Exclusive Interview: Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson – What Karate Can Learn from MMA

By Jesse | 11 Comments

You are training MMA.

Whether you know it or not.

That’s right.

If you train Karate, you are an original Mixed Martial Artist.

At least if you subscribe to the widely accepted hypothesis that Karate was originally a highly functional mix of different fighting methods imported to the tiny island of Okinawa from several geographically and culturally strategic sources over the span of several hundreds of years. The direct result of historical trial and error.

Obviously though, Karate has changed a lot ever since; transforming into the world-wide phenomenon we’re dealing with today.

But fact remains:

Original Karate was a true mix of different martial arts.

Shimabuku Tatsuo (founder of Isshin-ryu) surrounded by students. Okinawa, ca. 1940’s

Only the most effective techniques were worthy of being included and passed on. There were no styles, no right or wrong. Surprisingly though, many Karate-ka either don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about this fact.

So I’ve decided to change that.

And, as we all know, change starts with knowledge.

In this case, about Mixed Martial Arts.

MMA.

I mean, not only is modern MMA quickly growing to become the world’s biggest martial art (if not sport overall), but there’s also a whole lot of practical techniques we can learn from the increasingly expanding technical register that modern MMA covers; both on the ground, in the clinch and from a striking distance.

Techniques that once existed in Karate too (but in consiredably more brutal fashion), before our art was modernized, sanitized and codified to conform with Japan’s escalating war campaign.

As you know.

The UFC logo.

Also, I believe it’s always good to have some flesh on your bones when the subject of your dinner conversations gradually turn toward the latest UFC stats, rather than NFL, NHL or NBA stats (which they increasingly do). After all, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) is the #1 league for MMA in the world today, and it’s only getting bigger.

Again, it’s all about knowledge guys.

So…

Assuming that a) readers of KbJ are always thirsty for martial arts knowledge, and b) we shouldn’t talk about stuff we have no knowledge about, I decided to c) do something drastic:

I met up with Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson.

Hard-hitting, smooth-moving, soft-spoken “soon-to-be” UFC champ.

Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson. 6 ft 5,2 in (1,96 m) and 205 lbs (93 kg) raw power. (PS. Don’t look at his ears. What’s seen can’t be unseen!)

For yet another exclusive KbJ interview, as you guys requested when I asked on my official facebook page what kind of content you wanted more of (the “interesting interviews” comment won).

So, here we are.

In this extensive interview with UFC fighter Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson, I ask all: His training, technique, mentality, advice, breakfast habits, fears, challenges, memories and, most importantly; what Karate Nerds™ can learn from one of the hardest working MMA guys on the planet – to hopefully improve your Karate.

Pay.

Attention.

This is probably the closest you’ll come to picking the brain of a UFC fighter.

And hey, even if you think MMA is a macho-man bravado sport that has “nothing to do with the traditional values and spirit of Karate-do”, there’s always something to learn from the best athletes in any field.

Always.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” - Aristotle

You are about to learn some stuff from a fighter, okay?

Granted, he doesn’t know more about Karate than you or me, but he does know a thing or two about getting to the top in one of the most physically dangerous and competitive martial sports on the planet.

So hands up, chin down, mind open.

Introducing, my exclusive interview with Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson.

Let’s go!

Alex in the octagon.

————

Location: Allstars MMA Gym, Stockholm, Sweden.

Time: Early as hell. Why can’t MMA fighters sleep in?

Participants: Me, my little brother (pro MMA fighter) and Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson – #2 ranked light heavyweight contender in the world (UFC ).

Carrot cake: None. Just sweaty guys. (Ladies, take note.)

J (Jesse): All right, let’s get it on! First of all, a huge thanks to you Alex for taking time from your intense fight camp for this interview. I really appreciate it.

AG (Alexander Gustafsson): “No problem Jesse! I just finished training anyway.”

