Preview: UFC 224 ‘Nunes vs. Pennington’

Souza vs. Gastelum


Ronaldo Souza (25-5) vs. Kelvin Gastelum (14-3)

Odds: Souza (-150), Gastelum (+130)

As Todd Martin righteously put it in his column “The Bottom Line” this week, “Jacaré” has been one of the best 185-pounders on Earth for some time now, but several key names on his resume remain conspicuous by their absence. He’ll tick one of those off when he battles Gastelum, a man best suited for welterweight but who - whether because of a lack of discipline or because his body won’t cooperate - cannot reliably make 170 pounds. To me, this is the most anticipated bout on the card. Two dynamic, finish-oriented middleweights with opposing styles clash for the right to - at worst - a number-one contender fight. The fact that the Brazilian hasn’t fought for a UFC belt despite being one of the three best grapplers in MMA history, a former Strikeforce champion and a perennial contender is tragic. At 38, this may be his last shot to right that wrong.

The Fusion X-Cel stalwart’s all-world grappling is predicated on crushing pressure. He couples that with thunderous ground-and-pound and a submission arsenal possibly even more lethal and inevitable than those of Demian Maia and Fabricio Werdum, the only men in MMA to rival him on the mat. And “Jacaré” has the wrestling chops to force the issue, particularly if he gets a hold of his opponent or sticks him on the fence. He has the strength to pin foes in place while he chains body lock, trip, and double-leg attempts together, and unless you’re Yoel Romero, you’re going for a ride when he gets his hands clasped under your hips.

He marries his dominance in that phase with a deadly standup attack that also runs on pressure. “Jacaré” doesn’t throw at a high rate, but his feints, shocking speed, and the threat of his wrestling make him effective. He digs front and round kicks to the body, sapping his opponent’s gas tank while moving him back to the fence and lowering his guard. He set Derek Brunson up with those kicks before going high for the knockout in their January rematch. Once his man is on the warning track, Souza will step in with sledgehammer punches or duck into a shot.

In his recent setback to soon-to-be-champion Robert Whittaker, Souza couldn’t corral the quick and agile former welterweight. Whittaker refused to stand in front of him. The Aussie stayed at long range, darting in with quick combinations or jabs before ducking and weaving away at an angle. The Brazilian was left swinging big single counters at air. Forced to follow the faster, superior boxer, “Jacaré” walked into shots and was caught off guard when Whittaker extended his combination beyond a strike or two. Even at his advanced age, the former X-Gym standout has a granite chin. Romero couldn’t finish him, and it took an increasingly one-sided beating from a powerful boxer to put him down. Even then, the finish was in dispute. But after eight minutes, the result was not. The Whittaker fight is particularly relevant when analyzing this one, as Gastelum has similar skill sets and advantages at middleweight as Whittaker.

Want a fact that will blow your mind? Kelvin Gastelum is still only 26 years old. He has been fighting in the UFC half a decade, has pounded multiple legends to dust, and is only just entering his physical prime. Maybe the notoriously violent sparring at Kings MMA will bring a premature end to that prime, but we are still nowhere near that point. And in the meantime, Gastelum is a composed and vicious puncher in the pocket. Like all the best Rafael Cordeiro students, the former TUF winner is a pressure fighter. Calmly bouncing on the balls of his feet, he extends his lead right ever closer on each successive bounce, batting down the lead left of his opponent. He then explodes through the remaining space with a right hook-left cross combination, his go-to against orthodox fighters. The Arizona native has felled several men with it, including Neil Magny, Vitor Belfort, Chris Weidman, and Michael Bisping. Gastelum is also a solid wrestler, both offensively and defensively, and a nimble scrambler. He has a brown belt in 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu under Eddie Bravo, and his rear-naked choke is a serious, imminent threat if he takes the back. But as we saw in his recent loss to Weidman, Gastelum’s wrestling and grappling are seriously hampered by his move up the scale to fight bigger, stronger men.

One reason I love this matchup is because we saw such similar iterations so recently. But there are levels to this game. Whittaker is a better version of Gastelum: a quick, varied, and powerful boxer with shutdown takedown defense. And Souza brings a better version of the attributes Weidman used to stifle and eventually submit Gastelum. Weidman might be a better pure pressure fighter, but Gastelum’s own penchant for pressure means “Jacaré” will not have to work too hard to get within reach. They are on opposite physical trajectories, but the style matchup plays to Souza too well, and he remains a physical specimen. The Brazilian faithful will do the alligator chomp, and “Jacaré” will add another submission to his ledger in the second round.

Continue Reading » Dern vs. Cooper
Related Articles


What should be the next UFC men's flyweight title fight?