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Ronaldo Souza makes his light heavyweight debut against Jan Blachowicz in November.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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‘Jacare’ Souza opens up about mental health issues that almost led to retirement

Ronaldo Souza went radio silent after his last UFC loss in April, and there’s a reason for that.

One of the toughest middleweights in the game, “Jacare,” was burned out. A jiu-jitsu legend who has never had the opportunity to challenge for a UFC belt, the Brazilian considered calling it quits. He did not train for months. And when he decided to finally go back to the gym and put gloves on, it was only to help his friend Rodolfo Vieira, who was preparing for his UFC debut, and he broke down in tears.

“Three months ago, I was crying on my way to the gym, tears would come out of my eyes and I didn’t know why,” Souza told MMA Fighting. “‘What am I doing, man? I’ll stop fighting, I don’t want this for my life.’”

Souza’s life started to change when he decided to listen to his wife and visit a psychologist. The tough-guy mentality that refused to admit he had an issue was gone, and he was a new man.

“Jacare” will finally re-enter the Octagon on Nov. 16, this time as a light heavyweight. Competing at 205 pounds for the first time in his MMA career against Jan Blachowicz in the main event of UFC Sao Paulo, Souza opened up in his first interview in months to discuss his mental health, the next steps of his career, and much more.

Guilherme Cruz: You and your team have discussed the idea of moving up in weight years ago. How did that happen now?

I wanted to get a tough opponent and there was no one available in my weight class, only guys outside the top 10, and all of a sudden the possibility of moving up presented itself. It’s also a way to avoid the stress of cutting weight and trying something different, right? I’ve always fought well against bigger guys. I’ve always won more openweight titles than in my weight class in my jiu-jitsu days. I thought it would be a good idea to try. I do well against bigger, stronger guys. I’m also glad to see that the UFC trusts me because they gave me this opportunity to move up in weight against a super tough guy. I’m glad the UFC trusts me like that.

This is far from an easy fight. Moving up to 205 was something you suggested, or did the UFC come to you with that idea?

No, my team and I discussed this. Andre Pederneiras is my new manager now and he loved this idea as well. As soon as I talked to the UFC, they loved it and offered me this fight.

They gave you this super-tough opponent who’s ranked No. 5 in the division. What are your thoughts on him as a matchup?

I think it’s excellent. He’s not an easy fight for anyone, everybody knows that, and I think it’s a good way to test myself at light heavyweight.

How do you think this weight change will affect your performance and your game?

I think that not having that stress of cutting weight will help me a lot. I think that’s it, not dealing with the stress of cutting weight.

How much do you weigh right now?

211, 213 pounds.

Do you plan on staying at that range or moving up a little bit? What’s the idea?

The idea is to stay the way I am now. There will be no gaining weight or anything like that, it’s about staying natural. I won’t have any food restrictions and that’s great. That’s basically it. It’s going to be great for me.

Are you moving to light heavyweight definitively, or does it depend on your performance and how the fight goes?

Souza would return to middleweight for a rematch with Gastelum.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Oh, I don’t know. This is too new for me. I’m still getting used to it. I have this fight now… Right now I don’t know what the future holds for me, how things will go. I don’t know. I have the intention to go back to my weight class, yes. I wanted a rematch with Kelvin (Gastelum), my last opponent (Jack Hermansson). Now that I’m fine, no stress, no anything. I like rematches, I always win rematches, and I would love to have a rematch with those guys.

It’s kind of a trend right now to see middleweights moving up to light heavyweight. What are your thoughts on that? In the past, fighters used to think that the more weight they cut the better it would be for them on fight night, and now they prefer to take a healthier route.

I think that it’s not good for us, physiologically speaking, to cut so much weight. We start to feel it as time goes by. I think that’s why many move up in weight. When you’re young you don’t feel the weight loss that much, you recover well, go there and fight. Your body reacts faster. But when you’re doing that for such a long time, I don’t think that’s an advantage. Maybe I’m talking crap here, but I think that’s why many move up in weight.

You’re entering the division in a main event in Brazil against a top-5 opponent. Jon Jones is a dominant champion and there aren’t many challengers available for him right now. Actually, many people thought that Blachowicz would be next for him. What does a win over him means for you in terms of title aspirations?