J: Perfect. So let’s start with my first question: Lately, some of my Karate friends have started doing MMA, sensing bigger opportunities for making a living by following their passion (fighting). With more and more martial artists making a transition to MMA, what are the most important things a light-contact/point-sparring Karate-ka should keep in mind if he/she want to try full-contact fighting one day (like MMA), in your opinion?

AG: “Well, the first thing is pretty obvious: You should have a solid understanding of what full contact really means. Because, count on this: It will hurt. But at the same time, I don’t think this has anything to do with what martial arts background you have. You will be put in the beginners group like everybody else, to learn the basics of full-contact fighting. But, again, bottom line: You should keep in mind that MMA hurts. So be prepared for that.”

J: Right. And based on my own limited experience from fighting in MMA (specifically: Shootfighting), I can vouch for that. But you actually started off with boxing, a more traditional Western martial art, before moving on to MMA. Have you ever encountered any prejudices from traditional martial artists about MMA during your journey?

AG: “Well, although I don’t think this misconception really exists in today’s martial arts world, there used to be a time when everybody thought that only gangsters did MMA. And because it was such an underground sport, people basically had this idea that we drank beer and punched each other senseless in somebody’s basement.”

J: Wait, you mean you *dont*?!

AG: “Hah! Right, but it’s not like that anymore. Among martial artists, I think MMA is pretty much accepted as a legit sport everywhere. People understand what they see. And that’s crucial, because misunderstandings occur when people don’t have a good understanding of what they’re seeing. I think probably the biggest misconception arises when the general public flips through their TV channels and catch a glimpse of two sweaty men killing each other inside a cage, without understanding the context. But I often find the critique given from “regular” sports towards MMA unfair, especially when you consider the fact that we have a more advanced repertoire of techniques than many sports out there. But again, I don’t think there exist a general negativity against MMA in the global martial artists community anymore. We are past that.”

The jab is one of Alexander’s most devastating weapons.

J: And rightfully so. Now, let’s move on to more practical aspects of MMA: I once heard a Karate enthusiast say “It’s easy to knock somebody out if you really want to”. After almost spitting out my drink, I started to wonder if maybe he was right? Since you are pretty slick at the K.O. game, what are your best advice when it comes to knocking dudes out? Have you ever been knocked out yourself?

AG: “To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really been knocked out cold. Obviously I’ve been dropped a couple of times, and even seen stars and planets on occasions, but never really knocked out. Still, I get dropped almost daily [laughs]! The most important advice for not getting knocked out? Chin down, hands up. It’s really just that. Stay tight in your combinations and attacks. Try to aim for the chin.”

J: And again, we are reminded why I don’t practice MMA: Getting dropped daily sounds pretty annoying. But, another important skill you didn’t mention is footwork. Right? Needless to say, you are pretty famous for your smooth footwork. What are your thoughts on that? What are some common mistakes you see people doing in their footwork?

AG: “The most common mistake I see people doing in their footwork has to be when they execute a beautiful combination and then just stand completely still. You should always move after a combo. Strike, then move. Strike, then move. Try to move away in angles. And that’s the first thing. The second thing I see is people moving on their heels. That’s a big mistake because it makes it hard for you to move around and counter. Stay on your toes and always move in angles.”

J: What’s the best exercise for training footwork?

AG: “Shadow boxing, bag work, focus pads, sparring… Everything. Anything. You just need to think about it. You can train it all the time, as long as you keep thinking about it.”

J: Luckily, many Karate-ka are already pretty good at footwork. Now, if you had to fight a famous Karate/MMA fighter, like, say, Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida yourself, what would your main strategy be? Hypothetically speaking, what would your “anti-Karate” strategy be?

AG: “Wow… I would probably try to cut him off. Cut his angles of movement. Meaning, I don’t want to give him the space he needs for his evasive Karate body movements [taisabaki] and footwork. I would try to put pressure on him, have him back up, feint a lot and try to work on some takedowns to neutralize his main Karate weapons. Keep it varied.”

