UFC Charlotte: Can Jacare or Brunson Crack the Middleweight Title Picture?

UFC Charlotte Jacare Souza Derek Brunson
Credit: João Baptista/Psicóticos por VT

Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson both want to get into title contention, and there may never be a better chance than at UFC Charlotte.

The middleweight division was roughly two months from finally being sorted out. Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was set to face Luke Rockhold in a critical bout and both men would be able to stake a claim as the world’s best middleweight. Instead, a litany of injuries has put the division in disarray once again. Two fighters looking to rearrange the pecking order are Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Derek Brunson who collide in the main event of UFC Charlotte.

In 2017, Jacare was streaking towards the middleweight title. He put together an eight-fight win streak in the UFC that saw him on the cusp of title contention. In late 2015, however, he lost a razor close split-decision to fellow top contender Yoel Romero in a long-anticipated title eliminator. While “The Soldier of God” took an unexpected path afterward, Souza worked his way back up the ladder.

He would dispatch Vitor Belfort in his following bout and when Chris Weidman fell out of his rematch with then-champion Luke Rockhold, Souza was the obvious choice to step in. Unfortunately, the Brazilian contender was in recovery and would be left on the sideline to watch Michael Bisping claim gold and witness the unfolding of the division. He would not return until February of last year when he added Tim Boetsch to his impressive list of submission victories.

In May, he was on the cusp of contention again and was the heavy favorite against streaking contender Robert Whittaker. Jacare had evolved from grappling phenom to a well-rounded fighter whose new confidence in his hands had delivered knockouts over contenders like Yushin Okami and upcoming opponent Derek Brunson. It appeared to the world that Souza was ready to finally challenge for gold, but the speed and athleticism of “The Reaper” scratched those plans as the Australian scored a knockout in the second round. Souza has not competed since and on Saturday will face Brunson once again since he dispatched him in 2012 in Strikeforce.

Since the bout with Jacare, Derek Brunson has climbed the ladder to become a perennial contender in the middleweight division and has faced the best opposition in the world. He has amassed an impressive 9-3 record inside the Octagon that has included several high profile matches.

His power threatened Yoel Romero’s incredible run to a title shot in 2014. In the last two years, he also faced current champion Robert Whittaker and the legendary Anderson Silva, coming up short in both bouts. Despite his stumbles, he has continued to impress with every outing. The loss to Silva was close and many scored the fight in his favor. He also rebounded with back-to-back first-round knockouts over Dan Kelly and former champion Lyoto Machida.

His last bout showcased the maturity he had accrued in his career. By all accounts, Machida was moving very well, but Brunson was able to close the distance and find his opening to connect with the punch that closed out the show in Brazil. The composure and intelligence he displayed to out maneuver the veteran Machida was something that many felt would not have been possible had he not learned from bouts with Silva, Romero, and others.

Stylistically, the bout between Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson looks to be drastically different than the first. Their first bout ended in 41 seconds, with the Brazilian catching Brunson early with a punch. Since then, both fighters have improved in leaps and bounds. For Souza, the key will be to come forward and clinch with Brunson against the fence so he can wear him down by making him carry his weight. The strategy will pay dividends as it will help to cut away at Brunson’s explosiveness and using the fence to drag the fight to the ground should allow him to dominate with ease.

For Brunson, the key will be to move around and avoid fighting with his back to the fence. He should look to follow the game plan Whittaker implemented and get in-and-out with sharp boxing. Brunson should carry a big speed advantage and as long as he is disciplined on entry he should be able to outwork the Brazilian. Most importantly, he needs to avoid getting caught against the fence where Jacare likes to drag opponents to the mat.

Exactly how close the winner of the UFC Charlotte headliner is to a title shot will depend on the schedule of the title picture. The winner of Rockhold and Romero will likely choose to wait for Whittaker, but if the time table grows too long then they may take a fight to stay active. If that is the case, then the Jacare/Brunson winner may get the nod or face another contender like Kelvin Gastelum before getting the shot at gold. But before they can get there, they must handle business in Charlotte. The intrigue is that while both men have made great strides, the bout could well be determined by the traits they have at their core: they are a knockout artist against a submission savant respectively. If either man chooses to pull out surprises, then that would only add to what is already a perfect recipe for action.