UFC light heavyweight Alexander Gustafsson was sparring with MMA gloves and not wearing headgear in the final couple weeks of his training camp, several sources close to the fighter told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com).
Gustafsson said the cut, which ultimately scratched him from Saturday’s UFC on FUEL TV 9 headliner, resulted from a wrestling practice this past week. Others, though, told MMAjunkie.com it occurred during a sparring session.
Regardless of how it happened, the promotion on Tuesday tapped Gustafsson’s teammate Ilir Latifi to fill in, and he’ll make his UFC debut in front of his home crowd this weekend at Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm.
The Swedish Mixed Martial Arts Federation, which oversees Saturday’s event, on Tuesday ruled Gustafsson unfit to compete.
It’s not the first time a last-minute gash has altered the face of a major fight card. Dubiously, UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock suffered a cut the day of a CBS-televised EliteXC event while rolling with a training partner, which set up Seth Petruzelli’s shocking upset of Shamrock’s originally scheduled opponent, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson.
Several industry veterans agree that cuts are all too familiar in the fight business, though there is some disagreement regarding who’s to blame. There are precautions that can and should be taken, but as longtime striking and MMA coach Duke Roufus said, “It’s the wild, wacky world of the fight game.”
Veteran middleweight Bristol Marunde said fighters are getting smarter about protecting themselves prior to a fight, particularly in an age when more dollars are at stake. But he believes Gustafsson should have been more careful with a week left until he stepped into the cage.
“If you’re that close to a fight, come on, let’s be real here,” he said. “You’re not going to improve on anything. You should be having fun in the gym. You and your opponent should be wearing headgear so you don’t clash heads. You should be wearing big, puffy gloves. So this is a very amateur mistake.”
Marunde, who appeared on “The Ultimate Fighter 16? and is a veteran of the Las Vegas fight scene, placed the blame squarely on the 26-year-old Gustafsson’s trainers. In the fight capital of the world, he said a trend toward a measured, scientific approach to preparation has taken favor over a “more is better” mindset. The latter, he said, likely led to the mishap.
“I blame Gustafsson, but ultimately, his trainers should be at fault for allowing him to do that,” he said. “They should be keeping a closer watch on their fighter.”
But there are those who believe the final week of training before a fight is the ideal time to pick up the pace. Mike Riley, a retired trainer who’s worked with a handful of UFC and Strikeforce vets over 20 years in combat sports, advocated 30-minute, full-contact sessions that often are called “shark tanks,” which pit a single fighter against a revolving door of fresh opponents.
Such sessions, he said, were necessary to hitting peak condition prior to cutting weight, which he said impairs an athlete’s ability to recover from harder workouts, and thus, heightening the possibility of complications, including injuries.
“For MMA fighters, wearing headgear is a serious liability,” Riley said. “You start sparring with headgear and big gloves, and it builds a false sense of security. Seven days out is when you start that de-load. If you fight on a Saturday night, the Saturday night prior to your fight should be your last hard night of sparring. Now, if you’re three days out and you’re hard sparring, that’s stupid. But if you’re more than seven days out, you have to keep training up to that point. You can’t quit hard training too soon.”
Several MMA teams in MMA history are notorious for grueling, all-out training sessions. Shamrock’s Lion’s Den was the source of several cruel tales of punishment doled out between teammates. Brazil’s Chute Boxe was famed for all-out gym fights.
Today, American Kickboxing Academy carries a reputation for getting as close to a fight as possible in the gym. Several of its stars – most notably Mike Swick and Josh Thomson – have seen careers hamstrung by injury. Gustafsson trains at several gyms in his native Sweden but often flies stateside to train at Alliance MMA alongside UFC vets Brandon Vera, Ross Pearson and, prior to a devastating knee injury, UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz.
Longtime MMA promoter Sven Bean said he usually gets a call from fighters or trainers the week prior to a fight. He backed athletic commissions’ mission to protect the fighter’s safety and said last-minute withdrawals are simply part of the game when putting together events.
In such cases, he hopes to find a fighter who’s not only willing to fight on short-notice, but also has the medical paperwork required by athletic commissions to compete. At a recent Resurrection Fighting Alliance event, he was lucky to replace his headliner on nine days’ notice.
“Two weeks out, that’s when everybody’s grandma dies,” he said. “Not so much on the big shows, but the regional events. It’s a lot rarer the week of, and in my opinion, that’s just a poor decision by a camp to be training without headgear and regular MMA gloves. If you’re at the level of the UFC, hopefully you’ve got a camp around you that knows what to do and what not to do. If it was the week prior, things can happen for sure, but you should be taking every precaution.”
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(Pictured: Alexander Gustafsson)