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For the better part of a decade, Ronaldo Souza has been one of the middleweight division’s best fighters. The jiu-jitsu master has developed dynamic striking and has a finisher’s mentality that has produced no shortage of impressive highlights. His fight with Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 224 on Saturday is representative of many he has had over the years, a compelling test for both competitors that should be one of the highlights of the card.
Unfortunately for “Jacare,” the fight with Gastelum is also reflective of his career in a less positive way. That’s because it’s an intriguing fight without clear stakes. Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker will fight next for the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight crown. If “Jacare” defeats Gastelum, it’s certainly possible he will receive the next title shot. He is the next ranked contender, and it feels like he should. However, that’s also far from assured.
Standing in Souza’s way even with a win over Gastelum is Chris Weidman. The former middleweight champion desires that opportunity, and Weidman is a bigger name than Souza in a promotion where matchmaking is increasingly governed by finances. Weidman also hasn’t fought Whittaker before while Souza has lost to both Romero and Whittaker -- albeit in a close split decision against the former. “Jacare” is close to the title shot, but he has been close plenty of times in the past.
Now 37, Souza’s career has been defined in some ways by which fighters he didn’t fight as much as which fighters he did. He never competed against friend Anderson Silva when “The Spider” was the biggest star in the division. He never took on the next champion in Weidman, either. Other top stars like Michael Bisping, Chael Sonnen and Lyoto Machida never fought him. “Jacare” did get to fight Vitor Belfort, but it was past Belfort’s prime. He fought Luke Rockhold before most fans figured out the true extent of Rockhold’s talent. “Jacare” still hasn’t received an Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title shot after all this time.
Meanwhile, “Jacare” in the UFC has somehow managed to rematch a fighter he already stopped in the first round on two separate occasions. He now holds two first-round UFC submissions over Chris Camozzi and two first-round knockouts over Derek Brunson, one in Strikeforce and one in the UFC. Those were fun, spectacular performances, but it still doesn’t feel like the best usage of Souza’s time when there were so many unrealized fantasy matchups.
Sometimes, a fighter will not get the most marketable opponents because he or she is perceived to be unentertaining to the masses. That certainly isn’t the case with Souza. He may not have the biggest personality, but he has five performance bonuses in 10 UFC fights. He’s a fun fighter to watch. It doesn’t feel as if the UFC has tried to avoid putting him in the biggest fights possible, either; circumstances have just worked out unfortunately and there have been other bouts that got the priority. It’s just unfortunate for fans that so many interesting fights involving Souza never happened.
In some ways, Souza’s resume more closely resembles that of a high-level boxer than an MMA fighter. He has fought plenty of quality opponents, and there’s no doubt he’s one of the best. At the same time, there are plenty of uncertainties and fights we never got to see. That’s just the nature of boxing with promoters that don’t work together and fighters that are more selective, but in MMA, we’ve come to expect that not too many major fights slip through the cracks. That isn’t the case with Souza.
Given Souza’s age and the ages of many of the other top middleweights of his era, there’s no way around the reality that the ship has sailed on many fights we never got to see. The rest of his career is likely going to be defined by the effort to win the UFC championship, not seeking out individual matchups. However, the fight with Gastelum is important on both fronts. A win is imperative if he is to receive a title shot in the near future, and Gastelum is arguably the most compelling fresh matchup that Souza has available to him. It’s not a No. 1 contender fight, but it’s closer to that than the vast majority of fights “Jacare” has had over the course of his UFC career.
Souza is favored against Gastelum, but this is a tough style matchup for the Brazilian. The most decisive loss of Souza’s recent career came against Whittaker, who in many ways mirrors Gastelum. They’re both younger, faster, smaller middleweights with quick hands. Whittaker’s path to victory was pretty much exactly what Gastelum usually tries to do against any fighter. Gastelum also has a wrestling background that will make it more difficult for “Jacare” to utilize his submissions. It’s the sort of challenge that will cement just how good “Jacare” remains if he is able to pull off the victory. With a win, we might finally get to see him compete for the title. A loss, particularly a decisive one, could solidify Souza’s legacy as one full of what ifs.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.