Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson vie for the top spot in a division shrouded in haze. Saturday night, their main event clash at UFC 192 should provide some clarity.
To claim the vacant light heavyweight title, Cormier beat Anthony Johnson, who bludgeoned Alexander Gustafsson, who gave former pound-for-pound king Jon Jones his toughest fight to date. And it was Jones who beat Cormier convincingly at UFC 182 before being stripped of the title later in 2015 because of legal troubles.
Any murkiness could lift in the near future, as Jones’ return looms following his plea agreement struck earlier this week. That makes Saturday’s UFC 192 title fight one of the more intriguing bouts in recent memory.
Cormier and Gustafsson were in front of the cameras talking about this fight one last time on Thursday at Ultimate Media Day at Toyota Center in downtown Houston– the site of UFC 192.
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Both guys want another crack at Jones, with the winner potentially positioning himself at the front of the line should Jones return.
Gustafsson doesn’t think DC can take him down, and Cormier doesn’t think Gustafsson has the will to fight the self-proclaimed “King of the Grind.”
“The Mauler” has seemed confident throughout his camp, laughing off Cormier’s claims that he’ll control the fight and suffocate the Swede. Cormier said Thursday that if Gustafsson is still laughing on Saturday, it’ll be an easy night for DC.
“I’ve beaten everybody so he should be [taking me serious],” Cormier said. “He’s in for a fight and he recognizes that.”
Gustafsson seemed agitated Thursday by Cormier’s boisterous trash talk. The smiles were gone and a more serious Gustafsson simply said that Cormier can talk all the trash that he wants, because he’s going to see what happens inside the Octagon.
“I know I turned every stone in my camp. I’ve been training with the best guys out there when it comes to the wrestling part. I’ve been travelling a little bit and been taking guests into my gym. I’ve done everything I can,” Gustafsson said.
“I know I’m ready. He’s fighting one of the best guys when it comes to the takedown defense. It’s not going to be easy for him to take me down. When it comes to the standing, he’s not going to have a chance.”
Cormier scoffed at the notion that Gus had sufficient preparation for the wrestling acumen he brings into the Octagon.
“Did he bring in Swedish wrestlers? Were they Swedish Olympians? Because every time I got into a wrestling competition, if I was wrestling a Swedish guy I was preparing for the next guy. That’s a bye,” Cormier said bluntly. “A Swedish Olympian is a bye in the Olympic games.”
For Cormier, this challenge is not about beating Gustafsson. It’s about maintaining the competitive drive to compete. At 36 years old, the champion has reached the pinnacle of his sport. For some, that desire to compete could start to dissipate.
But DC said the motivation is still there for him to be the best. He wants to continue to distance himself from the rest in his division. Other than Jones, Cormier has dominated everyone in his path and he expects to do the same to Gustafsson.
“I can beat this guy in a standup fight. As soon as they say ‘fight.’ I’m going to press forward and I’m going to clock him right upside his head. And then he’ll say ‘Ok, I’m in a fight now,’” Cormier said.
“When Rumble was pummeling Alex, he could have rolled to his back, tried to pull guard and do something to hold him or stop him. [But] He just accepted it. That’s inside of you [and I’m going to] go find it.”
For Gustafsson, he’s simply happy to be back at the doorstep of the championship. He came so close to winning the belt against Jones, and he’s determined to make the most of his second chance.
“I’m glad to be here now because there’s a belt on the line and I’ve trained my ass off,” Gustafsson said.
“I think it’s good that he’s underestimated me. It’s just the way I want it. I will walk to the Octagon on Saturday and take that belt. To me it’s a fact.”
As far as Jones is concerned, Gustafsson said during Wednesday’s Ultimate Media Day that he isn’t thinking about the former champion. Cormier has said he needs to fight Jones for his legacy to be complete.
But first, Jones has to prove he can resume his career after the setbacks he’s suffered.
“He’s always going to loom over the division, but once again out of respect to Jon you allow this guy to get himself together,” Cormier said. “The pressure that was put on this kid may be what’s causing these incidents. And the moment that he gets cleared again from the law, we’re putting pressure on him again.
“We don’t know if we are contributing to this guy’s failures. We see what happens with this guy first and see if he’s ready to compete again.”
Matt Parrino is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MattParrinoUFC