UFC 224: Will There Be a Changing of the Guard at Middleweight?

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Jacare Souza Kelvin Gastelum UFC 224
Credit: João Baptista/Psicóticos por VT’

Jacare Souza has been on the cusp of title contention for the past several years. Can he turn back young contender Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 224 to finally secure a title shot?

While Saturday night will be the swan song for Vitor Belfort, another fighter also sees the sunset on his horizon in the co-main event. Jacare Souza has gone from vaunted jiu-jitsu ace to well-rounded contender, but after suffering what he called “the injury of injuries” in appendicitis, retirement also crossed his mind. After what has already been a fantastic UFC run, can he turn back surging contender Kelvin Gastelum to finally compete for gold in the Octagon?

Considering all he’s accomplished in the UFC, it’s remarkable that Jacare had more than half of his career outside the Octagon. A professional since 2003, Souza lost his debut but would go on to notch a ten-fight win streak that included finishes of nine opponents. He would have a successful run in Strikeforce starting in 2009, including winning the middleweight title. Of his five losses, four of them have been to Robert Whittaker, Yoel Romero, Luke Rockhold and Gegard Mousasi.

His eight-fight win streak in 2012 put him on the cusp of a title contention. He notched wins over Mousasi, Derek Brunson, and Yushin Okami and would have been an obvious choice for a title shot. However, he hit his stride at the same time that Yoel Romero was blazing a parallel path in the same weight class, the two collided in a title eliminator in 2015 with Jacare Souza coming up short in a split-decision loss. Souza would bounce back with two victories, but then ran into future champion Robert Whittaker in 2017. He made no excuses for the loss, despite it now being known that he was dealing with an injury. After a hiatus of several months, he notched a victory over Derek Brunson that put him in his upcoming bout with Kelvin Gastelum. At 38 years old, however, there are doubts if Souza can turn back another young contender to finally get the shot at gold that has stayed just out of his grasp.

Kelvin Gastelum has turned a highly criticized weight-cut failure into the ultimate seized opportunity over the last few years. In 2016, he was set to collide with the surging Donald Cerrone at the UFC’s debut in Madison Square Garden when the bout was canceled days out because it was determined he would not be able to make weight. At the time he was coming off a throttling victory over former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks but elected to move up to middleweight after the debacle.

He has had a rollercoaster run in the division that has been dotted with criticism, chief among them being his level of competition. He defeated Tim Kennedy in what would end up being Kennedy’s retirement bout. He then would go on to stop Vitor Belfort in a bout that many felt would be the finale for “The Phenom,” but the decision was overturned after Gastelum tested positive for marijuana. When he lost to top ten ranked Chris Weidman, there was question if Gastelum could compete with the top fighters in the division while giving up so much in weight.

He quelled many critics when he stopped former champion Michael Bisping in the first round in a fight where “The Count” was less than a month removed from losing the title. The bout with Jacare signals a huge turning point for Gastelum. A victory over an established threat in Souza would not only solidify his place as the top contender in the division, but also position him for a shot at the world title.

Stylistically, the bout will come down to the speed and accuracy of Gastelum against the power and versatility of Jacare. Gastelum is the much faster fighter and Jacare is known for being slower and more plodding. The American has the perfect opponent to implement a high volume attack and look for opportunities to look for a finish.

On the other hand, Souza should look to counter Gastelum coming in. The greatest stride in Souza’s game has been the confidence in his knockout power. He’s shown it on several occasions, stopping Derek Brunson (twice) and Yushin Okami with strikes. Accurate counters early and often will make Gastelum hesitant to close the distance and open up opportunities to get the fight to the mat. Gastelum hasn’t shown that he has the skills to keep up with a grappler like Jacare if he ends up on his back so frequent attempts to get the fight to the ground should be worked into the game plan.

With Luke Rockhold seemingly on his way up to light heavyweight, it is expected that the victor on Saturday will fight for the title against the winner of Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero. For Jacare Souza, he has history with both men and would undoubtedly love to have a second effort against them. A win for Gastelum puts would secure his first UFC title shot since entering the promotion back in 2013. There’s a storyline to consider with both options. A fight with Whittaker would be a changing of the guard as it would be two competitors under 30 colliding for the belt. Meanwhile, if he could upset Romero it would also erase any doubt about his place at 185 as “The Soldier of God” is arguably the largest and most explosive athlete in the weight class.

Jacare Souza will enter the cage with the home country advantage as he looks to show he can still put together a title run. However, Kelvin Gastelum has been defying critics ever since he shocked the world to become The Ultimate Fighter. Only one will be able to move forward towards the championship on Saturday.

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