The hard work begins now for Alexander Gustafsson.
The light heavyweight contender has been involved in two of the most thrilling championship bouts in history – pushing former champion Jon Jones and current champ Daniel Cormier to the absolute limit in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
“This guy has been in some of the best title fights not only in light heavyweight history, but in UFC history,” UFC Vice President of Public Relations Dave Sholler proclaimed after UFC 192. “He’s one of the toughest, grittiest fighters we have on the roster. It was really an emotional moment backstage (after the Cormier fight), because he comes backstage to the medical tent, gets looked at by the doctors, and everyone backstage from service staff to security guards gave him a standing ovation. That’s what he means to this company.”
While that sentiment is surely true, the simple fact remains: Gustafsson is 0-2 in those clashes.
On top of that, there’s the issue of depth – Ryan Bader currently has a five-fight winning streak in the division, Anthony Johnson dropped him in his home nation … and oh yeah, there’s the issue of Jones, who lingers as the next-in-line contender after putting his legal troubles behind him and is expected to be reinstated sometime down the road.
So now Gustafsson must prove he’s deserving of a third shot – against whoever is king of the 205-pounders.
Historically, that’s proven to be an issue. Several fighters have been or are currently in the same position as the Swede. Here’s a look at a few of them for comparison’s sake:
- Pedro Rizzo, heavyweight, got back-to-back chances against Randy Couture in 2001 (taking him to the limit in their first encounter). A lopsided loss in the rematch and a spotty 3-2 record following that bout resulted in him not earning another shot at the title.
- Jeremy Horn, light heavyweight, got his first shot at the title in a 1998 loss to Frank Shamrock. The veteran made it back to a championship fight in 2005 against a man he defeated previously, Chuck Liddell, but Liddell was too much for him in the rematch. A 2-3 Octagon record afterwards, including three straight defeats, put an end to his UFC title ambitions.
- Frank Trigg, welterweight, got two chances against then-champion Matt Hughes between 2003 and 2005. After losing both, he also had a mixed record (notice a pattern here?) and didn’t get another opportunity - even if their rematch did earn a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015.
Currently, flyweights Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson, bantamweight Urijah Faber (three title shots) and featherweight Chad Mendes all sit in similar positions to Gustafsson.
Surely, the examples listed above are a bit of a cherry-picking selection – as there have been others who have won the title after losing prior championship opportunities. But it helps make a point that Gustafsson doesn’t have too big a margin of error from now on if he wants a third crack at the crown.
He’s going to have to prove he still belongs among the division's elite. Assuming at least one or two of the next title fights are booked amongst Cormier, Jones and Bader, Gustafsson still has plenty of attractive options that could help him demonstrate his current No. 2 ranking in the division is justified and help him make the case to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva:
- Ovince Saint Preux – Currently ranked No. 5 – Similar height to Gustafsson (6’3” compared to the Swede’s 6’5”) and a fighter who enjoys striking in the stand-up position with a propensity for excitement (OSP has two Performance and one Fight of the Night bonus on his record) wherever the fight goes.
- Anthony Johnson – currently ranked No. 1 behind champion Cormier – would allow Gustafsson to avenge his only non-title loss in recent months.
- Glover Teixeira – Currently ranked No. 4 – Like OSP above, Teixeira would offer a taller striker for Gustafsson to measure himself against.
There is plenty more beyond that. But regardless of what route the UFC sets for Gustafsson in the future, it’s important for him to heed the warnings above. It doesn’t matter that his prior opportunities against Jones and Cormier were thrilling contests that will be remembered for years to come – he must continue to perform if he wants another shot at glory.
He’s done plenty to reach this level, but the next year will mark the most pivotal part of his career. And the world will be watching.
Jorge A. Mondaca is the Managing Editor of UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JorgeAMondaca