Alexander Gustafsson and Rashad Evans both left the Toyota Center in Houston with losses added to their record. Both men are top-10 light heavyweights coming off a loss at UFC 192. Sounds like the recipe for a perfect matchmaking opportunity, right?
Evans certainly seems to think so. The former UFC light heavyweight champ spoke with Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting on UFC Tonight.
“We both lost our fights,” Evans told Helwani. “We both are struggling to stay at the top of the weight class and both are desperate for a win. We might as well fight each other.”
In a vacuum, this pairing makes perfect sense. You have two top-level fighters coming off losses on the same card, which in theory should make UFC matchmaker Joe Silva’s job that much easier. Except, there are a number of factors in play that make this a fight the promotion should avoid.
The UFC will likely be very careful about whom they match up Evans with next. During the UFC 192 post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White said Evans looked “old and slow” while indicating he was less than pleased with the former champ’s performance. Indeed, Evans did look off his game while facing Ryan Bader. It’s hard to fault him, however. Evans hadn’t competed in the Octagon since November 2013 and was coming off a series of knee injuries — and related surgeries — to face a surging contender like Bader, which isn’t exactly a cakewalk either.
Throwing Evans in there against another top contender seems like a recipe for another bad outing for the veteran star. Since his 2012 loss to Jon Jones, Evans just hasn’t looked like the same fighter. His fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira resembled more a game of patty-cake than an actual fight. He looked off against Dan Henderson, too. Evans did enjoy a dominant win over Chael Sonnen, but injuries derailed any hope of the “Suga” comeback train starting to chug back to the top.
At age 36 and with a history of knee injuries, Evans is simply angling himself for another high-profile bout. If he were able to defeat Gustafsson, Evans would be immediately inserted back into the title picture. Whereas most guys with his track record are either retiring or competing on the “senior circuit,” Evans has remained a staple atop a division that is among the UFC’s weakest in terms of depth. But if Evans were to come out on the losing end of a potential showdown with Gustafsson, the word retire is going to come up a lot more often in discussions about Evans. He could claim his losses have come against the elite of the 205-pound division, but back-to-back defeats would effectively sap any drawing power Evans would have for relevant fights. He still has some name value from his tenure with the UFC, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find fans who believe he has another run left in him.
The same could also be said of Gustafsson. After losses to Jones and Daniel Cormier, the Swede is seemingly in the no-man’s land of the light heavyweight division. He’s good enough to be considered among the elite of the weight class, but not good enough to get past the top few. He put on the best performances of his career against Jones and Cormier, but he ultimately came up short in both contests. Not only were his fights with Cormier and Jones close bouts, but they were also wars of attrition that left their marks on the challenger.
It’s no easy feat to overcome the mental hurdles from not only losing two title shots but also losing in the manner that Gustafsson did. Against Jones, Gustafsson shocked the world by pushing the then-champion to new limits through the early rounds. Gustafsson faded in the later rounds, though, and Jones took a controversial decision victory. The Swede bounced back against Jimi Manuwa in his next contest, but his confidence was again rattled in his next two outings. First, there was the heart-rending loss to Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in front of Gustafsson’s hometown crowd in January. Then there was the Cormier bout in which Gustafsson did nearly everything right, yet he still couldn’t grasp a UFC title. Based on his recent comments, Gustafsson seems to be saying and doing the right things following a tough loss. But there are only so many times a fighter can engage in that type of battle without greatly shortening their career and shaking up their mental game.
If there was ever a time for a “gimme fight” for Gustafsson, it’s now. Jones and Cormier seem intent on facing off sooner rather than later, which means the title picture isn’t going to be clear anytime soon. By picking up a solid win or two, Gustafsson can not only build his brand back up, but he can also restore the mental edge that is essential when facing some of the best fighters in the game.
Evans may appear to be the big-name, aging fighter commonly used to build younger fighters up, but there is far too much risk for the UFC to put Gustafsson in there against the former champ. Regardless of “Suga’s” subpar performance at UFC 192, I’d be willing to wager Evans still has dynamite in his right hand. He’s still a capable wrestler who has been known to grind guys out like he did against Rampage and Thiago Silva. Even if Gustafsson were to defeat Evans, the odds of it being an ugly fight from a MMA fan’s viewpoint is relatively high. There have been very few fighters who have looked good against an in-shape Evans.
So if the UFC shouldn’t match these two contenders up, where do they go from here?
Gustafsson should be paired up with someone outside the top 10 to help restore his drawing power. Meanwhile, Evans should be used to build Fox Sports or UFC on Fox cards. At this point, nobody is buying Evans as a title contender. However, he still has the ability to sell fans on a fight, which would be greatly useful for a card on free TV.
Utilizing this match pairing allows the UFC to capitalize on building Gustafsson back to prominence while maximizing the drawing power of a former champion. Both are options which should help everyone’s career. They’re also far better options than the alternative of pitting these two men against each other.