When Daniel Cormier won the UFC light heavyweight title, he had to withstand the punching power of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.
In his first defense, it will be Alexander Gustafsson.
Cormier insists he’s willing to engage in a stand-up brawl when he faces Gustafsson, the division’s No. 2 challenger, at UFC 192 in Houston on Oct. 3. But the former Olympic wrestler has usually found success when he’s taken fights to the canvas.
“I believe I can box with (Gustafsson),” Cormier said Friday during a conference call with the media. “There are ways to win fights, and sometimes you don’t always choose the easiest way to win. If it’s a boxing fight with Alex, I can hold my own.
“I believe I’ll be able to get on the inside with him. I believe that my hands are just as fast, if not faster, and I believe that I’ll hit with more power than he does. If it’s a stand-up fight, sure, why not? I’d enjoy that.”
Gustaffson has 16 MMA wins, 10 by knockout, so trading punches is undoubtedly his preference. But he also acknowledges that Cormier’s expertise lies in his ability to push opponents against the cage and get them to the ground. His past two victories, over Johnson and Dan Henderson, were submissions.
“It’s going to be a battle for sure,” Gustaffson (8-3 in the UFC) said. “I’ve done my homework, and I’m not surprised if D.C. wants to stand up with me. But at the same time, I’m not afraid of his wrestling. The fight is 25 minutes long, and if he takes me down, he takes me down. I’m ready for whatever comes.”
Gustafsson is looking to rebound after his unexpected knockout loss to Johnson in January. Fighting in his home country of Sweden on UFC Fight Night, he absorbed a barrage of punches in the opening round before the bout was finally stopped.
In his past nine fights, Gustafsson’s only defeats have been to Johnson and former champion Jon Jones in a title fight at UFC 165. As much as he wants to leave them in his past, they are continually brought up by the media.
Asked about his controversial loss to Jones, who won a close decision but later said it was his toughest fight, Gustafsson said, “I don’t even think about that fight no more. I’m tired of hearing about that fight. I’ve got new goals, I’ve got new missions in front of me, and that’s all I’m having on my mind right now.”
But his defeat to Johnson may have energized him, he said.
“It was a tough time in my career,” he conceded. “It was tough to take, but it’s been my motivation (since) that time. I got back on my feet quite fast. It took me a couple of weeks, and I’ve been training since then. I’ve been working my ass off the whole summer and correcting what I’m missing in my game. I’m feeling like a much better fighter today.”
Cormier (16-1) seems to have mended fences with Ryan Bader, who faces Rashad Evans on the same card at the Toyota Center in Houston. Bader challenged Cormier after Cormier beat Johnson for the light heavyweight belt in May at UFC 187, and the two had a heated exchanged at the post-fight press conference. Security guards had to remove Bader from the room.
Bader hoped he was next in line to face Cormier, but he was passed over in favor of Gustafsson.
“Through this situation and the way (Bader has) carried himself, I’ve actually gained a level of respect (because) it seems that he’s finally understanding the game,” Cormier said. “Make yourself relevant and then people will put you in title fights and fights that really matter. Animosity? Obviously I didn’t like that that happened at the post-fight press conference when I was hoping to have my moment. But he’s got a tough fight ahead of him, I’ve got a tough fight ahead of me and we’ll see what happens afterward.”
Said Bader: “I’m way past it now. When you’re that close to a title shot and you don’t get it, that sucks. But I got the next best thing in Rashad. In the time I didn’t have a fight, it was eating at me. I was kind of in a no-man’s zone, and you feel lost when you don’t have something on the horizon. When I heard it was Rashad, I totally forgot about all of that.”
It’s possible that the winner of Bader-Evans will get either Cormier or Gustafsson next year. But it seems certain that Jones, the deposed champion, doesn’t figure in the mix -- at least not now.
In fact, the fighters who will meet in Houston would rather not discuss Jones.
“We don’t worry about Jones,” Cormier said. “But you guys will ask us questions about this guy and the headline will make it sound like I’m stewing about him.
“I could give a (crap) about Jon Jones. I care about beating Alexander Gustafsson. Then, if Jones is the next guy, Jones is the next guy. If it’s Evans, if it’s Bader, it doesn’t matter who the next guy is.
“But Jones has disqualified himself from the competition.”
Michael Martinez is a longtime sports journalist and former staff writer at The New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News and FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMMartinez