Duane Finley looks back at the UFC’s first trip to Sweden
With the Zuffa drought now over and the UFC’s first visit to Sweden in the books, it’s time to take a look back at the action that was UFC on Fuel TV: Gustafsson vs. Silva. It was a night (or afternoon here in the States) when submissions were a-plenty, a few brutal knockouts left bodies on the floor and Sweden watched one of its own shed the label of prospect to become a full-fledged title contender. When tickets for the event went on sale, it took less than a half-hour for the Ericsson Globe Arena to sell out. The Swedish fans were hyped up and primed to see an excellent night of fights, and as it typically does, the UFC gave them exactly what they paid for.
Let’s take a look at a few of the highs and lows from UFC on Fuel TV 2.
Alexander Gustafsson: When the UFC made the decision to host an event in Stockholm, Gustafsson requested a slot on the main event. Being an anchor on a UFC card carries a certain amount of responsibility, and with Gustafsson’s prospect tag shining brightly, it was going to be the perfect opportunity to cash it in. Originally he was scheduled to face Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, but an injury late in training camp resulted in “Lil Nog” pulling out and Thiago Silva stepping in. The change of opponent presented a much different set of problems, and despite the late-inning curveball, Gustafsson handled it with grace. From the opening bell, his movement was amazing as he used his footwork and length to set up stinging shots. Shortly into the bout, he caught Silva with an uppercut as the Brazilian rushed in to close the distance. That buckled Silva’s legs and put him on the canvas. While the American Top Team product would recover, he would never find the answer to Gustafsson’s distance. The Swede was able to score at will, shuffling and circling around the cage until he decided it was time to put leather on Silva’s face. Of all the things Gustafsson did well in this fight, it was his footwork that stood out the most. He had Silva confused, and when he turned up the volume on his feints, Silva became downright perplexed. When the final bell sounded, Gustafsson appeared to be just as fresh as he was at the start of the fight, as he took little to no damage against a fighter known for his power and aggression. The big question will now become what the UFC decides to do with him next. He has won five straight, and with his victory over a Top 10 fighter like Thiago Silva, the prospect label has been exchanged for a contender tag. Throughout the fight, UFC play-by-play voice Mike Goldberg made numerous remarks about Gustafsson being similar to champion Jon Jones, but there is little truth to that situation – at least for the time being. To say Gustafsson should be granted the winner of Jones vs. Rashad Evans is a stretch. But now with a dominant victory over a tough veteran like Silva, the UFC has to provide opponents that will push him closer to the mountain top. With UFC president Dana White already giving the next slot to Dan Henderson, a late summer matchup with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua or Ryan Bader would make a lot of sense.
Thiago Silva: The fight in Sweden was all about starting a new chapter in his career, and while he came out on the short end of the decision, Silva showed up to fight. Known for his aggressive style, Silva put his hard-charging game plan into effect early. But unfortunately, Gustafsson’s range and accuracy put an uppercut on his chin that halted his progress immediately. Throughout the fight, Silva landed several power shots, but wasn’t able to adjust to Gustafsson’s movement. To his credit, his more than year-long layoff didn’t appear to create too much ring rust, buthe just didn’t have an answer. While Silva still remains one of the best light heavyweights on the UFC roster, the stark reality sets in when you look at his record over his past five outings (1-3, 1 NC). If he is going to be able to gain any type of footing in the division, he will need to get back into the Octagon as quickly as possible, and with many of his peers already having fights booked, the options for potential opponents are slim. Should the UFC opt for Ryan Bader as Gustafsson’s next opponent, a bout with another aggressive striker in “Shogun” would be a fight fans could get behind. Another option would be to resurrect a bout that never came to fruition due to Silva’s suspension and put him in with Quinton Jackson for “Rampage’s” swan song in the UFC.
