Like the last time the UFC booked a light-heavyweight main event, the more accomplished name in Sao Paulo’s marquee fight comes from 185 pounds; Ronaldo Souza, better known as “Jacare,” built an excellent resume at middleweight, his losses were few and the decisive ones much fewer, and he was in position for a shot at the title for a good while. Moving to a much weaker division is theoretically a good call for the aging legend with miles accrued from messy wars in his last three, but the 185-to-205 jump has been more treacherous for top-middleweights than the success of worse middleweights suggested; if Souza can make it work, it’s a brilliant move that’ll lead right into the title picture, but if he can’t, it’ll be a last gasp before irrelevancy.
It doesn’t help Souza’s situation that he’s facing Jan Blachowicz, a genuinely talented striker at light-heavyweight and a far cry from the easier 205-debuts of Santos and Smith (against, respectively, Kevin Holland and over-multiple-hills Rashad Evans). Blachowicz has won five of his last six, with the only blemish against Santos, and none of those wins were better than his last; the great middleweight Luke Rockhold made the move to light-heavyweight at UFC 239, only for Blachowicz to flatten him in two. A win against Souza would be another strong addition to his resume, and in a wide-open division, perhaps the push he needs for an eliminator or a shot at Jon Jones.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza enters the UFC Octagon (Getty Images)
As his career has gone on, the walkout of the Brazilian legend Ronaldo Souza has grown bitterly ironic; while it felt for a good while that his time would come in a matter of time, virtually all the circumstances seemed to conspire against him. His rise to the top coincided with Michael Bisping’s fantastic title win, which turned the top of the division into a parade of money fights, and he lost to the great Robert Whittaker while treading water; he lost questionable decisions to Kelvin Gastelum and Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold, stunting his upward momentum; right as the division cleared up and he had a clear eliminator lined up, Yoel Romero fell out of the fight, and Souza started to show his age against an unheralded Jack Hermansson. At this point, his title hopes are likely done, although he’s up with the best never to win a UFC belt; that said, he is in position to become an immediate and serious contender at 205, and it starts with overpowering Polish Power on November 16.
Souza’s famed forte has always been his grappling, but it’s gotten surprisingly little use at the elite level; like Yoel Romero, his fantastic credentials in a more specialized sport haven’t translated as well as many hoped against the top of the division. Where someone like Chris Weidman (a worse takedown-artist than Romero and a worse grappler than Souza) put together a dominant top-control showcase against a fighter generally regarded as elite in Kelvin Gastelum, both Romero and Souza’s theoretical A-games have turned more into contingency plans. That said, Souza’s problem at implementing his game is the opposite of Romero’s; for Yoel, the wrestling is pointless when the top-game isn’t really there, but for Souza, the issue is that his wrestling is too underdeveloped to work his great top-game consistently.
This is easily the most frustrating aspect of Souza’s game, and could be contrasted to the game of Demian Maia; where Maia has struggled as well with strong anti-grapplers, his game is built around either pressuring his opponent to the fence or forcing them into grappling situations with crafty chain-wrestling in the open, where Souza’s pressure game is less developed and his open-space wrestling is virtually nonexistent. To his credit, once he gets on top, he’s virtually unstoppable; beyond being a prodigy like Robert Whittaker, the best case for being under Souza is dropping a round (Gastelum) and the worst case is being utterly destroyed (Belfort), with a submission loss somewhere in the middle. That said, his wrestling is limited mostly to working against the fence, which means that his fights are won or lost on the quality of his opponent’s footwork on the outside.
The good news out of all of that is that Souza has turned into a better overall fighter because of it, even if his game doesn’t funnel into his area of strength very well; with no hope of taking down a wrestler like Weidman, or struggling to keep the pace deep into his late-career fights with Gastelum and Hermansson, Souza has shown a functional striking game that improved dramatically in the last year or so. A fairly simple right-hand counterpunching game arguably won him the Gastelum fight (where Gastelum committed to pushing a pace but couldn’t do much without Souza smashing him with an overhand every time he stepped forward), and the addition of a left hook to the body has given him tools to cut his opponent off both ways and play his threats off each other. Souza’s aggression and his bodywork pulled the fight back against a sharp Chris Weidman, and almost did the same against Jack Hermansson in his last fight; he’s getting old and his game is limited, but he has a few tricks to make life hard for an opponent who isn’t as sharp as Robert Whittaker, and he remains a tough out with his heart alone.
The Prince of Cieszyn
Considering that he could’ve been called the best boxer at 205 for a good bit of time (especially since he outboxed Alexander Gustafsson), Jan Blachowicz was stuck in the sub-elite for longer than he should’ve; he’s been a respectable fighter for long enough that he’s always seemed a bit relevant, even with bizarre losses (such as to Patrick Cummins), but he also never got the wins that he needed to be in the elite tier of contenders. This essentially left him as the man who proved whether someone else was elite; when Alexander Gustafsson needed a comeback that wasn’t too dangerous but also wasn’t a pushover, Jan was the one to call, and the same when the relentlessly active Thiago Santos needed a way to a title shot. The latest one of those backfired, though; Luke Rockhold was a decent favorite over Blachowicz, as a former champion who was expected to look better at 205, but Blachowicz knocked him out and has now found himself on the title-track. With Dominick Reyes ahead of him and perhaps Corey Anderson as well, he’s not quite in a spot where he can wait it out for a shot; a win over Souza could put him in that area, or net him an eliminator.
