Family Matters: High Stakes Behind the UFC's Shogun Rua vs. Alex Gustafsson Bout

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 7, 2012

Shogun Rua. Courtesy of
Shogun Rua. Courtesy of

Last year Alexander Gustafsson, a kid from Aborga, Sweden—a town of just 10,000 souls famous for almost nothing at all in its 900 years of existence—found himself on a luxury boat. In America. Celebrating a beautiful summer day in California with several dozen people, including some attractive ladies.

Gustafsson, however, then a young fighter low on the UFC totem pole propelled by big dreams of championship gold, had eyes for only one person. Also in attendance? Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.

The same Rua who had beaten Quinton "Rampage" Jackson like a drum. Who had won the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. A legend, at the time not yet 30 years of age. Gustafsson was a bit shell shocked.

"Alex was just beside himself," Bad Boy CEO and owner of the aforementioned boat Robin Offner said in a recent interview. "He was happy to get to know Mauricio. And there's extra pressure on Alex right now because he's fighting a guy who was his hero for so many years."

The pressure, of course, extends to Bad Boy. The apparel company, which specializes in technical clothing designed to withstand the rigors of fighting and training, has a long-standing relationship with both men. When the two meet in the cage of Fox, just the second time that's happened in the company's decade plus relationship with the fight business, Offner and his close-knit team will be torn.

"We hate it," Offner admitted. "I always equate it to a mother with two children. And a tsunami comes. Which one of the two do they save?"

It's a strange analogy, at least on its face. But to understand where Offner is coming from, you have to understand him and the business he's built with his sister and partners over the last couple of decades. Bad Boy is different. They see themselves as a family, sponsoring only a select few fighters in relationships that tend to last for years, not the month-to-month deals that infect the rest of the industry. And in stark contrast to their name, they recruit only solid citizens, good guys who aren't likely to end up on TMZ or pictured in a blurry-eyed, 3 a.m. mugshot after a few too many.

When Offner compares Gustafsson and Rua to those poor fictional tsunami victims, it's because they are like a part of his clan. When Alex comes to San Diego to train with coach Eric Del Fierro at the Alliance Gym, he stays on Offner's boat, the same one from which he once sneaked peaks at Shogun.

"He lives there every time he's in town. He uses one of my cars. He comes and he barbecues with us," Offner said. "Alex is such a treat."

And the relationship between Offner and Rua? Amazingly is even closer. The two have been partners for years. They've celebrated together after ascending to the peak of professional success, Skyping Rua's wife thousands of miles away in Brazil to share the good news. He's seen Rua grow from man child to a family man, from challenger to champion. Into a bonafide legend, an eventual Hall of Famer.

Rua, to many fans, remains an enigma. We've seen him fight at the highest level for years, but we have never really gotten to know him the way we have others in the sport. Whether it's a language barrier or an inclination toward privacy, what we know about Rua is centered mainly around his fighting skills and the incredible array of tools he uses to hurt other men very badly. But this natural fighter is also a family man and, according to Offner, 31 going on 13.

"We took a bunch of the fighters to a San Diego Chargers game and some of the Chargers wanted to meet the fighters and they wanted to meet the players," Offner said. "So there's this area of the parking lot that's reserved for the players and they meet with family and friends after the game. So, we're hanging out in the parking lot waiting for the players to come out and I look around and go 'Where's Maurio and Fabricio Camoes?' And we eventually find them and they are on the ground wrestling around.

"Maurico is a big kid. He's like a 12 year old. He's playful, he's kind, he's thoughtful. He's the guy, we'll go out to dinner and we'll spit spitballs at each other. There's such a dichotomy. He's such a killer inside the cage, but he's so gentle and sweet outside of it."

It's these kinds of relationships that make it hard, that have split the worldwide Bad Boy family of retailers, fighters and fans into competing groups.

"My goal in this is to not have feelings. Because, especially with Mauricio's fights, I get so charged up," Offner said. "I get so animated and his fights are always so exciting. I'm not much of a screamer or yeller in life, but with Shogun's fights I end up finding myself jumping up and down and screaming when I see them."

It's especially hard because, in many ways, the bout represents the company's past taking on its future, with the biggest prize in the sport within the winner's grasp. UFC president Dana White announced that the winner would get a shot at the light heavyweight title. For Rua, that would mean a return to the top. For Gustafsson it would be the culmination of a dream.

"There is a lot of truth that this is the past versus the future. Shogun has been the face of Bad Boy for a lot of years. And he has a lot of fights left in him," Offner said. "But we expect Alex to be with us many, many years into the future. I think that Alex, who's just 25, will be fighting many years after Shogun has retired. Do we root for the guy that's been the heart and soul of our company and part of our family for years? Or do we root for the guy who is potentially going to be the future face and next champion for Bad Boy?"

Gustafsson''s star is certainly on the rise. No less an expert than light heavyweight champion Jon Jones has pegged him as a potential title contender, a rapid change in status for a fighter who one year ago was competing on the deep prelims, the undercard that precedes even the opening fights on pay-per-view. These were the bouts going on while much of the crowd is still looking for their seats or gulping down their first beer. Now Gustafsson will compete in one of the main fights of the evening.

"I remember taking him to his first UFC Fan Expo and he was a complete unknown. We would walk through the hallways and he said 'Nobody even recognizes me.' I told him 'Alex, enjoy it now while you can, because it won't last long.' Nobody knew him," Offner said. "We've seen him go very quickly from anonymity to fame. And what's great about Alex is that he has not lost his humility at all.

"At the last Fan Expo we did, people were lining up. He did his autographs in the morning and he came up to me after he was done and asked 'would you mind if I came back in the afternoon and signed more autographs?' He's so humble and so sweet."

For Shogun, this is just another fight.

"He's a good fighter," Rua said simply, talking to the press before the bout. "Top five in his class."

Picture nonchalance. Then take it down a notch. It's a major fight, sure, one broadcast coast to coast on national television both in America and his native Brazil. But he's been doing this for a decade. There will be no nerves. He will go to the cage and do his work.

For Gustafsson it's a huge jump in competition—his first bout with a former champion. That it's his idol has driven him to ramp up his already-intense training to new heights.

"It's a natural difference between two guys in different places in their careers," Offner said. "Mauricio, he was Pride champ. He was the UFC champ. He's had so much notoriety, so much fame. He's got a lot more going on in his life than just training for the UFC. He's very, very famous in Brazil.

"Alex is more single minded. He told me two months ago 'Every night, I go to sleep and I dream about this fight.' He's obsessed with it."

In his media appearances Gustafsson has looked nervous, off balance. This is the biggest fight, by far, of his young career. He confirmed it's been on his mind for some time after his open workout earlier this week.

"I've been thinking about it for a long time now," he said. "And I've visualized it. Things and situations. He's a beast, but I'm ready."

When the cage door closes, Offner will be in the crowd. He attends all of his fighter's bouts, all over the world. But this one will be different.

"We'll experience the sorrow with whoever loses," he said. " But I can't see myself experiencing the elation of the winner."


All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.