On Wednesday UFC President Dana White suggested on UFC Tonight that the company are looking at Alexander Gustafsson as the first challenger for newly crowned light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
It should be noted that no fight has been officially announced at this time. Bear in mind that less than two weeks ago, Dana told Megan Olivi that it would probably be Jacare Souza vs Chris Weidman next for the middleweight title.
On Wednesday on UFC Tonight, before the comments relating to Cormier vs Gustafsson, White announced that Chris Weidman would definitely be making his next defense of the belt against Luke Rockhold, not Jacare. Focus can change in a hurry. Still, the suggestion that Gustafsson will challenge for the light-heavyweight title next is a baffling one.
WHY IS GUSTAFSSON GETTING THE NEXT TITLE SHOT
The Swede has no elite level wins to his name. His biggest victories came against a faded Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in December of 2012, and an over-matched Jimi Manuwa in London in March of last year.
Gustaffson’s recent record is 1-2 in his last three fights, and he lost last time out against Anthony Johnson. Yes, that would be the same Anthony Johnson who just lost inside three rounds against Daniel Cormier for the title.
Gustafsson’s most notable career performance is a defeat, to Jon Jones back at UFC 165. It should not be forgotten that going into the event Gustafsson was considered to be one of Jones’ weakest challengers to date. He was given no hope of pushing the champion, and the show did just an approximated 310,000 pay-per-view buys as a result. It remains Jones’ lowest pay-per-view number as a headliner.
On the night, Gustafsson provided Jones with his greatest challenge to date, pushing him to a five round decision. Jones was the definite winner, but the fact Gustafsson had been able to go the distance, and win rounds in the process, prompted many within the industry to call for a rematch.
It is clear that this is the reason he is being considered for the first shot at Daniel Cormier. There is nothing else. We all expect Jon Jones to come back, and by the time this fight takes place it is not inconceivable that he could fight the winner of Cormier vs Gustafsson.
A Jon Jones vs Daniel Cormier rematch on Jones’ return is no doubt the UFC’s ideal scenario. The story sells itself, and Jones’ time away and obvious problems outside the cage make it easier to sell an uncertainty and suggestion that Cormier might be able to win second time around.
If they are not able to make that fight, Jones vs Gustafsson II is the most obvious alternative. Unfortunately for Ryan Bader, most deserving at this point or not, he is not the preferred choice for a pay-per-view headliner opposite Jon Jones. This will likely be a factor as long as Jones’ eventual return remains an expected outcome.
A HISTORY OF UFC CONTENDERS COMING OFF A LOSS
Should the fight be made official, and it appears at this point that it will be once a date and venue can be agreed, Gustafsson will not be the first man to challenge an existing champion for a title while coming off a loss. Putting all immediate rematches to one side, and any fights for vacant titles, the UFC has a long history of promoting challengers who are coming off a defeat.
The dubious honor of being the first goes to Tank Abbott, who on October 17, 1997 at UFC 15 challenged Maurice Smith for the heavyweight title. Smith was supposed to defend against Dan Severn, but when Severn was forced to pull out with an injured hand Abbott was shoehorned in as the late replacement. Tank had lost his last two fights in a combined two minutes and 14 seconds, to Don Frye in the finals of Ultimate Ultimate 96, and then Vitor Belfort at UFC 13.
One year later John Lober challenged Frank Shamrock for the light-heavyweight title at UFC’s Ultimate Brazil. Not only was Lober coming off a loss to Joe Pardo two months prior, he had not won in his last 6 fights. Sporting a 3-5-2 professional record, Lober’s last win at that time was in January of 1997, and served as the reason for him getting the title shot. There, Lober had beaten Shamrock by decision at Superbrawl III in a fight that went the full 30 minutes. At UFC Brazil, Lober would last less than eight, as Shamrock avenged the earlier defeat.
It would not be long before the UFC pushed another title challenger coming off a loss. Less than three months later at UFC 18, Pat Miletich defended his welterweight title against Jorge Patino. While Patino had amassed an impressive 18-3 record fighting in Brazil, he had suffered back to back losses to Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons. Patino would lose by unanimous decision to Miletich and never fought in the UFC again.
Miletich would go on to defend the title against another fighter coming off a defeat at UFC 31. When Carlos Newton stepped into the cage to fight for the welterweight title on May 4, 2001, he was coming off a loss to Dave Menne in February of that year. Newton had also fought previously in the UFC three years prior, losing in the final of UFC 17’s middleweight tournament against Dan Henderson. Newton would submit Miletich in the third round to become the first fighter to beat a reigning champion while coming off a loss.
Eight months later the UFC would have their second. Dave Menne was set to defend his middleweight title against Murilo Bustamante at UFC 35. Bustamante had gone 1-1 in the UFC, his most recent fight being a losing effort against Chuck Liddell. With widespread illness surging through the UFC locker room — Kevin Randleman infamously soiled his trunks during his bout with Babalu — Menne, who had himself been drinking Pepto-Bismol right up to the fight to combat symptoms, was stopped early in the second round.