Alexander beating up Thiago Silva (Brazil)

J: Got it. Speaking of variation: An important, but hard, part about MMA is figuring out how to prioritize the many elements of the game. The same goes for Karate. We have many areas (kata, bunkai, kihon, kumite, self-defense, kobudo, conditioning, competing etc.) that need training – how do you choose which ones to train?

AG: “Well, you really need to put focus on everything to become the best. But of course, prioritize the elements where you are lacking to begin with. Above all, listen to your instructor. That’s the alpha and omega of it all. Listen to your instructor and do what he says. You shouldn’t need to think about what to constantly improve or train. Put those thoughts aside, follow your schedule and do what your instructor wants you to do. Your job is to get to the gym, do the job, and after practice you can do whatever you want. That’s really it. Save your mental energy for the actual training, listen to your instructor and give it your all. Trust your coach.”

J: Sensei knows best! Now imagine this: One day, while walking to the gym, you are suddenly confronted by a wizard who blasts you with a magic spell. The spell makes you incapable of using more than three techniques for the rest of your MMA career! What would those three techniques be? In other words, what three techniques could win the majority of your fights (see ‘The 80/20 Principle’)?

AG: “[Laughs] …on the ground, or standing up?”

J: Your choice. The “top 3″ techniques that will win most of the fights for you.

AG: “Okay, so my first pick is the jab. The jab never leaves.”

J: Okay. Second?

AG: “Left/right combo.”

J: Bam! And third?

AG: “The third will be the single-leg takedown. Those three techniques will do the trick most of the time!”

Alexander is a striking specialist.

J: Awesome! Those three techniques actually reveal a lot about your fighting style. But, as a professional fighter, you’ll naturally need more than just three moves in your arsenal. What exactly does a regular “day in the office” look like for a UFC fighter like you anyway?

AG: “Most days I wake up at seven o’clock, have a cup of coffee and walk my dogs. I come to the gym at nine o’clock. The morning session generally consists of pretty hard training, including conditioning, sparring or Thai pads. Or simply a brutal strength training session. Later, in the evening, the focus is on a single aspect; like grappling, jiu-jitsu or boxing. The evening sessions are always more technical.”

J: And most importantly, what do you eat for breakfast?

AG: “Porridge.”

J: Porridge?

AG: “Porridge. With blueberries and honey [laughs]!”

J: You just made me hungry! Being a MMA fighter seems fun. But I bet you have some sucky days too, no? We all have. So what is the hardest part about being a fighter? You know, the part that makes you go: “I wish I worked at McDonald’s!”?

AG: “The most dreadful part about being a MMA fighter is definitely fight camp [8-10 weeks of intense training leading up to a specific fight]. There is nothing worse. It’s so monotonous, so hard and so nasty that you just want to puke every day.”

J: What about cutting weight?

AG: “I can handle that well. The eight-week grind before a fight is much worse. Especially for your psyche, since you have to perform at your best every day. It’s not enough to “just” show up anymore. You got to work your ass off too. It’s not about having fun. It’s dead serious. It’s one of those things that either breaks you or makes you stronger.”

J: Word. It’s the same for me when I go to Japan for intense training. And I’m not alone – many Karate enthusiasts often travel to Japan in order to learn from masters of the art. In similar vein, you regularly travel to USA to learn from “master coaches” of MMA too. Why? What ancient teachings do they possess that you can’t train at home?

AG: “Well, they’ve got a whole lot more knowledge. About everything. And not only that, but their philosophy is different. Also, they have a lot more hard sparring, with better opponents, since more people practice it. Everything is on a higher level over there.”

Did I mention Alex is a striking specialist?

J: Just like Karate in Japan. Does the inspirational/motivational aspect play a part?

AG: “Absolutely. The inspiration you get from training with some of the best in the world is incredibly powerful for your self-esteem, especially if you happen to beat them. Another important aspect is the change of scenery, for my mental preparation. Getting away from my dogs, girlfriend and snuff changes my focus completely!”

J: I can imagine. But let’s talk about fear now. See, a lot of people get scared when they need to fight, even in the safe dojo environment. Do you ever feel afraid in your fights? How do you handle it? I mean, the guy standing in front of you has trained several months just to beat you up – but still, you always look so relaxed in your fights!

