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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Jones, Gustafsson rely on inner strength

By Franklin McNeil

Confidence is such a big part of a fighter's success. And every mixed martial artist will mention it before stepping into a cage.

It's no different with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and top contender Alexander Gustafsson. Both are beaming with confidence as they head into their UFC 165 title tilt Saturday night in Toronto.

But there is something less talked about by these two that is having a far greater impact on each man's psyche than confidence. It's their belief in divine intervention.

Jones and Gustafsson have fully prepared for the fight, with each speaking highly of his own training camp. Neither has a doubt that he is physically ready.

But being physically prepared isn't enough. Faith is proving to be key in determining the outcome of this fight.

Faith has guided Jones throughout his life. He points to his belief in God as the primary reason for his success inside the Octagon. And he is certain that God's plan for him as a mixed martial artist champion won't conclude Saturday night.

"I was praying the other night and thanking God, not only for what He's going to do in my life, in the future, but for what He has already done," Jones told ESPN.com. "Everyone wants to beat me, but my job is to continue to work very hard and pray -- that depends on God. The hard work -- that depends on me."

Gustafsson believes that becoming light heavyweight champion is his destiny. He doesn't mention God directly, but he believes Saturday night’s outcome has been ordained -- and he will be victorious.

"It's my time right now," Gustafsson said. "Everything happens for a reason. It's just my time; I feel it. Jon Jones is not winning this fight. I've never felt this good before -- physically, mentally."

While Gustafsson strongly believes fate is on his side, he hasn't taken anything for granted. His work during training camp was vigorous. Without offering specifics, Gustafsson spoke of doing things in this training camp that he'd never done before.

He says that every part of his game improved, and his training partners picked up the intensity during sparring sessions. Whatever we saw from Gustafsson in previous fights should be tossed away -- he will be a completely different and much better fighter Saturday night.

Jones won't know what hit him, according to Gustafsson. There is nothing the champion could have done to prepare for what he is about to experience in Toronto because he has never seen anything like this new Gustafsson.

Jon Jones & Vitor Belfort
UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, left, believes his faith has been the guiding force in leading him to the title.
"I've been pushing my body to a whole other level. I've been breaking records in camp," Gustafsson said. "I've been sacrificing too much and working too much to not win this fight. I'm taking that belt."

Despite Gustafsson's high level of confidence and faith, not many people are buying into it. He is the underdog, and you will be hard-pressed to find a person outside of Gustafsson's inner circle who expects him to defeat today's top mixed martial artist.

But Gustafsson couldn't care less what others think or believe. His mind is set. The hard work has been done. In his mind, his future as light heavyweight champion begins Saturday night. It's his destiny. At least, that's what Gustafsson believes.

"People are underestimating me. That's what they do," Gustafsson said. "Hopefully, Jon will do it, too. That's what I hope.

"But it doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter what people think. The only thing that matters to me is this fight coming up and winning this fight. It’s the only thing that I’m caring about. I'm feeling comfortable. I'm feeling confident, I'm feeling great. I can't wait."

Neither can Jones. He has been down this road many times. Every opponent believes he has figured out the way to solve Jones. Gustafsson is just the latest to get his turn at bat.

Jones is a dominant champion. Not quite yet on the level of boxing's Floyd Mayweather Jr., but Jones is headed there. Like Mayweather, Jones has gotten to the point of being so dominant that fans are flocking to his fights in hopes of seeing him lose.

"That’s going to be the case in any situation where you have a dominant champion," Jones said. "People are going to want to see you fall, but I really don't focus on that. I focus on the fans who want to continue to see dominance -- how far can this guy go, how much better can he get? That’s why I fight."