Brian Stann: When I spoke to Stann last week for a pre-fight interview, he stressed how important it was to jump right back on the horse after a nasty fall. There is no doubt what happened to Stann when he faced Chael Sonnen was nasty – just as what the “All-American” put on Alessio Sakara on Saturday night could be considered jumping back on the horse. Stann looked like a buzzsaw as he ripped forward with combinations to the body and head. As Sakara ducked to avoid the bombs Stann was unleashing, the continuous improvement of Stann’s striking shined through as he launched two perfectly placed knees to Sakara’s dome and put him on the mat. It was over from there as Stann unleashed a quick and vicious ground-and-pound, ultimately knocking Sakara out from the guard – a feat rarely seen at this level of MMA. As for what comes next for Stann, I still think it’s too early to launch him back amongst the division’s top five. In the bout with Sonnen, he showed a tremendous weakness to power wrestling and with Sonnen, Munoz and Weidman lingering about, the timing may not be right for Stann to retest those waters. After the Sakara bout, I saw some of my peers talking about a potential fight with Bisping. But I would rather see Stann face the winner of Alan Belcher vs. Rousimar Palhares, which takes next month in New Jersey.
Alessio Sakara: Every time I hear Sakara’s name mentioned on an upcoming card, I get excited because in the past he’s been a fighter who brings the ruckus when he steps into action. Unfortunately, the key word in that sentence is the "past," and it’s time to face the truth that Sakara’s best years are behind him. He has never had the best chin in the business, but it looked as if he had zero business being in the Octagon with Stann last night in Sweden. I’m not necessarily suggesting he hang up the 4-ounce gloves once and for all, but dropping him down to the role of gatekeeper to test up-and-coming talent would be a much more suitable fit than facing the divisional elite.
Siyar Bahadurzada: There was a lot of hype surrounding Bahadurzada coming into the UFC, and he delivered every violent ounce of it. Pitted against a crafty veteran like Paulo Thiago, it appeared Bahadurzada's skills would be put to the test – but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. From the opening bell, Thiago charged and ate a combination of punches that left him out cold on the canvas. It was an impressive victory over a crafty fighter, but the problem with lightning-quick knockouts is we don’t get a good look at a fighter’s overall skill set. Bahadurzada was originally slated to make his debut against another vicious strikier in Brazilian Erick Silva. While other names are floating around for his next outing, I would love to see that original matchup get thrown back in the till. Silva is a red-hot young prospect ripping his way up the ladder, and Bahadurzada would be a fantastic test. If the UFC is listening – let’s make this one happen!
Diego Nunes and Denis Siver: This fight had its highs and lows and should have been sponsored by Dramamine. These two were doing more spinning than a ’50s swing dance contest. Despite having a rough time on the scale, Siver looked good in his featherweight debut. The back-and-forth pace didn’t cause him to wilt, and he was able to keep his feet moving throughout the three-round affair. This hasn’t always been the case for Siver, as he’s been known from time to time to move straight back when attempting escape, which only resulted in him being on the receiving end of a more powerful strike. As for Nunes, he just doesn’t appear to have the killer instinct. The fight was close throughout, but it shouldn’t have been a stretch for his corner to tell him he was down 2-0 on the cards. I understand Nunes likes to keep his aggression under control, but there is a difference between calculation and lack of urgency. The tide of the fight could have been shifted multiple times, but Nunes failed to capitalize on the openings Siver provided. As for what comes next for Siver and Nunes, I’d like to see Siver spring into the thick of things. At the current time, the majority of potential contenders are all booked up – but the only young gun who doesn’t have a fight lined up is Erik Koch. Siver was on his way to becoming a contender in the lightweight division, and I see no reason for him not to hold that line at featherweight. Nunes is a different story. He’s struggled against top competition as of late and he is still young enough to drop back and scrap his way back up. I could see a summertime bout with either Tyson Griffin or Bart Palaszewski, as both also are coming off losses.
Some of the night’s additional highlights were Brad Pickett and Damacio Page coming out like rabid wolverines to earn Fight of the Night honors and James Head pulling off a solid victory by submitting Swedish powerhouse Papy Abedi in the first round of a bout on the preliminary portion of the card. The feel-good moment of the night occurred when Swedish-born Reza Madadi brought the crowd to its feet when he earned a first-round submission victory over Yoislandy Izquierdo.
To sum it all up, the UFC’s first visit to Sweden was a success. The live gate drew over $2 million and the Swedish fan base proved to be on point as it showed the fighters respect and admiration. As the organization continues to reach further into international waters, I’m sure Sweden will become a regular stop on the worldwide circuit.