Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira seem long overdue for a meeting. Constant features of the light heavyweight top ten for the last few years, both have challenged for the title and both have comfortably seen off everyone but the absolute cream of the crop. Both are also coming off victories and yet the shine from both has been diminished a little by their performances in the obvious tune up fights they were given.
Glover Teixeira was left reeling by a knockout loss to Anthony Johnson last year. Johnson came out looking like the perfect foil to Teixeira's usual leaning overhand, timing a counter uppercut beautifully as the Brazilian thrust his chin onto it. In February of 2017, Teixeira was not-so-subtly booked into a tune up match with the 9-1 Jared Cannonier. Teixeira repeatedly dragged the fight to the ground and spent the majority of the fight advancing from, and getting pushed back into, half guard. But that wasn't particularly remarkable, what was interesting was that despite working a full time job with the FAA, and training far from any top camps out in Alaska, Cannonier outstruck Teixeira on the feet.
Before Teixeira's fight with Jon Jones we examined his one-note striking style in a piece called Glover Teixeira in One Punch. If you have ever watched a Teixeira fight, you have seen what he is all about. Timing the overhand right across the top of anything his opponent throws at him, slipping to his left as he does so. This is a perfectly valid technique—timing is the only difference between a winging overhand and a beautiful classical cross counter after all—but it is almost all that Teixeira does on the feet. It is punctuated by the odd jab or right low kick, an occasional left high kick, but even when he wants to throw his left hook it is always the overhand right first. If variety is the spice of life, Glover Teixeira's striking is a vicious bowl of bran flakes. Consequently Jon Jones' only real concern in that fight was shutting down Teixeira's right hand, which he could do by fighting beyond range, smothering Teixeira in close, or simply taking Teixeira's punch on his forearm and then moving into the clinch.
Glover Teixeira's all-purpose right hand is so reliable that Phil Davis could shoot under it effortlessly each time he had an inkling that it was coming.
When Teixeira got in with Cannonier most recently his head movement looked lethargic as he failed to time his inside slip and overhand throughout the fight. His stationary head meant that Cannonier could jab him up, and then Teixeira began reaching to parry the punches and Cannonier was free to exploit him with feints and arcing punches to capitalize. Teixeira was repeatedly able to simply reach out and grab Cannonier's lead leg, dragging the fight to the ground and constantly threatening the mount and his fearsome arm triangle choke, but in a showcase fight he raised few eyebrows.
Alexander Gustafsson, meanwhile, was matched with Jan Blachowicz after another electrifying, career-shortening brawl for the light heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier. When Blachowicz came out swinging, Gustafsson's usually fleet feet seemed slow to respond and he got caught with clumsy, running blows. Gustafsson took the fight to the mat and failed to advance past Blachowicz's guard but held him there and did enough work to win an easy decision. It was only in brief moments in the third that Gustafsson began pivoting off line from Blachowicz's straight line charges and escaping Blachowicz's right hand.
The story on Alexander Gustafsson is a peculiar one. He towers over most of the division, a gangly boxer with beautiful takedown defence, but scarcely uses that length as well as he might. It was only when matched with Jon Jones—also remarkably tall and rangy for the division—that Gustafsson's boxing shone through in its full beauty. Jabs, body jabs, tripling up on the lead hand—every time Gustafsson showed his left shoulder moving, Jon Jones was reaching out for a punch that turned into something else and hit him in the chops.
But against anyone whom Gustafsson has a height or reach advantage over, the Swede seems keen to get in the kitchen and trade right hands, often leading with a looping right uppercut from almost behind him.
A few of Gustafsson's best moments in the cage have actually come striking from the clinch. He did Jimi Manuwa in with an uppercut and knee along the fence seemingly out of nowhere in what had been a ho-hum fight, and Daniel Cormier quickly found out the dangers of hanging out in a long clinch with a much taller man.
Though the clinch ultimately did Gustafsson in in the Cormier bout as stooped over each time he entered it and Cormier was able to hammer him with bus driver uppercuts. In the below example Gustafsson steps right in on top of Cormier with his right hand and allows Cormier to fall into the clinch.
Gustafsson's lateral movement has often shown to be a hindrance to his opponent's wrestling and striking more than a means of keeping the distance so that the can outfight.
The Match Up
Looking at this fight from the Gustafsson side of the cage, one idea springs to mind: this is the fight the jab was invented for. The jab came into existence to occupy the shortest line and beat big swings to the target. For Gustafsson, lancing Teixeira with the jab and moving off line after each successful connection could offer an easy path to victory on the feet simply by denying Teixeira the money punch he relies on too heavily. To avoid eating the overhand across the top of the jab—the dreaded cross counter—a good deal of feinting would be necessary to draw Teixeira out and punish him for being trigger happy on the counter. 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.
It would be surprising to see major changes in Glover Teixeira's striking this late in the day, but his jab looked good in spurts against Patrick Cummings, and on the rare occasions he goes to the body he often winds his man with only a little effort. 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.
On the ground, Gustafsson showed his ability to scramble up against Daniel Cormier, though he did get stuck in half guard for a good portion of the first round as Cormier sat on his bottom leg. When Cormier passed to side control Gustafsson was able to turn into the champion and scramble up. Glover Teixeira is very competent at holding men down in half guard, passing straight into mount and looking for the arm triangle if his man presents him an open elbow.
Neither Glover Teixeira nor Alexander Gustafsson seemed to live up to their fearsome reputation in their last showing, and both have taken some hard knocks in recent years. That being said, when offered a step back to regain some momentum there is nothing to say that the men didn't take their fights lightly or spend their camp working on a perceived area of weakness, only to struggle in their advertised area of strength come fight night. The mileage on both is substantial and with the light heavyweight division collapsing around them we could well end up in a position where the winner of this fight is meeting Mauricio Rua for a shot at the title in 2017. It will certainly be interesting to see who has more left in the tank and to compare the standard of these two top-ten light heavyweights with rising talents Misha Cirkunov and Volkan Oezdemir in the co-main event.