AG: “You’re kidding, right? I’m always afraid. And nervous. The trick is: Don’t be afraid of your fear. You should never be afraid of performance anxiety or fear, because those feelings are natural parts of a fight. In the best of worlds, that fear actually triggers your emotions to fight even better. Fighters who are never afraid or nervous don’t get far, because they lack that extra mental edge. Their game is not on top. Fear gives you that.”

J: True. Fear is a double-edged sword in the battle for peak performance. But, until you learn to cooperate with your fear, it can be helpful to control it some way. Do you have any mental training methods in MMA? In Karate we have mokuso.

AG: “My best advice for mental training is simply to create good habits, in order to build a sense of security and calm around you. Also, you could try to distance yourself emotionally from the whole situation. In my case, I just look at it objectively: We are two guys going inside a cage to work. That’s it. Try to de-escalate the pressure. Take a couple of deep breaths. Don’t hype things up. And stay positive, even if you’re fighting for your life. Positive thinking is a habit, like everything else. You get better at it with time.”

J: So basically, you want to be comfortable enough to trust your skills, but afraid enough to take it seriously?

AG: “You want to be like a ticking bomb. As calm as possible before the fight, to save energy… But ready to explode the second you step into the cage.”

J: I love that imagery. But, what about faith? I’ve read that you believe in God. Does that add some kind of “mental strength”? An extra feeling of holy support, so to speak?

AG: “My faith makes me feel secure, in every situation. It doesn’t really make me better as an athlete, but my faith has always been there and will always be there. It’s not something I consider “mental training” or anything. But when you fight you are putting yourself to the test for sure, and a strong faith can act as a cushion if you should break mentally.”

Faith.

J: I see. It’s time for us to round this interview off, but first, let’s look back: What is your most memorable experience so far in your MMA career? Share your most exciting moment!

AG: “That would be my first fight in Sweden, against Thiago ‘Pitbull’ Silva at UFC on Fuel TV in 2012, and my debut fight in 2009 at UFC 105 against Jared ‘The Messenger’ Hamman in the UK.”

J: Not your fight against Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua?

AG: “Not really. I mean, sure, Shogun is a legend in the sport, and it was a “Wow!”-moment to beat him, but the experience of fighting Thiago Silva at home in Sweden was even more incredible. I almost sh*t my pants from nervosity before that fight, which made the victory extra special. I was so frickin’ nervous, man. And Thiago truly looks life-threatening too. He looks crazy. He’s a killer. So that was a real test.”

J: What a relief to win that fight! Now let’s look at the future. Karate is a martial art which, by its very nature, allows its practitioner to practice for a lifetime. On the other hand, MMA is a pretty intense sport that takes a lot of toll on your body. What are your plans for the future? You know, when you’re not able to compete anymore?

AG: “Well, first of all, I’ll be saving some of this fight money for investments, to secure the future of me and my family. But then, you know, I’m one of those guys who could never just retire, since I have this inner drive that constantly pushes me forward. I’ll probably transfer my energy to entrepreneurialism, or something similar, instead.”

J: No coaching?

AG: “No. Either I do MMA, or I don’t do MMA. If I quit MMA, I quit MMA. Coaching isn’t really my thing.”

J: Cool. I’m kinda like that too. Go hard or go home. So, last question: This is probably the most challenging question you’ve ever received, and I truly want you to think hard on this one.

AG: “Okay.”

J: You ready?

AG: “I’m ready!”

“There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris has allowed to live.”

J: If you were trapped in a death match between Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Mr. Miyagi – who would win?

AG: “That would be me.”

J: Wrong! Chuck Norris would! But nice try anyway. Jokes aside though, that was actually my last qustion of this interview, Alex. You have given us a lot of great advice today, applicable to both MMA, Karate and life in general. My readers are all grateful for that. Best of luck with your continued training, porridge eating and fighting – and we’re looking forward to seeing your become the next light heavyweight world title holder of the UFC!

