Light HeavyweightsAlexander Gustafsson (16-4) vs. Jan Blachowicz (19-5)
THE MATCHUP: Finally, Gustafsson gets a forgiving fight. The UFC risked breaking Gustafsson’s will for good, matching him in a title fight with Daniel Cormier just eight months after his crushing loss to Anthony Johnson, which occurred only a year and a half after a loss to then-champion Jon Jones. In the space of two years, Gustafsson fought the three best fighters in the division and lost. Granted, two of the losses were close, but the experience cannot have been easy on “The Mauler.” To wit, his body language was all wrong against Cormier, as he repeatedly turned his back and shot frequent, panicked glances to his corner in the middle of the fight. Unsurprisingly, Gustafsson has spoken of struggling to find motivation throughout 2016, only recently claiming to have rediscovered his passion for combat.
Apparently the UFC has finally received my note. Fighters are not machines, and even machines need to be tuned up. Blachowicz is a credible opponent, but compared to the likes of Cormier, Johnson and Jones, he is a tune-up, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Blachowicz is a striker -- and a technical one. He lives off his left hand and leg, stinging with the jab, smacking with the left hook and cracking with the round kick. This enables him to manage distance effectively, but Blachowicz has sometimes been so hesitant to follow his pokes and prods with more powerful offense that he has failed to take over when the fight is close or when his opponent begins navigating around his lead. Stamina may be the reason for this. Blachowicz repeatedly ran out of gas in his last three fights and was forced to shut down his offense in order to gain brief respite. As a result, he lost to Jimi Manuwa and Corey Anderson and failed to finish Igor Pokrajac, despite hurting him several times; in fairness, Pokrajac was juiced on some serious hometown buzz at the time.
Gustafsson is not only longer and taller than Blachowicz, but he is a more reliable range fighter, as well. Gustafsson’s jab is more active and varied than Blachowicz’s, and the right hand he puts behind it packs serious, underrated power. Gustafsson has also sharpened up his left hook in recent years, and he is a capable kicker when the need arises. Though slightly more hittable than Blachowicz, Gustafsson is also much more dangerous. He has four fewer fights than Blachowicz but twice as many knockouts.
Gustafsson’s wrestling will likely play a role, too. Though far from a textbook takedown artist, Gustafsson uses his boxer’s timing and sense of distance to set up some lovely takedowns. He tends to finish high, simply tipping his opponent off-balance as he commits to a strike or forward step. Gustafsson can strike from top position, but he is more than happy to “rinse and repeat” with his takedowns, scoring and then letting his opponent return to the feet. This frustrates, tires and breaks the rhythm of Gustafsson’s foe. Blachowicz only stops 42 percent of takedowns, whereas Gustafsson has taken down men like Cormier and Jones. In fact, Gustafsson was the first and remains one of only two men to have taken down “Bones.”
THE ODDS: Gustafsson (-675), Blachowicz (+500)
THE PICK: Barring a catastrophic collapse -- that is not impossible -- Gustafsson stands every chance of winning this fight. He throws more, hits harder, takes a shot better and has more weapons at his disposal. Blachowicz may keep him at bay for a while and he may even make this a very ugly contest, but it is Gustafsson’s contest to lose. The pick is Gustafsson by second-round knockout.
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