The Jacare Experiment Nears Its Conclusion
When he left the submission grappling game at the spry age of twenty eight, Ronaldo Souza was already considered among the best to ever compete. From 2001 to 2005, Souza had climbed from purple belt to black and medalled in both his own weight class and the absolute division at the worlds every single year. He held victories over Roger Gracie, Marcelo Garcia, Demian Maia and other great names, and yet he was walking away to fight instead of attempting to settle his case as the “greatest of all time” on the mats. Still in his athletic prime and at the height of his powers, Souza seemed set to answer the question: just what can a true grappling savant do if he devotes his time fully to training in the cage?
Souza had dabbled with fighting since 2003, when he lost his first bout to vale tudo legend “Macaco” Patino. But it was after he cut ties with the world of competitive jiu jitsu that Souza began to show his true potential. He threw himself wholeheartedly into striking and quickly found that he had the power to blast most opponents into unconsciousness with one good punch. Every time he turned up in the cage he seemed to be trying something new with his surroundings. Against Bristol Marunde he was jumping off the fence to drag Marunde off his feet.
Against Chris Camozzi he used the fence to literally walk over Camozzi’s guard. Though even the formidable Gegard Mousasi’s guard was no match for the tripods, knee slides and back steps of Jacare. When Mousasi scooted to the fence to build up, Souza snapped up his guillotine. And the kimura that he caught on Tim Boetsch and almost finished on Mousasi earlier in that fight both came out of the same commonly seen wall sitting position.
From his Strikeforce debut in December 2009 until December 2015, Souza fought thirteen times and lost just once in a decision against the Strikeforce champion, Luke Rockhold. Souza took eight of those fights after he met Rockhold and only one made it to the scorecards. After his UFC debut, Souza looked unstoppable—a wild beast set loose on a division of guys just there for sport—and then in December of 2015 he met Yoel Romero.
Wrong Side of the Cards
The development of a fighter can be summed up in the thousands of hours that he spends on the mats, under the bar, and out pounding the pavement. Boiled down to the basics a fighter is built from rounds, pounds and miles. And that is why the fight game is so wicked: all of those hours of painstakingly gradual, grinding improvement to make the next week a little better can be overturned by split second happenings and coincidences.
On the small scale—Souza’s fight against Yoel Romero was won and lost on a chance back fist, thrown off a missed kick, that Souza ran onto in the first round and which Romero capitalized on. A split second chance in a fight in which almost nothing else had happened. Souza did enough to come back from that and win the second and third round on many fan and pundit scorecards, yet it was Romero who received the victory from the judges in a split decision.
One interesting note from that bout was Souza’s insistence on holding the half guard even as Romero opened his legs and practically begged Souza to pass. So much of Jacare’s best work has come from the top of side control of even knee-on-belly (he is one of the few to use it to any extent in MMA), yet he was so aware of the need to keep Romero controlled and not give him the chance to explode up to his base.
Ronaldo Souza also shows how fighters are victim to timing and coincidence on the larger scale over their career. He fell victim to the shake ups of the middleweight division. Perhaps if he had won on that judges decision against Romero he could have gotten the shot at the UFC belt that has always eluded him but his old foe, Rockhold lost the middleweight crown in a shocking upset to Michael Bisping (who came in as a replacement on short notice), and then Georges St. Pierre re-emerged on the scene to complicate things further. The Romero fight will probably be remembered as the watershed on Ronaldo Souza’s career, but Jacare went on to suffer a far more convincing and lopsided defeat against Robert Whittaker, and then found himself in barnburners against Kelvin Gastelum and Chris Weidman—taking serious lumps in both fights.
Starting Too Fast
So it seems like the Jacare experiment is nearing its conclusion. The early results were pretty incredible: his ideas in the cage, his style of passing, his pursuit of submissions from the top, and the discovery that he had knockout power were all indicators of possible greatness. Then there were touches of savvy even on the feet: he has always valued attacking the body and does so with a great front snap kick and heavy punches. However, at some point the pace of improvement slowed to a crawl and there are now large areas of Souza’s game that just aren’t where they need to be to beat the absolute best fighters in the sport. Let us open the can of worms that is Jacare’s takedown game.
