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‘Jacare’ vs. Whittaker: Will the winner get a shot at the UFC middleweight interim title?

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In most divisions when the sixth ranked rising young fighter takes on the tough third ranked veteran the winner could naturally expect to fight for a title. Especially, if they win impressively. Unfortunately, Robert Whittaker and ‘Jacare’ Souza fight in the currently ‘log-jammed with title contenders’ UFC middleweight division. The best the winner could hope for is to compete for one of those UFC interim titles this year.

Real tough fighters take real tough fights

However, that did not stop either fighter from taking this fight. I love that about both ‘Jacare’ and Whittaker, that fearlessness, the willingness to take on the tough, dangerous opponent even without a guaranteed title shot awaiting the winner.

It is just a burning desire by both fighters to prove that they are the best. Something refreshing in a middleweight division that has shown little interest in fighting ‘Jacare’. It is understandable. He is one of the most well-rounded and dangerous fighters in the UFC.

The early days of the legend ‘Jacare’ 

At the beginning, ‘Jacare’ was just a lethal submission artist searching for the takedown like a junkie looking for his first fix of the day. It led to 11 submission wins on his way to a 14-2-0-1 to start his career. That singularly focused approached worked very well for him until he faced Luke Rockhold.

‘Jacare’ lost his Strikeforce belt in a five round fight that saw him get five takedowns but not a single guard-pass. That has happened only one other time in his career and that was against Tim Kennedy to win the Strikeforce belt. ‘Jacare’ attained two takedowns but could not pass Kennedy’s guard nonetheless took the decision win. Rockhold negated the grappling, then worked ‘Jacare’ over in the striking, and took the title from him. From that defeat on, ‘Jacare’ started to improve his standup.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The crocodile grows older but continues to evolve 

Since the loss to Rockhold, ‘Jacare’ has six wins by submission, three by TKO/KO, and one via decision. His record over that five-year period is 10-1 with the one loss being a controversial close SD to Yoel Romero.

Now, instead of just focusing on trying to get the takedown we see ‘Jacare’ striking his way in, looking to hurt his opponent during the standup. This opens up the takedown for him.  In his rematch with Gegard Mousasi we saw Mousasi actually initiate the grappling after getting stung by a couple of Jacare’s strikes.

Jacare’s standup has evolved beyond just displaying some power with his striking and included some nice head movement against Mousasi. This allowed him to avoid taking damage as he worked his way inside of Mousasi’s range and into his own.

At this point in his career ‘Jacare’ is easily the most dangerous he has ever been. His ability to stop an opponent in the standup only makes his ground game more lethal. Whittaker is also very dangerous, but much like a young Jacare his focus is much more singular.

The young gun rides into town to test himself

Since moving up to middleweight, Whittaker has reeled off five straight wins with three of them coming via TKO/KO. Most recently he stopped of Derek Brunson impressively in the first round. Brunson would parlay that loss into a fight with Anderson Silva while Whittaker’s reward is a fight against ‘Jacare’.

In a time when we are inundated with talk of money fights and many fighters are looking for the easiest path to a title shot. It is refreshing to see two fighters willing to take on tough challenges looking to face the best. It is by taking these kinds of fights that fighters become money fighters. The loser of this fight will not lose any fans. Nor will their stock fall.

‘Jacare’ is well established as a star within the sport with a hardcore legion of fans. While Whittaker is growing as a fighter and a star. It is by seeking and accepting fights like this that he will continue to grow in both areas.

Get on my level son

This is a classic showdown in so many ways. It harkens back to the early days of MMA with the classic grappler versus a striker matchup. It is also the classic young gunslinger taking on the old quick drawing sheriff. Or if you prefer – the young samurai taking on the old master.

Whittaker at only 26 years old is that young powerful gunslinger who needs a slight opening and he will end the fight in an instant. His reputation is already a formidable one in part to his 8-2 record in the UFC. A win over ‘Jacare’ will start him on the way to legendary status that is natural after you defeat a legend.

The 37-year-old ‘Jacare’ has been one for many years. First, in the jiu-jitsu world then in the MMA one. He started his MMA career with a loss. Since that loss ‘Jacare’ is 24-3-0-1 NC. If Whittaker wants to join Rockhold, Mousasi, and Romero he must keep the fight standing.