AG: “Thanks Jesse, take care. And good luck with your own training!”

About the author

Jesse Enkamp is a Karate Nerd™, #1 Amazon best-selling author, national team athlete and founder of Seishin - the world's first crowdfunded & crowdsourced gi. He thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

11 Comments

  1. Alessandro Timmi

    April 11, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Well, one of the most interesting “exclusive interviews” ever. I was a little bit surprised to read:
    You shouldn’t need to think about what to constantly improve or train. Put those thoughts aside, follow your schedule and do what your instructor wants you to do.
    I was suited to think to an MMA star as an almost “independent” athlete, who autonomously manages his daily work.
    Another interesting point is when he talks about training with the best fighters in the world: I totally agree, according to my (humble) experience with some Italian elite Karate athletes. It’s always inspirational to train with them and during each single session you learn more than you would in 6 months of regular training.
    Thanks for this precious piece of #knowledge Jesse!

    • Jesse

      April 11, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Alessandro-san, thanks for chiming in! MMA athletes have huge teams around them, taking care of nutrition, strength training, administrative tasks, recovery, media etc. It’s pretty professional in that sense. Imagine that life! ;)

  2. kai-ru

    April 12, 2013 at 4:26 am

    Another great post. I myself have spent a little time training outside of Karate. I have explored MMA and a few other practices including wing-chun and Judo. To be honest once you have hit a certain level there is no where you could learn more about your Karate than in a unfamiliar Dojo.

    Wing-chun lead me to question my hikite, judo and aikido have helped me develop more complete bunkai and MMA has pushed me to up my physical conditioning and really see what moves are worth keeping in my repertoire. It has also helped me keep my hands up. If you dance around an MMA ring with your hands mid chest you will likely get hit in the head, this never feels nice. Unless of course you are a little masochistic which I imagine most of us are, but still if you get K.O.ed you lose so get those hands up.

    I am glad you are adventuring out to interview people outside of Karate. I hope this will help to develop more respectful dialogues between martial artist of every vein. We all have a lot to learn from each other. Who knows maybe some of these MMA guys will be stepping into the Karate Dojo when they are looking to connect to different parts of the martial arts, or are sick of training for tournaments. Here is to keeping our doors and minds open. karate and every martial art should be about lifelong learning not cultishly following dogma.

    • Jesse

      April 12, 2013 at 9:21 am

      Kyle-san, can I get a amen!

  3. Madelyn

    April 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Really insightful. I’ve decided a while ago to stop being an ignoramus and learn more about MMA, and I think maybe they are unto something. Although I’m a true-blued karate-ka at heart, I think they do have fighting techniques and skills that I would also like to learn. Like the grappling -- and especially how to get out, since I’m a woman / single mother and might need some self-defence tricks to protect me and 3-year old son.

    What really gets me are Karate-ka’s and MMA fighters who immediately shoot each other down, just stupidly following their own misconceptions of the other’s sport/style/whatever. Don’t we all share the same passion when you really get down to it?

  4. Miguel Corsi

    April 12, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Great article Jesse-san! (as usual)
    But..
    I would like to share some thoughts that I had as I was reading the interview.
    Obviously, Alexander is a truly “killing machine”, the perfect blend of body and mental attitude; if I should fight with him, I’d prefer it would be in the playstation.
    Now, here again raise the question: What kind of activity would you suggest for your son/daughter, relatives or your son’s best friend? I mean, in the overall, long range advantages and disadvantages, TMA or MMA?
    During my weekend’s zapping I spend some minutes in the UFC channel and I really suffer watching those poor guys trying to annihilate each other (question: if you suffer, why you watch?) I am impress with the power of their knees, elbows and other (in) human weapons and always remember an Argentinean boxer, Nicolino Locche “The Untouchable” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolino_Locche)
    His electroencephalogram was used at University of Medicine in Buenos Aires as an example to show the damages that boxing elicit in the boxer’s brain. If Locche “The Untouchable” (similar to karateka Rafael Aghayev) had his brain so damaged, what we could expect from others boxers less skilled and more beaten during his careers? And without doubt, the force and devastating power of a uprising knee or mawashi geri in MMA is several times greater than a jab or hook.