Blachowicz isn’t a particularly versatile boxer nor even all that good at boxing compared to lower divisions, but his game is more thoughtful and cohesive than the average light heavyweights; he generally knows what he does well, and his game is one built for sustained success that builds through a fight. Where Blachowicz has improved is mostly with his jab; Blachowicz can rack up volume while staying safe with his jab, and it keeps him in strong position if his opponent looks to time him (which is rare, because light-heavyweight has about one competent counterpuncher and he hasn’t faced Blachowicz). The best showing of Blachowicz’s jab was likely against Jared Cannonier, a win that’s gaining more prominence with the Alaskan’s success at middleweight; Blachowicz was able to play the backfoot well in that fight, as he was able to run Cannonier onto the jab over and over. As the fight progressed, Blachowicz started to build off the reactions he drew; feinting the jab to draw the parry and landing a 2-3 around it for a knockdown, and repeatedly playing with the left hook as a complement to the jab as Cannonier looked to slip or parry it, as well as the jab-and-shoot. It started to fall apart as Cannonier pressured a bit more aggressively and keyed on the cross-counter, but the showing was strong overall.
The rest of Blachowicz’s offense is more potent than the jab, but also makes clear why his jab was so refreshing to begin with; Blachowicz works almost entirely in shifting flurries past the first shot, and it left him getting check-hooked by Santos even as it gave Alexander Gustafsson some serious trouble. This isn’t an absence of craft, to be entirely fair; Blachowicz has done some interesting things with his non-jab arsenal before, such as the uppercuts he found on Manuwa to chain into combinations and the running body-kick that finished Ilir Latifi as he backed away, but it benefits immensely from having something to throw when he isn’t looking to throw his weight behind every shot.
Blachowicz is a fine grappler, especially on top (which is where he finished Nikita Krylov), but the bigger problem is his wrestling; his rushing sort of style left him open to reactive takedowns from Gustafsson which lost him the fight when he was winning on the feet, and his bottom game looked fairly inert in that fight. His wrestling looked fairly strong in his last fight against Rockhold, ultimately clattering him on a clinch break, but Souza is a tougher test in that respect.
Conclusions and Capping
One of the better fights that LHW has created in the last few months, not least because Souza’s physical decline hasn’t really been marked by extreme fragility (unlike Rockhold and Weidman); he’s still there and has survived wars in his last two, so this fight has the potential to be a fairly attritional one. Blachowicz’s shifting rushes do put him in danger against a competent counterpuncher, and Souza is that (moreso than nearly any light-heavyweight); he isn’t the most nuanced but can time rights, and Blachowicz was caught running clean into the fight-ending counter from Santos. Blachowicz also hasn’t faced a body-puncher as strong as Souza nor a particularly strong pressurer in quite some time, and the trouble that Cannonier gave him pushing forward and countering aggressively is something that Souza could replicate as he did against Weidman. The ground is likely as close to an instant win-condition as Souza is likely to find, and while he isn’t a particularly strong reactive takedown artist the way Gustafsson is, it’s worth mentioning that Rockhold was able to push Jan back and work takedowns against the fence fairly early into his fight against Blachowicz (Rockhold is just not that good at them, where Jacare is competent). There’s a strong possibility that Souza simply pressures Blachowicz and destroys him.
That said, Souza has definitely still declined physically, in the sense that his heart seems to have taken the place of his cardio, and he’s gotten hurt noticeably in each of his last three fights (Gastelum and Hermansson dropped him, Weidman staggered him in the first round). The middleweights with mileage simply haven’t fared well at a weight-class so defined by physicality as light-heavyweight, and it’s a trend that likely continues; a strong outside-kicker with a good check-hook is a bad fight for a blitzer like Blachowicz on paper, for instance, and yet Rockhold just looked awful off a layoff and up a weight-class. For all of Blachowicz’s faults, he’s a fairly durable fighter who can keep a better pace than the average light-heavyweight at this point, and unless Souza gets it to the ground, he can’t really be trusted to do the same. Souza has even gassed in fights where he’s been in full-control up to that point, such as against Gastelum, and Blachowicz can keep him working after he hits that point (which is still dangerous, as the Gastelum fight showed, but not as dangerous). Souza might be more skilled, but Blachowicz probably has a better chance of surviving a tough early portion and taking over on volume, where he can needle Souza with the jab and kick his body a lot. Favor Blachowicz to become the Strikeforce killer.
Prediction: Blachowicz by TKO4. This writer caps Blachowicz at -160.[forminator_poll id=”24625″]
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.