Whittaker has a strong ground game himself, but as Joe Rogan likes to say there are levels to this. ‘Jacare’ is on a completely different level than Whittaker on the ground.

The fight starts standing

Fortunately, Whittaker has excellent takedown defense checking in at 93.75% of them defended. He has not been taken down at all as a middleweight stuffing all 12 attempts. This will be the toughest test of his takedown defense since the move up. ‘Jacare’ is an excellent takedown artist with a variety of ways to get the fight to the ground due to his judo background as well as honing his double and single legs.

If the fight does end up on the ground Whittaker’s only chance is to get up quickly. On the ground ‘Jacare’ is a beast, well, a crocodile to be exact. If Whittaker cannot get up quickly, it is likely he is in danger of being submitted.

However, the fight will start standing up as every striker likes to remind the grappler. Before ‘Jacare’ can get the fight to the ground he will have to engage in some striking exchanges. During those exchanges he cannot make any mistakes. If he does look for Whittaker to end the fight quickly.

Make the path a dangerous one

It is important that Whittaker punish the takedown attempts. To me this is always a vital element of a high level striker’s takedown defense.

The good old days of being able to just sprawl and brawl are in the past or at the lower levels. When two top fighters like this get together it takes more than a sprawl to stop takedowns. As mentioned earlier ‘Jacare’ has the Judo background, as well as several nice trips to go with the more traditional double-leg he will also use.

If Whittaker becomes completely defensive then look for ‘Jacare’ to make multiple takedown attempts until he gets one. There has to be a cost to ‘Jacare’ on the attempts to discourage him from wanting to make them. Whittaker has several ways to make ‘Jacare’ pay when he wants to get in close enough to get the takedown.

Look for the elbows to play a role

One of Whittaker’s best weapons are his inside elbows. He used them effectively against Clint Hester on his way to becoming to the first fighter to stop Hester via strikes. We also saw them in his fight with Derek Brunson.

A well placed elbow as ‘Jacare’ is coming in will not only thwart the takedown but it could also change the fight. Whittaker has the ability to deliver fight altering power in a variety of ways.

Do not miss the moment

Another key to Whittaker winning the fight is he cannot miss his opportunities when they happen. Often when two tough talented high level fighters meet the outcome is decided by who capitalizes on the other’s mistakes. If ‘Jacare’ makes a mistake, then Whittaker must take advantage of it.

It is the same for ‘Jacare,’ he also needs to take advantage of any mistakes that Whittaker’s commits. I think ‘Jacare’ can create the openings for himself on the ground; it will be harder for Whittaker to do that in the striking area. Thus, Whittaker must hit the openings if and when they happen.

Unique tests and challenges await them both

One of the most intriguing elements of this fight is the uniqueness of the challenge that each fighter presents for the other. ‘Jacare’ has faced some great strikers in his career but in the UFC it has been very mixed. The two best were Vitor Belfort and Yoel Romero but they are nothing like Whittaker combining his speed, power, and technique. At least not the version of Belfort that ‘Jacare’ faced. A younger Belfort or a TRT version would have given us more insight to this matchup. But, it was a much slower version of Belfort that Jacare defeated and really does not tell us if he can handle the speed of Whittaker. Certainly Romero had the power, explosiveness but not the pure speed and technique of Whittaker.

Paths to victory 

I expect Whittaker to take a page from Romero’s game plan by utilizing his movement and ability to easily switch stances. When Romero fought ‘Jacare’ he had success using those two areas. He was also effective with his inside leg kick and of course the spinning back-fist that stunned ‘Jacare’ in the first round.

Now, it would not be a good idea for Whittaker to follow ‘Jacare’ to the ground if he stuns him like Romero did. Romero was able to eventually do some serious damage for the top but he had to fight off several submission attempts to do so.

Another Rogan reminder is Romero’s Olympic Wrestling background. Whittaker has shown glimpses of good grappling at times but it is hard to gauge where he is in comparison to ‘Jacare’ or Romero.

This is a big move up for Whittaker. ‘Jacare’ is elite and one of the top middleweights capable of beating anyone else in the top five and certainly the current champion. A win by Whittaker will loudly proclaim his place amongst them and I do see paths to victory for him.

