In this, the first edition of Pundit Arena’s Fighter Of The Week, we’ll be taking a closer look at the only competitor who managed to take home a finish at last weekend’s relatively flat UFC 208, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza.
It has been said on several occasions by the UFC’s colour commentator Joe Rogan that there are three Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in mixed martial arts today that stand way above all others, Demian Maia, Roger Gracie and Ronaldo Souza. Now with all due respect to the other two men mentioned, neither even comes close to the well-rounded and versatile skill set possessed by the man they call ‘Jacare’.
Ronaldo Souza dos Santos (24-4, 1 NC) is a native of Vila Velha in Brazil and from a young age, was exposed to the harsh and unforgiving nature of life in an area where crime was rampant. At 17, after moving to Manaus, he began to train in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, eventually gaining black belt status in both arts and earning five world titles in the latter.
With him already recognised as an elite BJJ competitor, his switch to MMA did not begin as many would have expected, as his undisciplined approach on the feet in his pro debut cost him dearly and resulted in him coming away with a 1st round KO loss.
Like many grapplers who make the move to the multi-faceted world of MMA, ‘Jacare’ learned in the most devastating of fashions that no matter how skilled you are on the mat, the fight still begins standing on the feet. After seven months on the sidelines, Souza returned and blasted his way to a ten-fight winning streak, winning nine by way of submission. The story of his early fights generally followed the same trend, ‘Jacare pressures from the get-go, gets the clinch, gets the trip, passes the guard with ease and finishes the fight’.
In his early days, nobody had an answer for Ronaldo’s fluidity on the mat and – a wild up-kick loss to Gegard Mousasi in DREAM aside – it wasn’t until he reached his first long-term home in Strikeforce that the holes in his game were made visible.
Joey Villasenor was known at the time as a good striker with very real knockout power in his hands and though he was no match for Jacare in the first round, the cardio of the Brazilian began to give in and for the first time, we saw Souza’s Achille’s heel in full view.
‘Jacare’s’ forward pressure is one of his greatest strengths on the feet, it’s a pressure that can be sustained by his opponent’s fear of the takedown but when his energy levels prevented him from getting the fight to the ground against Villasenor, we saw the tide of the fight turn dramatically.
‘Jacare’ went on to win the fight by decision, but for many, the bout served as a blueprint of how to defeat the decorated grappler. Unfortunately for everybody else, Souza worked tirelessly with the UFC’s former middleweight champion Anderson Silva to fine tune his striking and has since become a vicious and potent knockout artist. In the fights that followed during his time in Strikeforce, Souza went toe-to-toe with Tim Kennedy, Robbie Lawler and Luke Rockhold, and though Rockhold was able to negate the takedown and outclass him on the feet, each fight served as a major learning curve for the talented Brazilian.
What Jacare did that maybe the likes of Demian Maia hasn’t done, is adapt his game on the feet to compliment his skills on the deck. Now don’t get me wrong, Maia’s ability to successfully implement his game on the ground has definitely evolved over the years but in ‘Jacare’, you have a mixed martial artist who threw himself into the world of striking in a way that Maia just cannot match.
His sheer athleticism and natural punching power might be the reason behind this but for a man who came from a background that was purely in grappling, he’s since been able to stand and compete on the feet with some of the best strikers the middleweight division has had to offer.
That’s a scary individual right there.
Two early stoppage wins over Derek Brunson and Ed Herman paved the way for Ronaldo Souza to finally make his UFC debut and when he did, he did not disappoint. Two beautiful first round finishes and a tricky decision win over the relatively huge Francis Carmont paved the way for ‘Jacare’ to attempt to exact revenge on an old foe, the long-time veteran and supremely talented Gegard Mousasi.
What Souza did to Mousasi on that night was nothing short of masterful. It was his finest performance to date and despite Gegard’s fantastic submission defence, nothing over the course of the scheduled five rounds could stop the relentless ‘Jacare’ from locking in the guillotine and securing the victory.
The word ‘Jacare’ means alligator in Portuguese and in that one tight submission hold, you can see exactly why the name suits the man who bears it perfectly.
Souza’s growth on the feet has been widely documented and recognised at this stage but his abilities as a wrestler have improved just as substantially since his time in Strikeforce. His next loss, however, would be against a man who many have pointed to as the most decorated wrestler in the sport, Yoel “The Soldier of God” Romero.
It wasn’t a clear-cut victory or a domination and for some, the judge’s decision was slightly suspect but in truth, it was a relatively tame encounter in which Romero gassed himself out early looking for the finish and yet Jacare still struggled to impose himself on the tiring Cuban. Souza lost the decision on the night and with that, his shot at the middleweight title and for me, it was a matter of a few minor tweaks that he just didn’t make that cost him the fight. He was caught with a superbly well-timed spinning back fist by the freakishly athletic and erratic Romero and from there, seemed caught in a daze until it was simply too late.
Romero probably deserved the win and Souza – in a division as stacked as any on the roster – was forced to wait in line.
Two relatively easy Performance of the Night-winning first round finishes followed his first UFC loss, one over the Phenom Vitor Belfort and the other over the hardened veteran Tim Boetsch last weekend, and though these results had little to no effect on his standing in the 185lb division, they still kept the hungry and motivated ‘Jacare’ active.
If you look at Ronaldo Souza’s career as a whole – and more specifically his losses – the four times he has come away in defeat as an MMA fighter really haven’t detracted from his stature in any way.
Of course, his first ever pro-MMA bout against Jorge “Macaco” Patino saw him taste defeat for the first time. His inexperience in the sport at that stage is something we can forgive him for, though. His next came against Gegard Mousasi, a man he would later go on to dominate early in his UFC run.
A wild up-kick thrown by Mousasi connected cleanly with the chin of ‘Jacare’ and despite the lack of care taken by the Brazilian to avoid it, it’s another loss we can put down to things just not working out how he would have hoped. This is MMA and losses like these happen all of the time.
Luke Rockhold, the future UFC champion, handed Souza his third loss in pro-MMA and though at the time his flawless technique on the feet and takedown defence successfully nullified the BJJ specialist’s attack, I would argue that the present day Ronaldo Souza would give Rockhold a run for his money if they ever met again. His fourth and final loss came against Yoel Romero over three rounds at UFC 194, and to be honest, it just wasn’t ‘Jacare’s’ night and I’ll give credit where credit is due to the ‘Soldier of God’. A rematch over five rounds, however, could end up going very differently.
My point is that there is a very strong argument to be made that Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza is the greatest middleweight on the planet. Of course, he does have a pair of losses on his record given to him by two of the men above him in the official UFC rankings but on another day, he could very possibly have come away from each of those bouts with his hand raised.
At 37, time is most certainly not on his side but I would bet a considerable amount of money that some day in the not too distant future we will see him standing before us all with the UFC’s middleweight belt wrapped around his waist.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena