Who Takes It? Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Johnson

Old MMA fans like me sometimes complain about a lack of UFC events that feel like “events.” A perceived glut of programming leaves us feeling like we don’t know what to get excited about anymore.

But if today’s weigh-in from Stockholm, Sweden is any indication, that won’t be an issue tomorrow night at UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Johnson.

It was electric then, and 30,000 fans are said to be filling the Tele2 Arena tomorrow to watch one of the country’s most popular athletes, Alexander Gustafsson, as he continues his quest for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. The man they call “The Mauler” took current titleholder Jon Jones to the limit in a recent bout, and is said to be one win from another shot at the gold.

Standing in his way is Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, who has recently found new life at light heavyweight. Among the UFC’s most powerful athletes, Johnson has enjoyed one-sided wins over contender Phil Jones (who is, coincidentally, the only man to finish Gustafsson) and Rogerio Nogueira (who has, admittedly, seen better days) in his last two Octagon appearances — solidifying his status as a threat in the division. Gone are the days of Johnson’s weight troubles, which helped lead to his release from the promotion three years ago.

So, who has the edge?

The betting line per our friends at Best Fight Odds reveal Gustafsson as comfortable favorite, as much as three to one odds.

I’m picking Gustafsson, but that line surprises me.

Gustafsson is noted for his reach advantage and the footwork to take advantage of it. But watching Gustafsson in recent bouts, I see a man who appears “hittable,” and Johnson hits hard.

Gustafsson dominated a 2012 bout against Johnson’s current teammate Thiago Silva in his last trip to Sweden, eventually earning a unanimous decision victory. In an odd bit of foreshadowing, cageside announcers compared his style to that of Jones. But “The Mauler” was hit by an alarming number of overhand rights as that bout wore on — and one judge scored the third stanza to Silva. Gustafsson was clipped by a similar overhand in his bout against the faded Mauricio “Shogun” Rua later that year.

Johnson hits much harder, and he will have five rounds, not three, to catch Gustafsson.

But will he?

My prediction? No. I’m… 51% sure.

Gustafsson improved his movement recently; looking more fluid against opponents like Jones in 2013, and Jimi Manuwa last year. It seems, at 29, he is continuing to improve: scoring a variety of takedowns against Jones and moving fluidly from punches to takedowns against Manuwa. Maybe a takedown is unlikely here, but the experience from the Jones bout may still be key, as Gustafsson fought the best in the world, as a seven-to-one underdog, to a standstill over five rounds. Johnson has never gone beyond three.

I expect Gustafsson to “get on his bicycle” and stay there. While Johnson looked frighteningly effective against Davis last year, he has a totally different opponent here — with a combination of length and quickness which he really hasn’t seen before.

Look for Gustafsson to “get on his bicycle” and stay there — hitting jabs and leg kicks as Johnson struggles to get inside for overhands and uppercuts. The bout will wear on and while “Rumble” looks dangerous throughout, look for him to slow as the fight wears on. A lot of outside shots, and a little in-fighting (especially knees) by the Swede will keep the American at bay through five rounds — and earn a wide decision win.

So, in the end, my prediction is that Gustafsson should prove the bettors right and move on to fight Jones again.

I’m actually of the opinion that should have happened by now — or even, the third fight of a trilogy should have happened by now. But, credit where it’s due: this is a great fight, and it’s well worth watching.

Say what you will about the good old days, but an MMA event, before an audience 30,000 strong, televised in prime time on network television? That was unthinkable a few years ago — and that’s what we’re getting tomorrow. Enjoy it, friends!