One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson, who squares off with Jon “Bones” Jones at UFC 165 in Las Vegas on Sept. 21.

Jones has been on absolute tear lately, taking the division by storm since his UFC debut in August 2008. In five short years, Jones has become one of the top pound-for-pound fighters, if not, the pound-for-pound king.

He has looked practically invincible in the process, beating well-respected fighters such as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort and, most recently, Chael Sonnen. He is considered by many to be undefeated, given that the lone loss on his record came by disqualification due to “intentional” illegal elbows against Matt Hamill in a fight that Jones was absolutely dominating at the time.

Gustafsson, meanwhile, has risen through the ranks of the UFC light heavyweight division, with MMA fans often stating that due to the comparable reach the Swede has to Jones, he could be the man to end the dominant champion’s run.

Having rebounded from a disappointing loss to fellow contender Phil “Mr. Wonderful” Davis, Gustafsson finds himself with a huge opportunity on Saturday night. Similar to Jones, he has fought some top competition along the way, beating the likes of Hamill, Thiago Silva and, most recently, Shogun.

The Swede has had 10 long months since his victory over Shogun to prepare for Jones. As such, you would imagine that he has prepared a meticulous game plan to try to derail the champion, who may have had less time to focus specifically on Gustafsson after having fought Sonnen less than five months ago and suffering a horrific toe injury in the process. That injury was sure to push back the start time for his training camp for this fight, even if only temporarily.

The Breakdown

Jones is a difficult man to pin down to a particular style or routine of movement. He attacks from very strange angles and a distance that practically no other light heavyweight could compete with, save perhaps for his opponent, Gustafsson.

It is often suggested that Jones’ reach is a major factor in his dominant run in the UFC. His size is difficult to plan for, especially when Jones has developed himself into a master of making the most of this incredible gift. However, this size is by no means his only weapon and is often used by Jones to disconcert his opponent so that he can then open up and attack freely with any one of a number of combinations that he has in his arsenal. We have seen spinning elbows, switch kicks, kicks to the knee and kicks to the thigh, just to name a few.

As far as predictability inside the cage goes, Jones is anything but. His ability to make his opponent feel uncomfortable is second to none and starts from the outset with his trademark spider-like crawl to the center of the cage.

Gustafsson, meanwhile, has developed some slick footwork of his own which in recent fights has allowed him to develop his own way of attacking opponents to take advantage of his size edge.

His only loss came against Phil Davis, who now sits comfortably behind him at No. 3 in the UFC light heavyweight rankings and could have a legitimate claim for the next title shot, despite the assurances made that Glover Teixeira is the man set to face the winner.

The Strategy

In the 10 months that the Swede has had to prepare, it is certain he will have studied every move and tendency that Jones has (or lacks, as the case may be) inside the cage.

What is certain is that he must not be put off by the unusual style and mannerisms that Jones showcases come fight night. Gustafsson must firstly trust the skills and tools that have brought him to the title shot, otherwise it will be a long night for him indeed.

From the opening bell, Gustafsson needs to pressure Jones and try to force him backwards. In all of his fights thus far, Jones has rarely been forced backwards and instead has been the aggressor. Jones’ fights tend to follow a similar pattern. His opponents are unsure of what he is going to do next and freeze in front of him, only making matters worse and allowing Jones to impose himself as he sees fit. Gustafsson must take note of this and ensure he is not bullied into taking a step back and waiting for Jones to fire first. He must mix things up to ensure he is the one moving forward and making Jones guess what might be fired at him next.

If Gustafsson gets in the clinch with Jones, he must watch out for Jones getting his hips underneath him, as this will only lead to the throws we have seen Jones use time and again in previous fights.

If Gustafsson is forced to fight from range, he must ensure that his movement is fast and efficient to get in and out, moving off at unconventional angles that won’t allow Jones to predict his whereabouts and catch him on the way out.

We have seen Belfort put Jones in a bad spot when on the bottom, but Gustafsson is not of the same caliber in grappling terms as Belfort. Therefore, should he find himself on the bottom, he needs to tie Jones up and break his posture down to ensure that the elbows we saw from Jones in the past don’t get a chance to end the fight.

Ultimately, Gustafsson has his work cut out for him come fight night. Jones is a dominant champion with an air of invincibility surrounding him at the moment. Gustafsson needs to be mentally ready to face such a challenge and not fall into the trap of getting mentally defeated before the fight starts, as we saw with many of former middleweight champ Anderson Silva’s opponents in the past. Even if Gustafsson should have the mental capabilities to beat Jones, it is only then that the real difficulties start in figuring out the enigmatic movement and combinations of Jones.

Photo: Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.