In the first round of the Uriah Hall fight, Whittaker was effective with several explosive leaps forward with some big looping punches at the end. One of them caught Hall slightly off-balance sending him spinning. The strike helped Whittaker secure the first round. It also made Hall more cautious throughout the rest of the fight.

Now, against Romero, ‘Jacare’ had a tendency to plant himself firmly. If ‘Jacare’ does that in this fight look for Whittaker to time one of those big strikes. If he lands clean, Whittaker can take control of the fight but in such moments he has to be careful. ‘Jacare’ is still dangerous even when hurt and I feel he baited Romero into a mistake in the first round of their fight.

Learn from others

Romero rocked ‘Jacare’ and sent him down to the canvas. ‘Jacare’ motioned for Romero to join him and Romero accommodated him. After all, Romero was one of the best wrestlers in the world during his career. Why would he fear anyone’s grappling game. He did not get submitted and inflicted heavy damage at the end of the round. ‘Jacare’ was dazed going back to his corner but he was not done.

At the start of the second round it appeared that Romero was in position to finish the fight. Instead, ‘Jacare’ was the fresher fighter and Romero was content to allow ‘Jacare’ to set the pace.

The second round became a recovery round for both fighters. It was a missed opportunity by Romero who gassed himself out in the first round fighting off submissions and trying to finish the fight.

Who knows how the fight would have unfolded if he had refused to go down to the ground and forced the dazed ‘Jacare’ to fight standing. One more clean strike, easier to land on a hurt opponent, could have ended the fight right there in the first round.

Frustrate your opponent and always be closing 

One of the basic rules of competition is to do the opposite of what they want you to do. In this case, ‘Jacare’ wanted Romero to follow him down. Romero should have let him back up and looked to do more damage on the fight which would have cost him less energy than fighting off submission attempts and grappling exchanges. It may not have changed the outcome but it also put Romero in some unnecessary danger.

Whittaker does not have the some wrestling perigee that Romero possesses and it unlikely that he will follow ‘Jacare’ down in a similar circumstance, but I thought that Anthony Johnson would not try to grapple with Daniel Cormier either. It’s clear where each fighter wants this fight to take place the one who can control that phase should win this fight.

They will have to do so by not making any costly mistakes. Both fighters are excellent at finishing fights and ruthless. They are excellent at capitalizing on the slightest of their opponent’s mistakes. ‘Jacare’ has fought more fights of that nature but Whittaker has met every challenge at middleweight. This is by far the toughest for him.

‘Jacare’ has evolved into one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC. He brings a record of 17 submission wins with 3 more via TKO/KO and 4 by UD. While Whittaker counters with 8 wins via TKO/KO another 5 by submission and matches ‘Jacare’ with 4 UD wins.

The younger fighter with more room to grow arrives

The more I watch these two past fights the more I like Whittaker in this matchup. Going into this I felt like it was Jacare’s but watching Whittaker continue to grow with every fight makes me feel like he is ready for this challenge.

Sure, it is easy to see ‘Jacare’ getting this fight to the ground and getting the submission win. His jiu-jitsu is almost otherworldly. It is a scene we have seen play out four times in his UFC career to date.

But Whittaker looks ready. He has passed every test to date. Rafael Natal is a high level jiu-jitsu practitioner himself, just not at the level of ‘Jacare’. Whittaker dealt with his grappling easily on his way to the UD win.

For a young fighter, Whittaker has displayed a great fight IQ, excellent timing, and otherworldly power. Power that comes from several sources. His left-hook is devastating, as Brad Tavares discovered. Yet it was a right-hook that sent Hall spinning. I like him to time ‘Jacare’ in one of his flat-footed moments to take control of the fight. Once he has him hurt, I like Whittaker to get the finish.

A win over ‘Jacare’, especially of the stoppage variety, would announce the presence of a true new title contender. One who I think – win or lose – is the future of the UFC middleweight division.

Whittaker is on the cusp of his prime while ‘Jacare’ is either right at his peak or started that inevitable slide down. He is at that age where sometimes the mileage starts to show. Several of his fights have been battles and they start to add up over the years.

Expect an exciting fight from these two with the winner poised to either challenge for the interim title or possibly the real one. That is if they ever get back around to having the champion actually fight top contenders from the division sometime soon.

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