A hurriedly assembled headliner for the ESPN event scheduled for Florida, Souza/Hermansson is nevertheless a bout that could leave an enduring impact on the middleweight ranks.
Originally scheduled to rematch Yoel Romero and briefly linked to a bout against Paulo Costa, ‘Jacare’ now draws an opponent who represents considerable risk without a great deal of reward. That situation isn’t anything new for the Brazilian (as seen by his enthralling series against Chris Camozzi); however, the situation is slightly different here, as Souza has allegedly been promised a title opportunity with a win on April 27. Whether that promise is upheld is a different question (as Tony Ferguson can attest), but it introduces stakes to this fight that Souza has been seeking for a while: a title opportunity after a professional career spanning almost sixteen years.
Jack Hermansson is in the opposite situation; “The Joker” has everything to gain from his first UFC main event against Souza, which was likely why he took the fight on short notice after both Romero and Costa proved unable to fight. Fresh off a sub-minute submission over a top-15 opponent in Philadelphia, Hermansson makes a quick turnaround to face the toughest opponent of his career and extend his win streak to 4.
Ronaldo Souza’s recent record is (at first glance) reasonably spotty, and somewhat undermines his claim for a title shot; with losses to Gastelum and Whittaker in his last five and a loss to Romero before that (as well as a Strikeforce loss to Rockhold), Souza has fallen short at moments pivotal enough to allow the UFC to continually deny him opportunities. Given that treatment, the most unfortunate part of Jacare’s UFC career has been the margin of those setbacks; apart from his fight against Whittaker, Souza’s losses have been close at worst and controversial at best. With Romero’s withdrawal from their scheduled rematch, Souza is in a familiar spot he occupied when he faced Camozzi and Boetsch; there’s no reason for him to be fighting down, but there’s no way for him to fight up. If Souza can beat Hermansson as convincingly as he beat those two, a title shot for ‘Jacare’ may finally be in the cards.
Souza is at his base an extremely capable submission artist, one of the finest that MMA has ever seen. Acknowledged as one of the best of all time even in pure grappling circles, Souza on top is generally the end of the fight for the vast majority of mixed martial artists. Souza’s grappling is generally focused on keeping his opponent on their back where he can work to mount; he can catch submissions on the way there (getting the armbar on Camozzi as Camozzi tried to turn into him, catching the guillotine on Mousasi as he tried to get up against the fence), he can get the submission from mount (the kimura on Boetsch, the arm triangle on Camozzi), or just sit up and punch (Belfort).
Historically, Souza’s issue is his wrestling; similar to other elite grapplers in MMA, Souza doesn’t always find it easy to get the fight into his strongest realm. In open space, in fact, Souza doesn’t have too many tools as a wrestler; he was able to time a kick from Boetsch to drive through him, but the majority of his takedowns come against the fence where he has time to work trips and shots. This makes pressure a necessity for Souza to access his primary skillset, and that’s an aspect of his game he’s cleaned up considerably over the last few years. In fact, in looking to become an effective pressurer to make it easier to submit people, ‘Jacare’ has become a dangerous striker. That has mostly centered on a powerful counter right hand (which cracked Kelvin Gastelum numerous times), but his last fight against Chris Weidman showed real improvement in his striking; Weidman did a decent job using the jab to draw and defend the counter right, but Souza started entering behind the left hook (particularly to the body) and it eventually wore Weidman down enough to allow Souza to flurry in the pocket and find the right hand for the finish. A usable lead-hand and a dedicated body attack is a clear development in Souza’s game, a rare sign of learning extremely deep into one’s career, and something for Souza’s future opponents to be very worried about.
Jack Hermansson’s game is a bit less cohesive, but it hasn’t stopped him from becoming an interesting middleweight prospect. Off a quick win over the veteran David Branch, Hermansson has a chance to become a legitimate top contender with a finish over ‘Jacare’.
Hermansson’s primary skillset is as a ground-and-pound specialist, and he’s gotten surprising leverage out of that. Hermansson is very good at using trips and throws from the clinch (as seen in his last two), but at times, he finds great positions just through his opponent’s mistakes; Gerald Meerschaert made the baffling decision to pull guard and try half-baked clinch throws that landed Hermansson on top of him (where Hermansson effortlessly passed guard), and Thales Leites pulled a guillotine and botched a sweep to give Hermansson a route to mount. Regardless, when Hermansson is in a dominant position, he’s an absolute menace; not only can he find great power in extremely short blows and mix between punches and elbows to find openings, he also has a solid guillotine that has finished two capable grapplers in a row.
On the feet, Hermansson is a bit of a mixed bag; he plays an aggressive game on the feet, but it falls apart a bit when his opponent is willing to press him. Hermansson isn’t a defined pressurer nor a defined outfighter, but prefers to float around in the open where he can play an outside kicking game most of the time. Hermansson’s footwork is bizarre to the point of awkwardness; he bounces around in a fairly long stance, but doesn’t really use it in a particularly useful way (except just to make his opponent uncomfortable, perhaps). The fight against Thiago Santos showed that Hermansson has real issues with sheer aggression; his reaction to Santos’ bumrush was simply to back up with a high guard, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a counter game. Despite his flashy looks on the feet, Hermansson seems like he lives and dies by his clinch/top game, but it’s a very good one.
Conclusions and Capping
The conundrum for Hermansson here is fairly clear; his game is functionally entirely reliant on getting the fight to the floor, but a grappler the tier of Souza makes accomplishing that difficult and trying it risky. If Hermansson gets on top, being able to pass the guard of Souza and consolidate a position to land strikes is likely to be a Herculean task, and a mistake in the clinch would lead to him being underneath one of the most capable grapplers in MMA history. Hermansson had enough trouble keeping Leites from submitting him that Souza probably gets the job done on top.
This wouldn’t be an issue if one could comfortably favor Hermansson on the feet, but that isn’t the case either. Souza isn’t as good a striker as he is a grappler, but Hermansson isn’t a sound-enough outfighter (in the sense that his footwork is mostly just large bounces) that he can be trusted to defuse Souza’s aggressive pressure. This becomes even more favorable for Souza given the improvements he showed in the fight against Weidman; body punching is likely to be a useful tool against Hermansson’s high guard, and Souza looked like a better pressurer than ever in that fight. Souza could hunt for the takedown, but it’s likely a far safer option for him to walk Hermansson down and look to land shots against the fence.
There’s a definite possibility that Souza loses this one; at 39, he’s on the clock, and Hermansson is extremely dangerous given the right opportunity. That said, the fight favors ‘Jacare’ fairly heavily, and he should be able to punch his ticket to a title shot with a win over a promising prospect.
Prediction: Souza via KO1. This writer caps Souza at -300.