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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on FOX 27’s Ronaldo Souza

Grappling master, Ronaldo Souza, will rematch heavy-handed contender, Derek Brunson, this Saturday (Jan. 27, 2018) at UFC on FOX 27 inside Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It’s easy to count “Jacare” among the most unlucky fighters of recent years. Outside of a controversial split-decision loss to current top contender Yoel Romero, Souza went undefeated for five years without managing to earn a title shot. Despite very possibly being the best in the world at that time, opponents kept falling out opposite Souza, resulting in the Brazilian having to drub lesser foes. Then, Robert Whittaker — the current 185-pound kingpin for those not keeping up with the bizarre Middleweight title picture — appeared out of nowhere to batter and finish Souza. Now, Souza must attempt to make another title run at the age of 38 ... and coming off surgery.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


In all assets of his game, the single best word to describe Souza and his fight style is “bully.” Souza’s kickboxing is far from complicated, but he tends to back opponents up and dominate the stand up regardless. Even against skilled kickboxers like Gegard Mousasi and Luke Rockhold, Souza’s aggressive and physical striking has found him some success.

Souza finds much of his success with a heavy right hand, one that usually arcs over his opponent’s guard (GIF). The setups are rarely all that complicated; “Jacare” tends to operate one or two strikes at a time. Mostly, Souza pressures his opponent back with good feints and level changes, using the threat of the takedown to land his overhand.

Classic strategies are classic for a reason!

In addition, Souza finds openings for his right as a counter and in the clinch. Much of the time his opponent tries to dart in with strikes, Souza will stand his ground and fire back a right. Once more, it’s an uncomplicated strategy, but Souza whacked even Whittaker across the grill with a couple strong right hands.

In the clinch, most fighters try to push at Souza’s hips and get the hell away. Souza will hold on until he feels the takedown is no longer a reasonable option, at which point he’ll break the clinch with his right hand.

Alongside the right, Souza likes to advance behind a stiff jab or left hook (GIF). Again, it’s largely single shots, as Souza feints until stepping forward with his left hand. Souza’s jab is not one to quickly tap his opponent’s nose: it smashes forward and gets Souza into takedown range. Feints help ensure these heavy shots are not easily countered, and Souza helps himself by going to the body on occasion as well.

Finally, Souza will kick on occasion. While pressuring, he likes to jam a hard teep up the middle, which helps maneuver his foe towards the fence. In addition, Souza will briefly switch to Southpaw for just two reasons: to throw the left kick or to counter with his right as a check hook (GIF).

Against non-elite competition, Souza’s simple game tends to work quite well. As shown last time out, however, a crafty striker like Robert Whittaker can take advantage of his limited arsenal and lack of combinations.


A Judo black belt, Souza’s bullying habits are perhaps most obvious in his attempts to wrestle. Souza definitely has crafty ways to drag his opponent to the mat, but much of the time he just bulls his way forward and rushes into a double leg. His setups are not the best, but once in on the hips Souza generally finishes the shot in one way or another.

Often, simply yanking the legs back with all his explosive force is enough to plant his foe. Souza’s primary takedown setup comes from his overhand right. When his punches misses, Souza will continue the swing until his hand down by his waist. Since Souza already changed levels a bit to throw the punch, his hands are in position, and his opponent is likely covered up, it’s the perfect time to shoot for a double.

Against Whittaker, Souza showed a pair of craftier ways to finish the shot along the fence. When Whittaker’s base was too wide for Souza to connect his hands and complete the double, he switched onto a single leg and hooked his opponent’s leg with his own. From there, he framed the far knee and rolled into what was basically a half-guard sweep.

Whittaker was able to scramble up, but this time Souza was in a stronger double leg position. Again, he had difficulty connecting his hands for the lift, but Souza was able to instead bring his leg forward to land an inside trip.

Additionally, Souza is a beast inside the clinch. He frequently attacks with inside trips in the clinch and often distracts his opponent with strikes first. For example, he tripped up Chris Camozzi by engaging the Muay Thai fighter with clinch strikes then tripping him when Camozzi looked for a knee.

”Jacare” will also look for head and arm throws. Although these risky throws can cause him to lose position on the floor, Souza is so confident in his grappling that it doesn’t really matter. Of course, if all this technical clinch work doesn’t workout, Souza can very likely body lock and slam his foe.