WHAT IF THE UFC DIDN’T GIVE TITLE SHOTS TO SUCH FIGHTERS
There were other notables too, including one of the most significant fights in UFC history. Tito Ortiz had already made four successful defenses of his light-heavyweight title when UFC legend Ken Shamrock made his return to the company. Shamrock was coming off a loss to Don Frye at Pride 19, and had lost his previous Pride outing against Kazuyuki Fujita as well. Still, he outranked any other fighter in the sport when it came to notable name value, following his championship run in the UFC’s early days, and a World Wrestling Entertainment (then Federation) run through the late 90’s.
The fight would be made and the anticipation and exposure was like nothing the company had seen to that point. Ortiz would win, as UFC 40 instantly doubled the buy rate of previous shows. It has often been suggested that had this show not been such a great success, Zuffa may have sold the UFC and left the sport behind them.
More would follow. Justin Eilers was served up to Andrei Arlovski at UFC 53 for the interim heavyweight title. Eilers, who was coming off a loss to future challenger Paul Buentello, lasted less than five minutes against Arlovski.
At UFC 63 in September of 2006, Matt Hughes was initially slated to defend the UFC Welterweight Championship against Georges St. Pierre. GSP had earned his title shot with a win in a final eliminator against former champion B.J. Penn. When St. Pierre was forced to pull out through injury, Penn seemed the obvious choice to replace him despite that loss. He was the only fighter to have beaten Hughes at that point in time, winning the belt from him in 2004. Hughes avenged the loss, stopping Penn in the third round before going on to lose the title to St. Pierre at UFC 65.
After losing five of his previous nine fights — the last of which was a defeat to Chuck Liddell for the light-heavyweight title in February of 2006 — Randy Couture retired from the sport. One year later he was back, walking straight into a title shot against heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. Having held titles at both light-heavyweight and heavyweight, few complained about Couture being given a shot at Sylvia. After all, the UFC’s heavyweight division at the time was far from talent rich. Couture won a lopsided decision to start his third reign as UFC Heavyweight Champion.
Another year on, at UFC 82 on March 1, 2008, Dan Henderson became the third man to fight Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title. When the UFC acquired Pride Fighting Championships, Henderson held both their middleweight and welterweight titles, equivalent to the UFC’s light-heavyweight and middleweight championships. It seemed fitting that the titles should be merged and so Henderson initially faced Quinton Jackson who held the UFC’s light-heavyweight strap. Jackson beat Henderson by decision, but this did not stop the Silva fight being made. Henderson would also lose that fight, going from double champion to belt-less contender in his first two fights back with the company.
SPORT EVOLVES WITH DEEPER TALENT POOLS
It would be almost five years before we saw another challenger fight an existing champion coming off a defeat. The company had continued to evolve, with talent pools getting deeper with each passing year. The legitimacy of the sport was growing at pace. Then in quick succession three more challengers stepped into title contention without a recent win to their name.
On February 2, 2013, former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar dropped to featherweight to challenge Jose Aldo at UFC 156. Despite losing back to back decisions to Benson Henderson, Edgar was seen by many as the most significant threat to the dominant featherweight champion. Aldo was pushed harder than he had been before, but walked out with a win that left Edgar on a three fight losing streak.
The following month at UFC 158, Georges St. Pierre defended his welterweight title against Nick Diaz. Diaz had called St. Pierre out for some time, and despite losing a decision to Carlos Condit in his previous outing a year prior, a bout between the two remained an appealing prospect. As a result the show came close to hitting the one million pay-per-view mark. St. Pierre, as he so often did, won by decision and Diaz would not be seen in the octagon for nearly two years.
April 2013 was the third consecutive month that saw a challenger coming off a loss, challenge for a UFC title. At UFC 159, Chael Sonnen faced Jon Jones for the light-heavyweight belt. Sonnen’s previous octagon appearance was a second defeat to Anderson Silva for the middleweight title. The fight came at the end of season 17 of the Ultimate Fighter, where Jones and Sonnen had served as opposing coaches.
The Ultimate Fighter was again the catalyst for a contender who many felt was undeserving, when Ronda Rousey defended her title against Miesha Tate at UFC 168 on December 28, 2013. Since losing her title to Rousey under the Strikeforce banner in March of 2012, Tate had gone 1-1, which included a title eliminator defeat to Cat Zingano. When Zingano was forced to have surgery on an injured knee, the UFC put Tate in as the opposing coach on the show which led to the eventual title fight. Rousey beat Tate for the second time.
Not since then have we seen a situation like we are about to witness with Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier. Challengers have been thrust into title contention with questionable recent records many times in the company’s history, and no doubt Gustafsson will not be the last challenger of that ilk. The overriding factor in any UFC decision is what’s best for business, it always has been. Whether he deserves the shot or not, in their eyes Alexander Gustafsson ticks that box.