Most fans and pundits had already written Alexander Gustafsson off before his first championship fight with Jon Jones. Just another victim to be fed to Jones, and coming off a lackluster win over Shogun Rua did little to inspire confidence in his chances. That fight turned out to be one of the greatest - and most competitive - title fights the sport has ever seen. A similar lack of faith in Gustafsson was present this time around. Questions about his mental state arose after a devastating loss to Anthony Johnson and many were quick to point out that his most impressive performance came in a losing effort to Jones. Cormier's title reign up to this point is also defined by a loss - his loss to the former, and in the minds of many, rightful champion. Cormier undoubtedly came into this fight intent on proving himself the true Light Heavyweight champion. Considering the performance he put on, it's hard to argue with that.
The prelims delivered constant action and a glimpse at future contenders, with many impressive performances from developing prospects. Sergio Pettis looked good against the top 10 ranked Cariaso, employing his slick striking and showing off an offensive grappling game. Sage Northcutt jumped on an opening and annihilated his opponent in impressive fashion. Rose Namajunas made quick work of Angela hill, and Yair Rodriguez showed improved striking fundamentals while maintaining his commitment to finding things that shouldn't work in a fight and making them work in a fight.
Albert Tumenov fell into the role of the pressure fighter against Alan Jouban, but he also demonstrated an ability to counter off the back foot. As soon as the fight started, Jouban pressed forward and looked to secure the clinch, but decided against that strategy after getting roughed up in the first exchange and began moving and circling.
Jouban leads with the straight, but Tumenov parries it and lands a check hook. Jouban presses forward into the clinch and lands a knee, Tumenov catches it and throws him to the ground. Tumenov posts his right hand on the head as Jouban stands and slams in a left uppercut. He steps forward with his left leg while feinting a left hook, causing Jouban to duck to his left, and attempts to capitalize with a headkick that lands on the forearms. Jouban throws a soft backfist as the kick comes down that disrupts Tumenov's rhythm and makes him miss with a left hook, but he's able to sneak a shovel hook under Jouban's arm as he tries to jab.
This sequence displays Tumenov's proficiency at organically finding and capitalizing on openings. His strike selection in this fight was perfect - headkicks when Jouban slipped, uppercuts when he ducked, and straight punches when he kept his head up.
Here he uses an overhand right and a headkick to bounce Jouban's head into a lead uppercut, and exploits Jouban's posture with a counter uppercut.
Tumenov was using kicks to cut off Jouban's lateral movement throughout the fight. Here, Jouban gets his hand up in time, but fails to block it with his forearm and the kick goes through his wrist to stun him. Tumenov leaps in with a lead hook and Jouban leans over to his left, leaving him open to a perfectly placed shovel hook. Tumenov crowds him, posting the left arm on his face and replacing it with his right forearm, framing the face to land an uppercut. Tumenov holds the frame to keep Jouban from clinching him and whiffs on a left, but Jouban leans over again. Tumenov pops Jouban's head up with a shovel hook before putting him out with a left straight directly on the chin.
Tumenov's striking in the clinch looked vastly improved. He made great use of Anthony Johnson's favorite tactic - posting one hand on the face and punching with the other. This was especially important considering Alan Jouban has a dangerous double collar tie. Tumenov was certainly aware of this, as he shot a takedown immediately when Jouban locked up the double collar tie earlier in the fight. Posting on the face and framing with his forearm allowed Tumenov to keep Jouban from grabbing hold of him while he landed punches in close.
This was an interesting match-up between two dangerous striker and it didn't disappoint. Tumenov showed that, while Alan Jouban may have a beautiful face, he possesses some beautiful hands. At only 23 years of age and fresh off the best win of his career, Tumenov is a very interesting prospect in the Welterweight division.
Daniel Cormier's approach to Alexander Gustafsson was the exact same approach he took to Jon Jones - walk straight through his kicking range and beat him up on the inside. Unfortunately for him, Jones would pepper him with body shots on the outside and once he got inside, he found himself losing the clinch battle. Gustafsson wasn't able to provide the threat necessary to to keep Cormier on the outside and Cormier was able to overwhelm him in the clinch.
