June 5, 2019

Alexander Gustafsson: The Dan Marino or Karl Malone of the UFC

By Raphael Garcia

Mixed martial arts is a sport where very few athletes leave “on top.” When someone retires after getting his or her hand raised, or in relatively good health, he or she is lauded for being “smart.” Nevertheless, fighters continue to do themselves a disservice by continuing to step into the cage past the point where they should walk away. Last weekend at UFC on ESPN+ 11, Alexander Gustafsson added his name to the list of retired fighters when he left his gloves in the cage after being submitted by Anthony Smith in the main event. “The Mauler” remained near the top of the light heavyweight ranks throughout much of his career, but unfortunately, his inability to grab a UFC championship will define that career.

In his 18 wins, Gustafsson looked like a master among the promotion's 205-pounders. He outclassed many a dangerous opponent, such as Glover Teixeira, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Jimi Manuwa (who also retired after suffering a loss on the UFC Stockholm card.) Looking at his list of victories, there will be many that will pick apart his resume as less that stellar. The losses on his record came against two of the greatest fighters of all time in Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, as well as Anthony Johnson and Phil Davis, who were near the top of the light heavyweight rankings when they fought. And depending on how Smith matriculates through the 205-pound weight class, his loss to "Lionheart" might be viewed similarly.
But when considering Gustafsson’s legacy now that he’s announced his retirement, his failure to reach the pinnacle of the division that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of the conversation. There’s a laundry list of great athletes that were unable to look back at a championship when they reached the end of their respective careers. Urijah Faber and Dan Henderson may be the two most important fighters with that status when it comes to the UFC, but Gustafsson might be viewed in similar fashion. He will be remembered in a manner akin to Dan Marino, Ken Griffey Junior, or Karl Malone -- just as Michael Jordan kept many professional basketball players from counting an NBA title among their accomplishments, so too did Jones do so for Gustafsson.

For the longest time, he was viewed as one of the only fighters with the tools to defeat Jones. He came within a few strikes of doing so at UFC 165, and that would follow him, frequently elevating his name within the conversations about the 205-pound division. Even after losing to Cormier at UFC 192, it seemed like Gustafsson remained a late-replacement opportunity away from snatching the title for himself. However that was not to be.
Alexander Gustafsson will forever receive a hero’s welcome in Sweden. Fans in his home country continued to cheer for him even after he suffered a crushing loss and announced his retirement at UFC Stockholm. When it comes to building the legacy of mixed martial arts there, that may be his biggest accomplishment. But even though he failed to become champion over the course of his career, he deserves to be praised as one of the best fighters the light heavyweight division has ever seen.

UFC on ESPN+ 10
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Smith: Anthony Smith defeats Alexander Gustafsson via submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:38 of Round 4.


UFC on ESPN+ 11: Gustafsson vs. Smith (formerly UFC on ESPN+ 10: Gustafsson vs. Smith) took place June 1, 2019 at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN+ 11 Post-Fight Analysis


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