Well, I don’t even know what to say [laughs]. First, I have to win. To me… I don’t know. It’s so crazy that this happened. Many people used to think that the UFC screwed me over and all that, and this time they gave me this opportunity. I don’t even know what to say. I have to go there and win. I’ll think about that later. I’m too focused on winning, you know? It’s basically what I’m thinking and doing right now. I’m training to win.

The fact that this is a five-round fight, how do you think your body will react to that? You’ll be carrying more weight, but you won’t have to suffer cutting weight.

Like I said, I’m almost 40 and I feel healthy, but the weight cut was affecting my body. It will be different this time. I won’t have to cut too much weight. We’ll see. Like I said, I’ve always won more openweight tournaments, so that could be a good thing for me.

How do you see yourself at this stage of your career, entering a new challenge at almost 40? You’ve always fought the best at Dream, Strikeforce and the UFC, and now you’re embarking on literally a bigger adventure at light heavyweight?

Man, I was thinking about stopping (fighting). I had a psychological problem, I was burned out. I would drive to the gym and cry in the car and say, ‘Man, what am I doing going to the gym?’ My wife found a psychologist for me, I’m working on that once a week, and that has helped me a lot. I’m super happy with the opportunity of going back to fighting, I’m happy and excited and training like never before. There are a lot of good things happening in my life. Three months ago, I was crying on my way to the gym, tears would come out of my eyes and I didn’t know why. ‘What am I doing, man? I’ll stop fighting, I don’t want this for my life.’ And all of a sudden things were new again. I have the opportunity to headline a card, I’m excited again, I’m training, you know? ‘Dede’ Pederneiras has been phenomenal, he’s helped me a lot as well. I have no words for him. I already admired him before and now that we’re working together I admire him even more.

Were you able to identify, through this psychological work, what was the cause for all that stress?

It’s something that I won’t mention, it won’t be positive for anyone if I mention that, but we’ve identified it. Everyone has problems. Where I came from, if someone told me I was having psychological problems I would say, ‘Brother, this guy is crazy. Are you eating crap?’ I would say something like that [laughs]. I have no problem talking about it, I think it’s actually good so people identify that as well. Some people think that those who kill themselves are the ones who have problems, and that’s not cool.

Was that problem related to your career, like losses, for example, or something in your personal life?

Honestly, I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to say that my family has helped me a lot, my wife helps me a lot, and that’s what helped me get back up. My wife was the one who found this psychologist for me. I told her, ‘Are you crazy? Why am I going to talk to a psychologist? I’m not crazy.’ And that was the best thing I’ve ever done, to accept it and work on it.

Do you regret not doing that before?

No. I don’t think I needed it before, but sometimes we need.

When did you turn on that switch and feel good enough to come back to MMA?

Man, I didn’t train for three months after my fight, and I didn’t want to train. When I went there to help Rodolfo… I would only go to the gym to help Rodolfo Vieira. I would drive to the gym like I told you. I would wipe the tears, train and go back home.

That’s when you started working with that psychologist? Or only after that?

Yeah, after that. I was really going to stop (fighting). I already wanted to build a gym for me, I’ve been working on that for a while. I wanted to teach jiu-jitsu, which is something I love doing and makes me feel good. I just wanted to teach jiu-jitsu. Put the gi on and teach. That’s something that calms me down. I like it, and it helps me a lot.

That’s an idea you’ve talked for a while now, to have your own gym…

We usually talk about the things we love and make us happy [laughs], so that’s why I always talk about it. This is something I’ve been planning, and it will happen soon, in a year or so. It’s happening. We’re already building it, so it’s gonna be really cool.

Is it going to be in the United States?

Yeah, it will.

Is this part of a post-retirement plan?

Oh, for sure. That’s something I love doing, and if you do something you love… I’m very grateful for everything MMA has given me, having the opportunity to fight in the UFC. They help me a lot.

What can fans expect from this fresher version of you at UFC Sao Paulo?

I’m excited. I believe I’ll do a good job. I’m training well. A fight is a fight, we have to wait until we enter the Octagon to see what’s going to happen, but I’ll be fine on fight night. God willing, I’ll be really well.

Ronaldo Souza headlines UFC Sao Paulo seven after after his last loss to Jack Hermansson.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
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