Alexander Gustafsson's long loopy uppercut proved the perfect answer to the Glover Teixeira in Stockholm over the weekend. Gustafsson was largely untouched over four rounds, having his way with the Brazilian and starching his man in the fifth round, much to the delight of the arena filled with his countrymen.
In our pre-fight analysis, The Tactical Guide to Glover Teixeira versus Alexander Gustafsson , noting Gustafsson's love affair with the uppercut, we re-examined Glover Teixeira's one note striking and mused that:
Teixeira's posture after throwing himself into his overhand makes him a mark for the uppercut—as Anthony Johnson showed against Teixeira, and Frankie Edgar showed dozens of times over five rounds against Urijah Faber. If Gustafsson desperately wants to throw the loopy uppercut he has an opening each time Teixeira swings. But as much as the uppercut is a counter to the leaning overhand, the overhand is a counter to the upright uppercut. A man standing as tall as Gustafsson, winding up his uppercuts and dropping his hands to do so, runs the risk of getting clotheslined each time he steps in to attempt it.
Through five rounds Gustafsson did a lovely job of spacing his uppercuts between stance changes, drop shifts, kicks and even jabs—a weapon that most in the media would love to see more of from the rangy Swede. The uppercuts were frequent but it wasn't overkill and they almost always caught Teixeira stepping , and seldom saw Gustafsson eat that Teixeira overhand.
The performance was not without its critics though, because large portions of the fight looked, in all fairness, ridiculous. Glover Teixeira would move in on Gustafsson along the fence and Gustafsson would sprint out to his side, looking straight down at the mat and leading with the top of his head.
Running away has always been a divisive point in mixed martial arts. From Conor McGregor to Jon Jones to Carlos Condit to Holly Holm to Alistair Overeem, if you sprint to get out of a bad spot you are painted by a portion of the fanbase as a coward. (You know, the kind of coward who strips to their underwear and fights other people in a cage for money.) The issue is that in boxing and some other combat sports, the turning of the back is prohibited. It is seen as an act of temerity and in boxing, where the entire back side of the fighter is illegal to strike, it also pretty much ruins the game. In mixed martial arts, however, you can punt the opponent's kidneys and hamstrings as hard as you like, you can jump on his back, and you can suplex him on his head if you get a hold of him—the back is a lovely and legal target. Furthermore the act of turning the back has actual offensive applications in mixed martial arts. Take a watch of some Emanuel Newton fights to see that in action, as he walks across himself and turns his back to his opponent throughout the fight just to spin for a backfist when they rush in.
So banning the turning of the back is pretty much out of the question, and it isn't really a show of temerity if the fighter runs around to get their back off the fence and then immediately jumps back in with strikes anyway. Running may be a bit easier in a large, almost circular cage than in a nice square ring, but in mixed martial arts a fighter has a lot more options than in a boxing or kickboxing match. Firstly there is the option to duck in on a leg or into a clinch and then physically push the opponent to the fence. In our pre-fight piece we touched on this:
Teixeira hasn't shown anything to suggest that he can cut the ring on Gustafsson repeatedly, but ducking in on his favourite high crotch and physically pushing Gustafsson to the fence might allow him to break free and bang the body in a position from which Gustafsson cannot retreat.
And this actually worked at several points in the fight. When Teixeira got a leg, or even threatened it, Gustafsson was at least forced to stand still and deal with it.
But even when Teixeira did force Gustafsson to the fence, he exclusively head hunted.
The problem wasn't that Glover Teixeira couldn't cut the cage altogether though. After all, Gustafsson was forced to sprint off the fence over a dozen times in this bout. The problem was that even when he had Gustafsson in a disadvantageous position—with the fence preventing any further retreat—Teixeira aimed exclusively for the one target which still had some freedom of movement. When circling out, everything from the shoulders down is going to be moving on rails either to the left or right. The head can still be moved up and down with a lean at the waist. The classical side step of boxing incorporates a bend at the waist for this reason, to duck under the expected clothesline that will come from the direction the fighter is circling towards.
To explain the idea in simple terms, here is Sandy Saddler trapping the great Willie Pep in exactly the same position in the ring on two different occasions. On one occasion Pep escapes freely into the wake of the missed blow, and on the other he eats a couple of nasty body blows and is still between Saddler and the ropes.
Each time that Teixeira did catch Gustafsson circling into a punch to the head, he would keep swinging, and Gustafsson would keep moving and changing directions, then Gustafsson would inevitably get away.
The few occasions where Teixeira stepped deeper and swung for the body, he hit Gustafsson clean. Even if Gustafsson was getting away, committing to these blows would have been worthwhile. Gustafsson's gas tank was taking a pounding at his own hands every time he sprinted a half lap of the cage, hitting him in the gut each time he did would have been a smart move.
Over the course of the fight Texeira threw just ten strikes to the body and landed seven of them. More alarming was his landing 100% of the one low kick he threw over twenty minutes. One of the keys to cutting the cage in MMA is kicking. A round kick, even on the arm, stands a man still for punches. Matt Brown made a run through the welterweight division built largely on this idea.
The great Nak Muay, Dieselnoi put men into position to knee them into oblivion by cutting the ring with his kicks and trapping them in corners. Hell, when Alexander Gustafsson bamboozled Jon Jones with lateral movement, taking away the champion's linear low kicks, Jones adapted by timing spinning back kicks on Gustafsson as he circled into them.
Additionally, moving a man towards the fence occupied his feet in circling out—this can make kicking the trailing leg a lot easier. Obviously kicking the legs rapidly diminishes a man's ability to move in a sprightly manner.
Additionally the simple act of stepping up to throw body kicks when knowing the opponent is going to circle out can make that opponent rethink ducking his head down so drastically. A punch to the top of the head isn't likely to hurt anyone too badly, ducking onto a kick is far more serious.
The fight was a masterclass given by Gustafsson but with many fans now talking about the improvements he has made since fighting Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, it is hard not to think that Teixeira—with his very one-note striking and his tendency to swing for the knockout at all stages in the fight—was just the perfect man to make Gustafsson look his best.
For Teixeira, most had probably given up on the idea of him winning the title a while ago and he is certainly getting long in the tooth, but there still aren't many light heavyweights who can hold back his smothering top game or handle his brain-rattling punch. The courageous effort he put forth against Gustafsson suggests he won't be giving up the fight any time soon, but he has seemed to be a 'finished product' for a long time now. Without some serious adjustments and commitment to skills he just doesn't need to use against most of the division, it is hard to see Teixeira having a late career resurgence.
For Gustafsson, it is almost assured that we will see the Swede in another title fight within the next couple of years, and those questions raised by his brilliance in this fight will have us all eager to tune in for the answers.