One of the interesting comparisons in the middleweight division is that between the two genetic freaks of the class—Jacare and Romero. Romero is often likened to a big cat: always able to generate absurd power with a degree of grace, out of seemingly off balance positions. He is almost lethargic at many points in the cage, until he needs to pounce for a well timed double leg, hit a foot sweep, or leap into a majestic flying knee. Souza is far more wooden in his movement and obvious in his approach, but you could not find a more fitting nickname that ‘Jacare’, the crocodile. Souza’s shots are low and long and he will often grab onto just the end of a foot. Who shoots low singles in modern MMA? Shoot a takedown on any great counter wrestler and their goal will be to force you down their leg towards that low single which is a nightmare to hold with no shoes and sweaty bodies.
Souza’s shot is almost a wrestler’s impression of a jiu jitsu practitioner, exaggerated for comedic effect. He doesn’t change level and drive in, he flings himself to the floor at his opponent’s feet.
Yet tenacity is what makes Jacare. Like the crocodile, Souza isn’t letting go, and he will drag himself up onto opponents from the sketchiest of initial controls. Even the great Romero—a world class wrestler for over a decade—was surprised at just how doggedly Souza can pursue the takedown off these desperate shots.
(Romero’s willingness to foul for the slightest advantage also separates him from Souza)
When Souza got Kelvin Gastelum on one leg and couldn’t complete the takedown, he did what Shinya Aoki used to and jumped into a leg reap. When Gastelum slipped the knee and tried to slither out, Souza came up on top.
But for the most part, against the truly elite, tenacity doesn’t make up for a lack of trickery. One of the key differences between Jacare and Romero is the amount of deception that Romero invests in. In analysis we often speculate that the jab-and-shoot doesn’t work as well anymore and that fighters should be investing in other ways to set up their takedowns, but Souza doesn’t even pretend to jab before he dives at his opponent’s ankles. Against men like Whittaker and Gastelum all it did was tire him out. Romero sets up his strikes and takedowns, and picks his moments, Jacare is hopelessly honest. It has been the same counter right swing, a few body shots, and diving desperately after that shot for years and it has never gotten any cleverer. It is almost as if he thinks lying to the opponent would be unsporting.
In fact this clip pretty much sums up the Whittaker fight. Every time Whittaker jabbed he would beat Jacare to the punch and immediately shoulder roll the same counter right hand Jacare has used since his Strikeforce run.
Against Chris Weidman, Souza at least made some nods to working on his boxing. His head was more mobile and his guard was less porous, but he was still at the mercy of Weidman’s straight blows for most of the fight. The change came when Souza began biting down on his mouthpiece and stepping deep to land good left hooks to the body, but again it was tenacity more than deception that got Jacare in close enough to do this, and one of those options costs brain cells.
Happenstance and timing have denied Jacare again in this most recent match up. He had stepped in to fight Yoel Romero in that long awaited rematch when Paulo Costa pulled out. This time it was for five rounds and Souza might have the time to finish the fight that was turning in his favour last time around. But much to Souza’s chagrin, Romero pulled out of that fight citing pneumonia. So instead Ronaldo Souza now meets Jack Hermansson, an up and comer but a man who is generally not considered to be Souza’s peer in accomplishment or skill. Hermansson has all kinds of problems with easily conceding takedowns and position on the cage, and we have touched on his tendency to leave his elbows out on the ground in A Filthy Casual’s Guide to Jack Hermansson, but he has recently been making a name for himself with a seated arm triangle from the front headlock. Most indications suggest this should be another nice finish on the highlight reel for Jacare, but if there is one thing Souza does in shooting so long, low and naked it is offer up the front headlock.
Whether Hermansson gets blown out or pulls the upset, this fight simply represents more sand slipping through the hour glass for Souza. The only man to decisively beat him has gone on to win the middleweight crown. Gegard Mousasi—who failed to mount a minute of offence when Souza mauled him back in 2014—has slinked off to Bellator and is now touted as some kind of alter rex. Romero is considered the baddest middleweight on the planet not named Whittaker. Everything moves on around Jacare, and yet he remains in place—still a monster but one stuck treading water.