In case you haven’t noticed, the UFC’s middleweight division is in a little bit of disarray. And by a little bit, we mean ... oof ... it’s confusing up in there. Georges St-Pierre recently won the belt and nearly immediately surrendered it. Michael Bisping went from champion to considering retirement. Robert Whittaker - at the time of St-Pierre’s vacating an interim champion - was quickly promoted to divisional champ, and hey, that was good! Until he suffered a staph infection serious enough that he can’t even think about fighting right now (That was bad!).
So the UFC responded by creating an interim belt for Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero to fight over. On paper, it’s a tremendous and competitive fight between top contenders. But with the former’s injury issues and the latter’s age, the fight world is left to hold its breath and hope that they make it to UFC 221, and all of us feel that even though there’s only a few days until then, it’s no sure thing.
And then there’s Jacare. Oh, sweet, Ronaldo Souza, the black belt strangler with TNT fists who always seems to be in the mix without reaching the promised land. Now 38, Jacare is not just fighting Whittaker and Rockhold and Romero, but time itself. Long regarded as one of the best middleweights in the world, he took a leap back toward the championship mix on Saturday night, knocking out Derek Brunson in the UFC on FOX 27 main event with a head kick and punches.
Souza has reached the point of his career where every bout is a tightrope walk. Every fight is a must-win and any loss may send him tumbling backward into an unrecoverable position. As good as he’s been - and it’s quite overlooked he’s gone 11-2 since the start of 2012 - he has career losses to all of the men in front of him. He lost to Rockhold and Romero in controversial squeakers, and he was knocked out by Whittaker last April. The last of those losses (along with a long-ignored pec injury that required surgery) nearly drove him from the sport. He contemplated walking away for good.
It would have been so easy to scan to the top of the mountain he’d been knocked down from and swear off trying to summit it again, but instead, he did something radical. He moved from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Orlando, Fla. to start anew.
Saturday night, it was as if he was born again, at least from a contender’s perspective. If Whittaker remains indefinitely out, and Romero and Rockhold crown an interim champ on Feb. 11, suddenly the No. 3-ranked Jacare stands as the top available contender.
In what kind of division is this possible? One in which chaos is a regular participant. Jacare did it with a near-repeat performance over Brunson. The two first met in August 2012, with Jacare catching Brunson with a sharp right cross as Brunson charged forward. This time, Brunson did not fight as recklessly, but Jacare landed the high kick after setting it up by going low, low. low. The man with the reputation of a ground wizard is so much more, and if he retires without ever getting a shot at UFC gold, it’ll be a terrible shame.
After Saturday though, he’s back in position. It was a result he hardly could have foreseen last April when he lost to Whittaker and went under the knife, and a performance that should not be discounted in a division that grinded to a halt in the dying days of 2017. The matchup between Jacare and Brunson was the first UFC divisional matchup of 2018, and marked the first time any ranked middleweight hit the Octagon since Bisping and Kelvin Gastelum met last November 25, eight cards ago. With upwards of 10 fights on every card, that’s a legitimate drought.
The good news is that the middleweight machine has now started to rumble into gear. Jacare is on the board, and next week, Eryk Anders will attempt to crack the rankings against Lyoto Machida, and the week after that is—cross your fingers—Romero vs. Rockhold, and some clarity will (hopefully) start to emerge.
Maybe Jacare will get the winner of Romero-Rockhold or maybe he’ll get Chris Weidman (and that sounds super fun), or maybe it will be someone else entirely. Any which way, he’ll continue his tightrope walk on the way out the door. Having already contemplated retirement, Jacare knows he’s running out of road, and so do we. That immediacy raises the pressure and the stakes, and at least on Saturday night, he rose up to meet them.
I’ve often thought of Jacare’s fight game as elegant. He’s long and lean, and he has a style to everything he does, a finesse that makes him come off like a composer. At his best, he is not above the fray but still conducting it. In the chaos, he stands unruffled. He showed that again Saturday in his finishing sequence, an unhurried walk toward Brunson to put him away. It’s an enviable trait - the ability to slow things down when everyone else would rush - and one that will serve him well in the last days of his career. Right now, everything around him is swirling, yet he navigated his way back into the championship picture. Among the chaos, Jacare is at home. And in that home, he is always worth watching.