    In short, my deep respect to all the brave man that have the guts to go into the octagon, but, let me remain a little detail: there is life (if you survive) after the fight. Are you willing to pay the price of an altered EEG? What are the benefits to expose to such risk?
    For me, any TMA with little contact is enough to grow as a person, the ROI (return of inversion) of practicing MMA does not justify such amount of blood and suffering.

    • Alessandro Timmi

      April 12, 2013 at 8:51 pm

      Miguel,
      I had exactly your same impressions and questions, but I believe that people who practice full contact disciplines in general, and particularly at these high levels, simply don’t think in this way.
      Long term consequences on health are not among their priorities! And about professional MMA, I think that money should be taken into account too when talking about ROI, not just the personal growth.

  5. Mark A

    April 12, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Excellent responses thus far.

    Gus is a beast, and it is a real shame about his getting cut in that last sparring session. I was pumped for the showdown with Mousasi. Two of the highest level strikers in the LHW division. Hopefully either that fight or the Machida fight happens. Lyoto has great takedown defense, so that fight could spend a lot of time on the feet. I think Gus has the tools to beat both.

    And karate-ka that have never trained in an MMA gym would be well served to do it in my humble opinion. It will dispel many of the negative stereotypes some have about them. The ones I have been in do not encourage meatheads and thugs anymore than you would in your dojo. They try to do exactly what most of you would do. I.E. humble them and try to help them become a better person through the training. And just like with many dojo, the ones that fail in it, will leave and go find the dirtbag place where money is all the owners/operators care about. It is not like we do not have karate dojo like that here in the U.S. AKA Cobra Kai syndrome.

    The positives you will extract from the experience may change the way you see your katas, as was keenly pointed out kai-ru. I boxed and kickboxed decades before stepping into one. But the Muay Thai, wrestling, Judo, and submission grappling have opened up whole new vistas. The physicality and full contact testing of the techniques fosters an Esprit de corps as intense as anything I have experienced in boxing gyms or dojo. Which means you will make some good new friends.

    Lastly, you are an Ambassador for your art, and can open some eyes to the benefits of karate training.

  6. Glauco

    April 13, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Nice interview Jesse San!

    Is interesting to see how this fighter thinks.

    His confidence is outstanding (Well may be too outstanding, beating Chuck Norris, c’mon nobody’s that good).

    It was also pretty shocking for me to read

    …we karatekas in general and karate nerds in particular have such a different mindset regarding our art. We don’t plan to quit ever, and realizing that for some people martial arts is something you do now and you won’t do anymore in a near future has been a little revelation.

    • Glauco

      April 13, 2013 at 7:08 pm

      oops i was trying to quote “No. Either I do MMA, or I don’t do MMA. If I quit MMA, I quit MMA. Coaching isn’t really my thing.”

  7. Mario Bonetta

    April 16, 2013 at 5:14 am

    Here is my 5c worth: Examinations of brains after concussion revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and progressive thinning of the brain bembrane which has been linked to memory loss, depression, personality changes, progressive dementia, and other serious illnesses.

    And one of the main goal in most combat sport is to concuss your opponent. (yes submission can be another goal)

    One of my student ask me once why I did not encourage full contact competition in my dojo.

    Well in MMA (and I coached some amateur karate full contact amateur fighters in the past) one get thought aggression, in Karate we teach control and restrain.

    plus in a tense situation in the street, due to his or hers competitiveness, a fighter is more prone to take on the challenge rather then walk away from it.

    For me ‘self victory is true victory’ .

    Having said that I fully respect fighter that, by making an informed choice, decide to keep fighting.

    PS. There is also the aspect of the usage of drugs and pain killers or steroids used to repair damaged tissue to keep in account when forming an opinion about full contact combat sports.

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