Cormier started laying on the pressure immediately, cutting off the cage and using inside leg kicks to stop Gustafsson's circling. One of these kicks was able to freeze Gustafsson in place long enough for Cormier to shoot in on his hips. Cormier switches to a single leg and then a high crotch and Gustafsson goes for a kimura, putting his weight on his right leg and moving his upper body past his center of gravity, which gives Cormier the leverage he needs to lift Gustafsson up and dump him.
Gustafsson spent the majority of round 1 on his back and it looked like Cormier's wrestling was going to be too much for him, but that was the last time he was put on his back. For the next 20 minutes he did a great job keeping Cormier off his hips.
Cormier parries a front kick and shoots, but Gustafsson stuffs the head before Cormier makes contact with his hips.
Gustafsson had a surprising amount of success with his offensive grappling. Here he ducks in on Cormier's hips and fails to finish the takedown, but he uses it to turn Cormier into a left hook and briefly escape the cage.
Gustafsson shocked the world (well, at least the small portion of it that was watching this fight) by completing two takedowns on the Olympian wrestler. In the first sequence, he flashes a jab, then ducks in on the hips, using his head to pressure and right arm to elevate the leg, while his left arm blocks the hip. He pushes off his right leg to turn the corner and steps on Cormier's right foot as Cormier is forced to step out with it, keeping it on the ground long enough that Cormier can't hop with it to maintain his balance. In the second sequence, he shoots a double with his head on the inside and Cormier switches his hips and pulls up on Gustafsson's right tricep to strip his arm off the leg. Gustafsson moves to double underhooks and hits an outside trip.
Cormier has shown a weakness to body shots in the past - most notably against Jones, in which he slowed down in the last two rounds - and Gustafsson was able to take advantage of that, although he went to the body infrequently. He would feint a jab to get Cormier's elbow away from his ribs and dig a hook into them.
Here Gustafsson lands an elbow as Cormier tries to close the distance. Cormier covers Gustafsson's left hand and Gustafsson retracts it straight back before firing an elbow at Cormier's nose and following up with an overhand. It worked well here but he never went back to it.
Taking a page from Chad Mendes' book, Gustafsson fakes the shot, touching Cormier's leg, before exploding up into an uppercut. Cormier changes levels to stuff the takedown and ducks right into it.
Both men got tagged repeatedly due to a lack of head movement. Gustafsson's only line of defence in this fight was his movement; rarely did he take his head off line when he punched and if Cormier got inside, his response was to run backwards as fast as he could and hope Cormier's punch didn't reach him in time. Cormier, for his part, kept his head mostly on the center line as he walked Gustafsson down.
This is a neat little trick - As Cormier jabs, he thrusts his right arm out and turns his shoulder up, catching Gustafsson's hook on his forearm.
Gustafsson's hesitation proved to be his downfall in this fight. He was reluctant to take openings that were presented and regularly left himself out of position and failed to present a threat while moving backwards, allowing Cormier to move forward recklessly without any consequence.
Cormier presses forward and Gustafsson retreats. Gustafsson is so concerned with getting out of range that he's skipping backwards - hopping his lead foot back to where his rear foot was and then lazily setting his rear foot down. This completely eliminates any opportunity for a counter with his lead hand, as he doesn't have the weight transfer provided by stepping back with his rear foot first, and he doesn't throw the straight. His stance is briefly compromised when he skips and he does it in rhythm, allowing Cormier to easily predict his next movement. Cormier times him mid-skip with a sloppy straight and Gustafsson turns his back and runs. There's an easy counter there for him if he maintains his stance while stepping backwards.
Cormier feints with his hands before throwing a left hook, which Gustafsson responds to by putting his head down. Without any movement at the knees, hips, or waist, this doesn't look like an attempt to duck or slip the strike so much as a flinch.
Here Cormier is literally walking Gustafsson down. He steps first with his back foot and follows with his lead foot, squaring and compromising his stance every time he moves his back foot. His head is stationary, his hands aren't presenting any active threat or guard, yet Gustafsson retreats. The lead straight was there for Gustafsson all fight but he barely threw it. When Cormier steps in to punch, Gustafsson turns his hips away and retreats, when the straight was there for him if he stayed in a strong stance.
