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UFC 224: Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum Toe-to-Toe preview

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Ronaldo Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum co-headlines UFC 224 this May 12, 2018 at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

One sentence summary

David: It’s another episode of Stoner vs. Stoneage.

Phil: Eat or be eaten, as the alligator takes on the UFC’s hungriest welterweight

Stats

Record: Ronaldo Souza 25-5-1 NC | Kelvin Gastelum 14-3-1 NC

Odds: Ronaldo Souza -145 | Kelvin Gastelum +135

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: Jacare is like John Travolta without Quentin Tarantino right now. The magic lingers because of outside influences, but it still feels like Jacare is one badly timed haymaker away from a Wild Hogs sequel. That sounds way worse than it is (for Jacare I mean), but I feel like his win over Derek Brunson was a functional coin toss of a match. Jacare was such a premiere athlete at his best. He’s much more than just an athlete—owning one of the best grappling games ever inside the cage—but that combination of technical acumen and athleticism made him a unique threat for any potential opponent. Now that the athleticism has waned, I fear we’re in store for a Punisher remake rather than Face/Off.

Phil: Jacare feels like someone battling on borrowed time. People would tell stories about how big and physically impressive he is in person. He came to MMA after beating one of the greatest grapplers to ever do it, getting his arm broken by Roger Gracie and still winning on points against the bigger, more well-known fighter. Since then, his victories and the UFC title situation have just never lined up. Now it’s hard not to look at him and see that the muscles are hanging off the frame just a bit more than they were, that the explosion just isn’t quite what it was. There’s still a lot of power, cunning and heart in there, but increasingly it feels like it’s not enough that he’ll be able to finally get that strap.

David: Fresh off one of the swiftest two piece and a biscuits in recent memory against an aging peripheral contender, Gastelum is once again fighting an aging peripheral contender. I swear we’ve seen this fight before. In any case, Gastelum is looking for gold, and the only person in his way is another old guy. To be fair to the older men, they’ve all been proper obstacles. This bout projects to be a little more difficult for—reasons.

Phil: Despite coming off a huge knockout win, it’s getting a little difficult to be as enthused about Gastelum as I used to be. It’s hard not to look at back at his career and realize that he pretty much always lost to the same basic style matchup (rangy, powerful grapplers), and his weight issues just speak to a basic lack of professionalism. He’s almost certainly the smallest middleweight on roster unless Johny Hendricks comes back, and is that really a bar you need to measure yourself against at this stage?

What’s at stake?

David: For a fight that has title shot implications, not that much? Middleweight has been subjected to—and subjected itself to—a veritable comedy of errors. Georges St-Pierre jumps into the fray just like Batroc, and exits the same. Michael Bisping can’t hold onto the title, Robert Whittaker takes some gold, and then staph takes him. There’s room for both fighters to make some noise, but the division itself is riddled with it, which leaves both fighters in a tough spot.

Phil: Let’s see, where are we. Romero and Whittaker are fighting next, and after that there’s… well, no-one really. Rockhold is coming off a loss and probably off up to 205, Brunson was also just finished, by Jacare. Bisping’s pretty much gone, Weidman’s coming off surgery… basically it’s David Branch and the winner of Tavares-Adesanya at the moment. Damn. So, it’s a de facto title eliminator, which given Jacare’s title shot curse likely means something horrible happens.

Where do they want it?

David: Jacare will do something he’s grown accustomed to in his recent fights—stalking aggressively with his punches to setup potential takedowns, or continued pressure with his short combinations, probing jab, and punishing kicks (when he’s committed). It’s an interesting style for a fighter who needs to be on the ground in order to finish, but I attribute his sort-of-eccentricity to age. He knows he can’t just barrel into a double leg and expect it to get it through dogged persistence on a regular basis, so he’s adjusted the trunk of his offensive game while layering the general approach with some quality pugilism. I still don’t feel like Jacare’s philosophy is the best given his style, but it’s not so much a criticism as a comment; in his prime, he could have experimented with different punch entries, and resets, but now he has to be a little formulaic. I was impressed as all hell with his win over Brunson. But let’s face it; what did we actually learn? Nothing really. Brunson seemed intent on fighting like a sentient pendulum, and when Jacare got his obvious timing down, dug toes into his brain. And that was after Jacare’s mind beams in the clinch. If it sounds like I’m on acid, it’s because I still can’t think of any fitting description for what actually happened in that fight’s waning moments (strategy wise).