Souza’s takedown defense -- largely due to his overall physicality -- is pretty strong. He hasn’t actually been taken down since the tail end of his bout with Tim Kennedy in 2010, largely because very few people want to grapple with Souza at all. It’s just not a desirable position to be in.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

A jiu-jitsu black belt, Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) gold medalist, and multiple time Mundials winner, Souza is perhaps the best jiu-jitsu competitor inside the UFC today. Unlike some jiu-jitsu specialists, Souza has literal interest in working from his back, instead looking to pressure his foe from top position.

Firstly, Souza’s guard passing game is phenomenal. His posture is frequently strong, and his hips are always heavy on his opponent. If his opponent starts to defend a pass, Souza will pause the pass in order to land a few hard punches. Then, he’ll throw an underhook in a hop around his opponent’s guard.

Another excellent thing Souza does is make it very difficult for his opponent to secure a full guard. Though the offensive options are limited, it is much easier to hold a talented grappler inside the closed guard simply by squeezing. However, Souza usually attempts to pin a butterfly hook or land in half guard immediately after hitting a takedown. From either of these positions, Souza can more easily advance into a dominant spot as his foe is forced to grapple with him rather than hold on.

Once Souza is passed the guard, he’ll transition between dominant positions like side control, north-south, and mount. If his opponent simply allows this to happen, then Souza will pick his shots with heavy ground strikes. Most of the time, Souza’s opponent uses these opportunities to attempt to recover guard. Even if his opponent is successful, “Jacare” is thoroughly unconcerned; he’ll just pass guard again.

Just take a look at Souza flowing all over Robbie Lawler (GIF).

It’s only once Souza’s foe is actively trying to defend that “Jacare” will really attack with submissions. He usually attacks with kimuras, arm triangles, and armbars during these exchanges. All of those moves are utilized when the bottom man’s arm is out of position, which often occurs in MMA due to the bottom man’s need to protect his face while he elbow escapes.

In one such example of Souza’s ability to pass the guard and capitalize, “Jacare” took home the arm of Tim Boetsch. In this week’s technique highlight, we took a look at both the pass and finish setup.

Two more examples came opposite Chris Camozzi. In the first match, Souza quickly passed the open guard immediately after Camozzi recovered it. The Brazilian then slid into knee on belly and landed a punch. Mounted by a power-punching black belt, Camozzi desperately attempted to hip escape. However, he turned a bit too much in his bump, which allowed “Jacare” to swim his arm around Camozzi’s head and arm. When Camozzi turns back in to hook one on Souza’s legs, he’s actually turning into the arm triangle choke (GIF). The rematch was remarkably similar, except that Camozzi tried to push Souza off him from mount and wound up in an armbar instead.

Perhaps the best grappling performance of Souza’s MMA career came in his rematch with Gegard Mousasi. Souza’s constant aggression wore Mousasi down and eventually allowed him to snatch a guillotine from top position, but Souza’s guard passing was particularly masterful. In the first match, Mousasi managed to catch Souza coming forward with a fight-ending upkick, and he repeatedly looked for that technique in the rematch. However, Souza was well-aware of the threat, and he waited for Mousasi to upkick. Instead of diving in and risking the kick, Souza hung back and used the upkick to throw Mousasi’s leg to the side, which allowed Souza to advance into dominant positions and nullify Mousasi’s dangerous bottom game.

The exception to Souza’s opportunistic, transitional attack is his back mount. When Souza latches onto his opponent’s back, he has no intention of letting go or allowing his opponent to move. Instead, he locks in a body triangle, squeezes, and tries to jam his forearm under his foe’s jaw. “Jacare’s” control from this position is excellent, and it’s simply a matter of time until he bores through his opponent’s defenses.


Souza is a Middleweight great and former Strikeforce champion, but his immediate future is uncertain. Could he return from surgery looking rejuvenated and ready for a title run? It’s definitely possible — you will not find many 38-year-old athletes anywhere as strong or well-conditioned as “Jacare.” At the same time, it’s equally possible that Brunson shows the benefit of having both youth (comparatively) and now experience by flattening Souza.

Either way, this main event is a definite crossroads bout for the Brazilian.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.

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