The 42-day stretch between UFC events finally comes to a close on Saturday, when the promotion hosts a show in Sweden for the first time. The European nation has recently come to be known as a hotbed for MMA, and when tickets went on sale for the event, Stockholm's Ericsson Globe sold out its 15,000-plus seats in just three hours. The buzz in the city centers around Alexander Gustafsson, a rising 25-year-old talent who grew up in a small town named Arboga less than 100 miles from the event's host city.
By virtue of a four-fight win streak, Gustafsson has cracked the light-heavyweight top 10 in several rankings systems. His most recent wins have come against his top opposition. Just as impressively, he's finished them both. Last December, he steamrolled Vladimir Matyushenko in just 2:13, and prior to that, he battered Matt Hamill to a second-round TKO stoppage.
This UFC on FUEL matchup comes at a pivotal time for Gustafsson. Because he's been the face of Swedish MMA, the pressure on him to perform in front of his countryman is enormous. Aside from that, he is still working to solidify and even improve his newfound place among contenders, and he's facing his most complete opponent. While playing for his biggest personal stakes, Gustafsson has plenty to gain and plenty to lose.
Alexander Gustafsson (13-1) vs. Thiago Silva (14-2, 1 no contest)
Ericsson Globe -- Stockholm, Sweden
The UFC has received some backlash for Gustafsson's opponent, Thiago Silva, who is returning from a one-year suspension. That penalty was incurred after Silva submitted a sample inconsistent with human urine during a Nevada state athletic commission drug screening in January 2011. Silva, however, wasn't the promotion's first choice. Originally, they paired Gustafsson with Brazilian veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, but an injury scuttled those plans. Right or wrong, it's a big opportunity for Silva to attempt to start winning back some of the goodwill that he lost due to his failed drug test. For now, the smart money is on Gustafsson, a more than 2-to-1 favorite.
In looking at the Gustafsson-Silva matchup, a lot of the numbers are on Silva's side. According to stats provider FightMetric, Silva lands at a higher percentage and gets hit less frequently. But he's become more and more stationary in recent years as a chronic back injury has robbed him of his lateral mobility. Silva claims he's healthy now, but he'll have to prove that against an opponent who is very active on his feet, so Silva may not have an easy time of finding his target. That subtle style difference may be the deciding factor in who lands more often in a fight that is likely to stay standing for most of the duration.
A True Loss
Middleweight Brian Stann is facing Alessio Sakara in the co-main event and looking to bounce back after a recent loss to Chael Sonnen. He'll have to do so after altering his entire training camp. Just before Christmas, Stann's brother-in-law tragically died. Rather than go off to New Mexico as he normally would in preparation for a bout, he decided to stay home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and conduct a makeshift camp. There's no silver lining to the story; Stann's family suffered a loss. If anyone has the coping skills to deal with such a trying time, it's Stann, a decorated former Marine who fought in Iraq.
A Fight of His Own
Stann's opponent Sakara has had to deal with a challenging personal time as well, as his career has been racked by a series of injuries and issues that have allowed him to fight only once in the last two years. Back in May 2010, he pulled out of match after his father's passing, and since then he's suffered through injuries including a torn ACL. In his only fight in the 24-month span, he lost to Chris Weidman by decision. At least the matchup with Stann is more to his liking, as both fighters primarily focus on striking. Sakara is a big puncher, but with such little recent cage time under his belt, there has to be concerns about him being a bit rusty.
If there's any doubt that mixed martial arts is becoming a worldwide sport, all you have to do is look a bit further down the card, where Siyar Bahadurzada (20-4-1) is set to become the first Afghan fighter to compete in the UFC. The 27-year-old welterweight has 16 stoppage wins and comes in with four straight KO victories. Afghanistan is just one of 10 countries represented on this event. The other nine: the US, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Germany, the UK, France, Norway and Cuba.
Two bouts on the event have the capability of capturing the spotlight from main-eventer Gustafsson on his home turf. The first is a bantamweight bout pitting Brad Pickett against Damacio Page. These are two 135-pounders that can pack a punch, so they're likely to go at each other for 15 solid minutes. The other fight worth watching is Dennis Siver vs. Diego Nunes. This will be Siver's first time moving down to featherweight, where he'll be taking on an action fighter in Nunes. If Siver had a tough weight cut, he might not be able to keep up, but if things went smoothly, this is likely to be the most evenly matched fight on the card.