Cormier reaches out to block Gustafsson's lead hand with his rear, walking forward and squaring his stance, silently begging Gustafsson to sit down on a straight. Gustafsson again retreats with his rear foot first, rhythmically compromising his stance, and won't throw the straight even when he steps back into his stance.
Gustafsson pops Cormier with a jab and Cormier bends back at the waist, setting him up perfectly for a straight that never comes. Cormier was bending back at the waist often throughout the fight but Gustafsson seemed too unsure of himself to commit to punches.
Gustafsson pivots around Cormier with a lead hook and Cormier sloppily throws a backfist with his feet square, leaving him open to pretty much anything Gustafsson wants to throw, but Gustafsson doesn't commit to anything.
Watch what happens when Gustafsson commits to a straight.
Here Cormier's walking forward gets him into trouble as Gustafsson times his step up with his back foot, but Cormier is able to secure the clinch and get off a few punches. Notice how Gustafsson grabs the bicep and collar tie instead of trying to pop the wrist off his neck - Cormier's clinch undoubtedly won him the 3rd round in the eyes of the judges and Gustafsson's willingness to engage in Cormier's clinch game may have cost him the victory.
Cormier secures the collar tie and Gustafsson crossfaces, but instead of using it to break he lets it go and controls Cormier's wrist, intent on trying to out-clinch him. Cormier slams uppercuts at Gustafsson's face while he tries to control a wrist. Gustafsson repeatedly went to a two on one grip to control Cormier's wrist in the clinch, but it only served to stall Cormier out for a brief moment before he resumed the uppercuts.
Gustafsson prevents Cormier's attempt to clinch with a crossface, but he ducks his head into Cormier's chest and eats an uppercut. Instead of escaping, Gustafsson helped Cormier by breaking his own posture.
Cormier strikes his way into the clinch and grabs a collar tie, but it slips off and he grabs Gustafsson's bicep. Cormier isn't controlling Gustafsson's posture and he could break if he wanted to, but he ducks his head back down and tries to control the wrist, eating more uppercuts in the process.
Gustafsson had success in the clinch when he was able to wrap a double collar tie around Cormier's single collar tie and he used it to land a devastating knee in the third round, before jumping on Cormier with uppercuts and knocking him down. Cormier's quick recovery proved integral to his victory - if he had let Gustafsson swarm him for the rest of the round, he almost certainly loses the fight on the scorecards of all three judges.
After the knee, Cormier made sure to prevent Gustafsson from securing the double collar tie. Gustafsson wraps the head and Cormier punches his right arm in, steps forward with his left leg, switching his hips, and shimmies his shoulder under Gustafsson's forearm to get an underhook.
Gustafsson's hesitation cost him not only by allowing Cormier to move forward without fear of a counter, but desperately retreating so often had an obvious effect on his cardio. It was still anyone's fight by the fifth round, but Cormier was clearly the fresher man and that allowed him to run away with it at the end.
Cormier and Gustafsson both fought their hearts out and Gustafsson showed that he belongs in the title picture. An impressive win over a highly ranked opponent or two should have Gustafsson right back in there knocking on the door. Depending on when Jones returns, Ryan Bader's win over Rashad Evans likely warrants him a shot at the belt as well.
The rest of the main card was a slower affair, with Joseph Benevidez and Juliana Pena picking up lackluster wins. Ruslan Magomedov had a strong showing in his victory over Shawn Jordan, keeping Jordan at the end of his punches and holding his own in the clinch when the fight went there. He was using an interesting technique from the clinch throughout the fight that I want to highlight:
Whenever he had Jordan pressed against the fence, he would pin down a wrist, push off, and throw a headkick to that side. The first kick appears to hit Jordan in the eye, presumably leaving Jon Jones wondering why he didn't think of that first. On one occasion he pinned both hands down then broke and threw a question mark kick - Jordan brought his hand down in attempt to defend the front kick, but Magomedov turned his hip over and landed it on Jordan's face.
At 28 years old and with nearly 5 years of professional experience under his belt, Ruslan Magomedov is the closest thing the Heavyweight division has to a Sage Northcutt. As sad a statement as that is for the division, it's great for Magomedov, who's slick striking and solid grappling ability should have him sticking around the top 10 in a few years time as long as his improvement is consistent.