The Turning Point: Souza vs. Lawler

By Chris Nelson Feb 1, 2011
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (top) vs. Robbie Lawler | Dave Mandel/

To those simply reading the result of Saturday’s Strikeforce middleweight title bout, it perhaps came as no surprise to see that multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza had submitted challenger Robbie Lawler. But the result told only half the story, as Souza was forced to take the long way home in defending his belt, and to implement a different sort of ground game than he’s known for.

One minute into the Strikeforce “Diaz vs. Cyborg” co-main event, following a twitchy feeling-out process, the two men tied up and Souza spun Lawler to the canvas with a high single-leg takedown. Lawler scored with a few short, stiff punches to the Brazilian’s head, but Souza soon moved effortlessly to side control on Lawler’s right. Balancing his weight across his foe’s torso, Souza seized up a kimura, went to north-south position and then just as easily switched to controlling Lawler’s left side.

In the midst of the BJJ black belt’s proverbial clinic, Lawler twisted loose, shrimped into Souza and scrambled to his feet. Souza tried to snare a guillotine, but could not find the proper angle and abandoned the hold as Lawler shoved him off. With the fight back in his domain, the brick-fisted Lawler walked straight at Souza.

Souza tried to keep Lawler at bay by flicking out a kick, but it whiffed, and Lawler rushed right in. A right hand clipped Souza behind the ear and sent the champion stumbling. An overhand right buckled the Brazilian’s legs, and a follow-up left sent him falling to his back. This, many had predicted, was how Lawler could claim the title: by using the wrecking balls attached at the ends of his arms to exploit Souza’s exploitable chin. All that was left to do was pound Souza out.

Instead of dive-bombing, however, or shucking the outstretched legs of Jacare and attempting to finish from the side, Lawler dove into the champ’s guard. The pace slowed instantly. Souza clung on, recovered and negated the space Lawler needed to thump on him. Ninety seconds later, the horn sounded. Lawler’s golden opportunity had passed.

Not long into the second round, Jacare dumped Lawler to the floor with a double-leg and got to work with right hands from half-guard. Souza passed to Lawler’s right and then clock-walked to the other side, striking with elbows to the gut and more punches to the face. Grappling class had resumed, but with a ground-and-pound twist.

After mashing Lawler for the bulk of the period, Souza went topside and grabbed for a leg lock. Even mounted backward atop Lawler, Souza connected as he swung his first behind him. Souza gave up the leg lock, stood and transitioned to an armbar as Lawler turtled. Lawler defended. Souza dove for another, and Lawler escaped again. The American had made it to the end of the round, but Souza had offered a glimpse of what was coming down the pike.

In the final frame, Lawler managed to stay vertical for 53 seconds before being taken down to Souza’s level. The champion shoved Lawler against the fence and drilled a knee into his ribs, causing him to stand and turn his back to the cage. Souza swept the legs from beneath his hunched opponent, took Lawler’s back and quickly sunk in both hooks. From there, it was academic, as Souza cinched up a stifling body triangle and then snaked his left arm beneath Lawler’s chin. With nowhere to go, Lawler was forced to tap to the rear-naked choke at 2:00 of the third round.

“All I had to do was use my game and do my ‘Jacare takedown,’ keep him down and finish the game,” Souza told’s TJ De Santis after the fight.

The champion’s tenacity and polished submission game may have won the day, but his powerful strikes on the floor were equally instrumental to his title retention. According to numbers from Compustrike, Souza out-landed Lawler 48-23 in total, with the Brazilian scoring on 42 of his 56 ground attempted strikes. The shots took their toll, marking Lawler up and wearing him down until he fell straight into the jaws of the gator.
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