Despite a cut suffered late last week, which put his main event fight against Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel TV 9 on Saturday into question, Alexander Gustafsson still has just one thing on his mind.
The way it plays out in his head, the Swedish light heavyweight will finish Mousasi. Then Gustafsson will grab the microphone and lay out a challenge to UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
"I want Jones next," Gustafsson said in a recent phone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "I've been patient and I've waited for my turn, and I think if I defeat an opponent as strong as Mousasi, then I deserve my title shot. If I have to call him out to do it, then that's what it takes."
It's a bold declaration from the usually polite and affable contender. But last year's turn of events at 205 pounds have taught the lesson that a fighter needs to do something bold if he wants to get a crack at the gold.
In the past year, light heavyweight contenders have watched as, first, UFC 151 was canceled due to Dan Henderson's knee injury leading up to a fight with Jones; then Jones defended his belt against converted middleweight Vitor Belfort after Lyoto Machida passed up the shot; then Jones and yet another former middleweight, Chael Sonnen, were announced as coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter," and will meet for Jones' title on April 27.
Meanwhile, Gustafsson has steadily built his case for a title shot. A dominant victory over former champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on network television on Dec. 8, his sixth win in a row, demonstrated his ability to get the job done against an elite fighter.
"After that fight, I thought I was ready for a title shot," Gustafsson (15-1) said. "But, it wasn't meant to be. If I have to go out there and keep fighting people until then, I'm a fighter, that's what I do."
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Gustafsson's career turning point came after his only loss, when he was submitted by Phil Davis in 2010. After the defeat, Gustafsson joined Davis' gym, Chula Vista, Calif.'s Alliance MMA, which is also the home of UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz.
The training synergy between the former foes has paid off for both. Much like the American Kickboxing Academy's Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier have pushed each other to new heights in the heavyweight division, Gustafsson's wrestling has shown marked improvement since the two began working together, as has Davis' striking.
While Gustafsson has stayed in Sweden to train for this fight, he acknowledges the impact his time in the greater San Diego area has left on his career.
"It's always better to have someone who can push you in the gym the way Phil has," Gustafsson said. "I have the benefits of two great teams, my team here in Sweden and Alliance. In San Diego, everywhere you look, there's a champion, there's someone who fights in the UFC, or there's someone who is determined to get there. When you're in that type of atmosphere, you can [improve]."
In Mousasi, Gustafsson will meet another fighter looking for validation in the Octagon. With a background in boxing and kickboxing, the Armenian-Dutch fighter has collected titles all over the world, including championships in Strikeforce and Japan's Dream promotion. He's only lost once in his past 22 fights. But it just so happens that his two weakest performances in that span – his Strikeforce title loss to "King Mo" Lawal and a draw against fading veteran Keith Jardine – were his most widely viewed in North America, giving fans a skewed impression of his skills.
Mousasi (33-3-2) knows that the opportunity to debut in the UFC against a fighter of Gustafsson's caliber is one way to erase past impressions.
"I feel like I'm coming into my prime," Mousasi said. "Before, I had the skills but I didn't have my head together. Now I understand what type of effort it takes to become a champion. If I can go in there and make a statement against Alexander Gustafsson, I can prove where I belong."
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Both fighters have their eyes on the current champion. Jones, for his part, has been uncharacteristically complimentary of both fighters. In a December television interview, Jones said Gustafsson interested him as a potential challenger. "I think he has an awesome skill set, he throws his hands very well, good footwork," Jones said.
"I take it as a compliment to have the champion speak like that about you," Gustafsson said. "And he's right, for our skills, it would be a good matchup."
Recently, Jones also proclaimed Mousasi to be the toughest of all the fighters who have made the transition from Strikeforce to the UFC.
"I don't know if I'm the toughest, but I've never been knocked out and I have a good chin," Mousasi said. "For the champion to acknowledge me, that's a good thing, that shows I'm not far off from a title shot."
While it appears there's a mutual admiration society between Jones and his potential challengers, that's likely to change should Jones get past Sonnen (as most expect) and face the winner of Gustafsson vs. Mousasi.
That fight's not a guarantee, of course. For one thing, UFC president Dana White has halfheartedly put former champion Machida forth as the No. 1 contender. For another, fans have long clamored for a fight between Jones and middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Whatever might come his way, Gustafsson says he'll be ready.
"That's the way it is in the UFC," Gustafsson said. "I thought I was ready for a title shot after I beat 'Shogun'. I took this fight with Mousasi rather than wait because I want to stay active and keep challenging myself. If they call me and tell me I'll get a shot at the title, I'll take it. If not, I'll keep fighting until then. It's not my decision to make."
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