The Strikeforce middleweight title is on the line this Saturday night (September 10, 2011) as current champion Ronaldo Souza looks to defend his title against the upstart Luke Rockhold on the Strikeforce Grand Prix: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" main card.
"Jacare" Souza has been chomping at the bit to defend his title for months ever since handling Robbie Lawler in a thriller this past January. The world class Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt is looking to add another name to his impressive career résumé.
Luke Rockhold is a native Californian fighting away from the west coast for the first time in his career and it just so happens to be on one of the world's biggest MMA stages. The scrappy young fighter has never left the first round in his career and is hoping his training at the American Kickboxing Academy will help him prevail come Saturday night.
Will "Jacare" clamp down on Rockhold and add another arm to his collection? Can Rockhold shake off 19 months worth or ring rust and raise his game to the elite level? Is an upset brewing in Cincinnati?
Record: 14-2 (1 No Contest) overall, 4-0 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: Gegard Mousasi (Dream 6)
How he got here: Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza has always been an incredibly gifted athlete. He didn't begin training in judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu until he was 17 years old, but he was a natural. He quickly elevated his submission game to elite status, winning the World jiu-jitsu championship in 2003, 2004 and 2005 as well as taking the gold medal at the infamous Abu Dhabi Combat Club competition in 2005.
After losing his first professional fight in 2003, "Jacare" has only been defeated once in the eight years since, and that was to Gegard Mousasi, a man who would win a Strikeforce world championship in a higher weight class less than a year later.
After mixed results in Japan's Dream promotion, Souza made a big splash in Strikeforce, defeating former UFC middleweight title challenger Matt Lindland via first round submission in his promotional debut. After a decision victory over Joey Villasenor, "Jacare" was awarded a shot at Strikeforce's vacant middleweight title against Tim Kennedy.
The Brazilian surprisingly stood with Kennedy for five rounds, winning a decision. He would defend his belt against Robbie Lawler this past January in extremely exciting fashion which resulted in a third round rear naked choke victory. With a dearth of title challengers, the oft-injured Luke Rockhold was chosen to square off with Souza in Cincinnati.
How he gets it done: The champion should have an advantage on paper in nearly every category for this fight. He's the better wrestler with much more technical judo and jiu-jitsu as well as being physically stronger than his opponent. While "Jacare" showcased his striking against Tim Kennedy in winning his title, he should honestly try to shoot in on Rockhold and get this fight to the canvas.
Rockhlold is a strong ground fighter but Souza is one of the greatest Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in the history of the sport. He's got the technique as well as the natural athleticism and physical strength to completely crush his opposition if the fight goes to the ground.
Look for the Brazilian to stand with Rockhold long enough to close the distance and either enter the clinch, looking for a takedown from there or simply shoot in for a deep double-leg takedown during a striking exchange.
If "Jacare" can get the fight to the canvas, he'll quickly be looking to power through Rockhold's guard, mixing punches in with his technique to try to pass to mount or side control. Souza is capable of finishing the fight with any submission but he especially loves armbars, arm triangles and rear naked chokes. If any of those holds become available, he will pounce on them aggressively.
Record: 7-1 overall, 6-0 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: none
How he got here: Luke Rockhold transitioned to MMA after competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, similar to "Jacare" but on a smaller scale. While most of his professional wins in the sport have come by way of submission, he's still a brown belt in BJJ.
Rockhold signed on with Strikeforce for his third professional fight, quickly becoming a local favorite due to his propensity of having exciting fights that ended early. Rockhold continued to fight progressively more difficult opponents under the Strikeforce banner and continued to finish them in the first round.
Veteran Cory Devela couldn't last 30 seconds against Rockhold, quickly being overwhelmed with punches before succumbing to submission. Former Ultimate Fighter castout, Jesse Taylor, was choked out in less than four minutes as well.
In Rockhold's most recent fight against UFC veteran Paul Bradley, he twice dropped the Minnesota fighter standing and finished him off with some gruesome knees to the body that completely sucked the will out of the fighter.
Rockhold's last victory was supposed to vault him to the top of the list of Strikeforce middleweights but then the injuries started. He was scheduled to fight Matt Lindland but got injured. He was also was inexplicably pulled from a fight with Tim Kennedy and when Strikeforce magically needed a title challenger, they pulled Rockhold's name out of a hat despite the fact that he hadn't fought in 19 months.
How he gets it done: While nearly all of Rockhold's victories have come by way of submission, that would appear to be a pretty poor choice against Ronaldo Souza. Overwhelming opponents with strikes before sinking in rear naked chokes may have worked on the Strikeforce Challengers series but "Jacare" would probably laugh out loud if a similar method of attack were attempted against him.
Rockhold will likely have to avoid the ground as well as the clinch, as Souza is also a black belt in judo and is capable of throwing him on his head.
The key will likely be trying to keep his distance and work his striking. The American Kickboxing Academy product has shown an improving right hook in his last few fights and he's had 19 months to help refine his striking technique.
Look for Rockhold to either stay far back and work his kicks or get in the pocket and try to land that big right hook. If he can hurt Souza with either, that could open an opportunity to go in for the kill. Rockhold also has some powerful knees in his arsenal, something he showcased in his last fight against Paul Bradley and they can be a gamechanger if he can connect with them after stunning his opponent.
Fight "X-Factor:" The X-Factor for this fight absolutely has to be the long layoff for Luke Rockhold as well as his inexperience against elite fighters. Being on the sidelines for 19 months may give him an opportunity to refine some technique but the cage is almost going to feel foreign to him on Saturday night. That's an incredibly long time to be away from competition and be expected to challenge for a world title against one of the best middleweights on the planet. The last thing on Earth you want to do is be shaking off ring rust while a monster is trying to knock your block off as well as tear off your limbs.
A third factor is conditioning. On top of being away for 19 months, Luke Rockhold has never left the first round in any of his eight professional fights. How will he respond if this fight not only goes past the first round, but enters the championship rounds? That's a lot to ask out of a young fighter.
Bottom Line: "Jacare" Souza and Luke Rockhold are very exciting fighters. Barring any mental breakdowns, they should immediately be going at it once the cage doors close and the fight begins. Souza is one of the world's most dangerous ground fighters but he's also shown a knack for trying to stand and bang a bit with his opponents. If he falls into that trap and tries to throw down with Rockhold standing, the probabilities of an upset should go up. Regardless, standing, in the clinch or on the ground, this should be a terrific battle and will be one you won't want to miss.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" on Saturday night? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!