The air of familiarity for Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 192 was cold and unforgiving. For the second time in a UFC title fight, the pride of Sweden stood in the center of the octagon waiting for the judges to render a verdict.
Bloodied, battered and breathless — Gustafsson had given it his all against UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, who was just as beaten and battered. Thousands stood on their feet at the Toyota Center in Houston as UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer read aloud the split verdict.
If for only a second, déjà vu loomed over Gustafsson’s shoulder like an inescapable shadow. We had all seen it once before a couple of years ago in his title fight with Jon Jones. Gustafsson had taken the former pound-for-pound king to hell and back. Jones still wears the scars from that day.
After putting on a fight of the year performance, Gustafsson was confident he had done enough to win the UFC title, but there is no such thing as a sure thing when another man decides your fate. All three judges scored the fight for Jones.
Gustafsson’s only consolation prizes for nearly dethroning Jones was a pat on the back and a trip to the hospital. He was so close, yet so far from accomplishing a lifelong goal.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Gustafsson was in the same position against Cormier. The pair put on a fight of the year performance on Saturday night in a bout that had UFC President Dana White jumping out of his seat.
— Dana White (@danawhite) October 4, 2015
As Buffer read the scorecard, Gustafsson stood in silence with his fists clenched and both eyes closed.
“Annnnnnnnnd still the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion of the world, Daniel Cormier,” Buffer yelled from the microphone.
It happened again.
The distraught look on Gustafsson’s face told the entire story. He had given his all against Cormier, and it still wasn’t enough. The scar of emotion from the loss to Jones broke open for Gustafsson. A ceremonial pat on the back was all that was given as he walked back to the locker rooms.
It isn’t that these warm vibes from fans and pundits go unappreciated by Gustafsson. They simply are incapable of supplementing the end goal. Like any other fighter that puts on a pair of four-ounce gloves, Gustafsson yearns to be a world champion, and he has watched the light of that dream snatched from his fingertips twice.
Going back to the proverbial drawing board can become tiring for a fighter. Gustafsson trains hard and does all of the little things it takes to be a world champion. Yet he keeps getting denied. Sometimes a fighter begins to question whether or not he’ll ever be able to get over the hump.
The loss to Jones was devastating, but it was also uplifting. No one expected Gustafsson to put on that kind of performance. The loss felt like a win, as the 28-year-old fighter cemented his place as one of the premier stars of the light heavyweight division.
But things were different this time around. Gustafsson, who was already coming off a first round knockout loss to Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, faced loftier expectations of himself. He had climbed to the mountaintop and realized he belonged, only to get knocked back down to the base of the cliff.
Now Gustafsson must find the strength within himself to start the climb all over again. We heard him float around the idea of retirement after his loss to Johnson. Will that kind of talk persist after the loss to Cormier?
The MMA world is about to get a long glimpse into the heart and mind of Alexander Gustafsson.