Middleweight contenders Chris Weidman and Jacare Souza are in a precarious position between title contention and falling in the rankings. Both need a victory at UFC 230 to remain in the hunt for UFC gold.
Both Chris Weidman and Jacare Souza have been close to a title shot in the last several years and their clash on Saturday night is the fight to watch according to many pundits. But as the middleweight division receives an influx of younger talent, the window for both men to make a run for the belt could be closing. At UFC 230, only one man can remain in the hunt going into 2019.
Former champion Chris Weidman has struggled since 2016 to regain the form that he displayed during his title run. After losing the belt to Luke Rockhold in 2015, Weidman was out of action nearly a year following a neck injury in training. He made a single appearance in 2016, suffering a devastating knockout at the hands of Yoel Romero. Several months later he suffered a controversial loss to current Bellator middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi. He finally snapped his losing streak last July with an assertive victory over current title challenger Kelvin Gastelum.
UFC 230 will mark the third time that the 34-year-old Weidman has had nearly a year-long layoff due to injury. This time around, a persistent hand injury has been the cause for his absence. While he is still ranked third in the division, the next wave of contenders is already at his heels. The 29-year-old Israel Adesanya will be competing on Saturday as well, and Paulo Costa appears poised to be the next big thing in the division. A victory for Weidman keeps him ahead of the pack going into 2019, but a loss will put him 1-4 in the last three years and chances of returning to title contention start to become more unlikely.
But if there’s pressure on Weidman on Saturday, Jacare Souza needs the victory even more. Going back to 2012 after losing the Strikeforce middleweight title to Luke Rockhold, Souza put together an impressive eight-fight win streak that carried into the UFC that included wins over the likes of Gegard Mousasi and Derek Brunson. At any other time, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace would have been an obvious choice for a title shot. However, he was on a parallel path with the equally surging Yoel Romero. Souza’s impressive run was snapped when he finally collided with Romero in late 2016, but back-to-back victories in 2017 put him right back in the mix for a title shot.
As it was, any momentum he had generated was halted when he was stopped by current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in 2017. Souza made no excuses for the result, but it became known that he had suffered an injury that required recovery for the rest of the year. Souza returned this past January and notched another victory which set him up to face top contender Kelvin Gastelum. Souza lost a competitive split-decision in his native Brazil, and now finds himself in the unusual spot of being 1-2 in his last three fights and coming off a loss.
Souza is 38-years-old and will be 39 before the year ends. Should he lose on Saturday, he would be 1-3 in the last two years. Like Weidman, he would drop out of the title picture as the next wave of contenders looks to break through into the top five.
Stylistically, Weidman’s striking advantage on the feet will be the key to his victory. He is a more technical fighter and the noticeably more nimble fighter. By comparison, Jacare is a more plodding fighter but looks to counter with powerful and accurate shots. Weidman should look to use volume and get in-and-out against Souza. So long as he avoids becoming stationary at mid-range, Weidman figures to be able to shut down Souza for fifteen minutes.
Although Weidman is a high-level grappler himself, Souza’s dominance when he gets the top position is nothing short of prolific. Weidman must take care not to sit against the fence as Jacare is deceivingly powerful in the clinch and will be patient to get the fight to the mat. On the ground, his comprehensive attack from the top figures to overwhelm Weidman, even if not securing a submission then surely to win him the round decisively. On the feet, Souza must be the aggressor and avoid waiting for Weidman in each exchange. Doing so will make Weidman more hesitant to come forward and open up Souza’s opportunities to initiate his offense.
It is expected that middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will face top contender Kelvin Gastelum in early 2019. Chris Weidman, on the strength of his victory and name recognition, would make the most sense for a title shot against either man with a victory. Jacare Souza has losses to both men and would likely need one more victory against another top-three opponent to set up for a title shot. Waiting in the wings is a highly rumored match-up between Yoel Romero and Paulo Costa which could play into the title picture depending on how soon into 2019 the fight between Whittaker and Gastelum takes place.