful to his fans.
The EA Sports cover spot highlighted Gustafsson’s clear popularity which had international fans won over through his honest approach to being a professional athlete and also his appealing persona. Watching Gustafsson and his team during fight week, you are drawn towards them as they share jokes, play pranks and enjoy the moments before the reward of competitive battle.
An example of this was hours before Gustafsson’s biggest fight of his life with Jon Jones when he was with his manager, Manos.
“Before the Jon Jones fight, Alex and I were wrestling in the room when he accidentally collided with my luggage and cut himself,” Gustafsson recalled with a laugh. We took a picture and sent it to his coach Andreas with a message that we would have to cancel the fight. It was a couple of hours before. Alex still has a mark from it today and he will remember not to wrestle with me again!”
Alongside his team, family and fiancé, and behind all of Gustafsson’s achievements in life, there has been an important constant that is not always commonplace with Swedish athletes and that is his Christianity. His faith has been something that he grew up with, not something he searched for when he had unanswered questions.
“I don’t know how to live without Christianity. It was not something that I just became, it’s been there all my life,” he said “I don’t know another way of living. In my sports career it’s made me do better, it’s made me safe, comfortable and feeling good. I have a lot of friends who are Christian and I try to go to church when I can. It’s just there with me.”
Over the years Gustafsson could always rely on his pastor, Wiggo Carlsson. A spiritual mentor introduced to him by his grandmother and who became like a sports psychologist to him. Carlsson was a man of the community who had an open door policy with helping others. Sadly, he passed away in 2012. This left a hole in Gustafsson’s life, but he remembers Carlsson fondly.
“He was my mentor for many years. We could talk about anything and he was very supportive,” Gustafsson said. “He had always been there and given me good advice.”
Gustafsson experienced great sadness once again at the beginning of the year. A couple of weeks before his last fight against Jimi Manuwa in London, his father died. It was only after the event that Gustafsson let his fans know that he had dedicated the fight to his father. His manager Manos Terzitaine explained that at no point did they consider canceling the bout, which was the headline act in London’s O2 Arena.
“Alex lost his father a couple of weeks before the fight with Jimi Manuwa,” Terzitaine said. “He wanted to fight for his father. His father supported his career and therefore went in and fought for his dad.”
It was a devastating performance against the formerly unbeaten Brit and one that would have made any father proud.
2015 now marks a new calendar year, but for Gustafsson and his camp the theme is the same: get better, compete more and stay injury free. Oh, and continue to have fun.
For Team Gustafsson, the real fun starts Saturday night inside a full Tele 2 Arena
“It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be SO crazy. I can’t wait,” Gustafsson said. “I’m really excited for it. A packed arena, screaming fans … it’s going to be an entertaining fight. It’s going to end up good for us and Swedish MMA.”