“Most improved” is a tricky award, since it requires two evaluations instead of one; how good were they before, and how good are they now?
That means that the award could go to a little-known undercard fighter. After all, the men and women scrounging in the undercards are generally less skilled so notable improvements would be drastic. Should we give a year-end reward to a beginner whose improvements are gargantuan by comparison to the top dogs? Seems unfair to the elite of the sport. At the same time, what do we define “improvement” as? A fighter who was knocked out in the first round in one fight and then knocked out in the third round in the next has shown 3-fold improvement! And yet, losing less spectacularly can hardly merit a year-end award.
So after much debate, we settled on a fighter who has always been great but always fell short of a title shot. One who, in his last performance of the year, showed difficult skills that have eluded him his entire career. Who scored his most impressive victory to date over a hometown favorite.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
Hear me out.
Coming into the UFC, Jacare was the most terrifying middleweight in the world alongside Luke Rockhold. Despite low mainstream interest at first, Jacare rattled off five straight dominant wins. Three of those fighters were dragged to the ground and submitted. Yushin Okami was so worried about the takedown that he forgot about Jacare’s right hand and paid with his consciousness. Francis Carmont lasted the full three rounds but looked the most helpless out of everybody.
Then he lost a close contest to Yoel Romero. The monstrous Cuban Olympian sneakily proved himself to be the second best middleweight in the world, so no shame in that. Three fights later, Robert Whittaker knocked him out. Then Kelvin Gastelum out-pointed him. It seemed the Brazilian had crossed the hump of his prime. He’d built his career on an explosive takedown, excellent top game, and booming right hand. But first required strength and athleticism and the third is a one-handed offense. Age sapped his strength and time let people adjust to his power side.
The one-handed punchers are at a huge disadvantage because you always know which direction to circle. Roy Nelson is half the fighter he can be when a fighter circles to his left. Ex-welterweight champion Johny Hendricks suffered his worst career loss to date against Stephen Thompson, who continually circled away from his left hand until he dove and got countered. Whittaker completely neutralized Jacare on the feet by committing to defending the right hand.
Too set in his ways?
Jacare stood on the cusp of 40-years-old when he met Chris Weidman at UFC 230. He notched 25 victories, many over top-flight competition. And he barely changed throughout it all. No one can reclaim the athleticism of their youth through legitimate means. But developing a lead hand is almost as daunting.
A fighter’s natural stance places his weak hand in front and his strong hand in the rear. This gives the strong hand, which is more dexterous in general, time to build speed and power from the rotation of the hips. This lets the lead hand take care of jabbing, a (relatively) simple punch to perform on a basic level.
But lead hands are difficult to develop after a fighter’s ways are set. Imagine trying to learn how to write with your off-hand after almost 40 years of never doing so. Now imagine that, if you don’t do it well, the piece of paper you’re writing on punches you in the face.
Jacare had a great career and had he continued in his ways against Chris Weidman no one would have blamed him. But what came next was astonishing.
A new left hand
The first round went as predicted… for the most part. Chris bounced lightly on his feet, landing head shots with his crisp boxing while Jacare whiffed with huge bombs. And yet, interspersed, Jacare landed a few digging body shots with his left hand. It was a sign of things to come.
Throughout the remainder of the fight, Jacare showed two incredible left-handed punches.
The first was the aforementioned liver punch which he spammed from the second round onward. He’d dive forward with it, he’d counter with it when Weidman advanced and he’d fight in the clinch with it. And it landed with power over and over again. A particularly enlightening sequence came in the middle of the second round when Jacare and Chris initiated a clinch. Before Chris could mount any offense, Jacare immediately dug multiple left hooks to the liver. As he fought for position, Jacare swung him around and dug another hook and Chris left the clinch worse for wear.
The truly sublime punch, though, was the left intercepting hook.
Chris, quite intelligently, circled away from Jacare’s power right. But doing the same intelligent thing over and over again makes you predictable, and Jacare capitalized. On several occasions, Jacare met him with a razor-sharp left hook to the head. Chris felt it, even through his block. And all of a sudden the main anti-Jacare strategy went out the window.
Jacare did exactly what we thought Chris would do to him; weathered the early storm and wore him down. Weidman got slower over the course of the fight due to the body shots, even though they didn’t visibly hurt him. How can we tell? Because round by round, Chris had more difficulty getting away from Jacare’s punches.
The first round, Jacare couldn’t touch him with an overhand right. By the second round, the punches were landing but with enough time for Chris to roll with them. And in the final frame, he landed consecutive right hands that sent Chris staggering. When Jacare forced him to brawl, he had no energy to escape and staggered from fence to fence.
Replays, quite understandably, show the right hand that laid Chris out. What they don’t show is the punch that wobbled Chris, setting up the finishing sequence. Jacare dipped down, faked a right hand and cracked Chris cleanly with his left. Every punch after that was another word in an already written ending.
At 39-years-old, Jacare is twice the threat on his feet that he was in his prime. He developed a very tricky set of skills that, on short notice, was enough to dissect an ex-world champion. When he called for a title shot, people derided that he’d already lost to both men fighting for the title currently.
But this is a whole new Jacare.
A fight is like wood carving; multifaceted, beautiful and it'll leave you hurting if you get thrown into one. I have puns like perforated edges: tear-able.