Phil: Jacare has increasingly developed into a very pared down but quite dangerous aggressive counter fighter. He stalks forward with the left hook and right hand cocked, and uses his head and body kick to corral, stand the opponent up, and force them back to the cage (a little like Kevin Lee did against Edson Barboza) where he can mash into them and pull their hips out. Top position generally leads to bad things: short, murderous shots and his favoured arm triangle. Like Demian Maia before him, he still has massive reserves of grappler strength and allowing him to set up shop means it’s often game over.

David: Gastelum’s game was never all that impressive as a sum. He profiled like your typical wrestle-boxer, but fought like an above average wrestle-boxer—but in the end was still just a wrestle-boxer. Rick Story absolutely pancaked him for a moment in their bout, which is when I suspected I had seen his ceiling as a prospect. It didn’t take long for Gastelum to realize the tweaks his game required. Eventually he made more use of an already elite jab, and included real movement into his range fighting. Now constantly on the balls of his feet (but not toes like BJ Penn), he’s able to move back and forth swiftly at distance to keep himself pretty murderous with his in-n’-out entries. That one-two on Bisping absolutely transformed the Brit into a husk of the departed. Still, for all of his improvements, he’s still somewhat aloof. His activity never seems properly calibrated—rather than having an urgency problem like Mousasi, Gastelum does too much reading and predicting—and I’ve never seen him really adjust during a fight.

Phil: As previously mentioned, I’m just not sure how I feel about Gastelum any more. When I first saw him teleport onto someone’s back and choke them out in an instant, it blew me away. The first few times I saw him throw a one-two so fast that it looked like someone from two or three weight classes down hitting a heavy bag, I thought we had to be looking at a future (welterweight) champion. But then… we just sort of saw those things again and again, and not a whole lot else. It’s not that he isn’t technically skilled, or athletic, it just seems to be that he looks to land that one-two as clean and hard as he can, and then it either works and finishes the opponent off, or it doesn’t. Then he just seems to shrug and settle into a lower pace fight, allowing his opponents to gradually outwork him. What do you want from me? I tried, his body language seems to say. He’s not exactly a front-runner like Vitor, but there’s a definite sense of disinterest.

Insight from past fights

David: Chris Weidman might be the obvious corollary just by virtue of Gastelum getting submitted, but I think it’s the Weidman bout with a little mix of Nate Marquardt—like Nate, Jacare is a patient striker who explodes in intervals with different types of strike traffic. Jacare is mostly a better striker, and in that fight (which admittedly I can’t remember and didn’t have time to rewatch) Gastelum did fairly well in just staying outside and picking his opponent off from the outside with his footwork. I don’t think that’ll work long term (insofar as Jacare needs one good takedown and not much else, which he can get with the right timing), but it’s a little like a cheat code. If Gastelum can spam it, it can yield positive results but it also leaves him vulnerable under the right circumstances.

Phil: The Weidman fight does double duty as Jacare’s closest stylistic analogue and the moment when I really started to worry about Gastelum. Like… what was he doing in that fight? Weidman is a famously poor defensive fighter who remains a hoss on offense. In part it seemed like Gastelum simply struggled with the reach- Weidman is five or six inches taller, and has proportionally longer arms to boot. Which also brings to mind Neil Magny. This is where Kelvin’s lack of size and love for the counter really comes back to hurt him. No matter how much of a speed advantage you have, you just can’t let bigger, dangerous fighters set up strikes and level changes on the outside against you.

X-Factors

David: Jacare’s age (and general wear and tear), and Gastelum’s munchies. Other than that, nada.

Phil: I’m very concerned about Jacare’s physical health. He finished off Brunson quickly enough that it didn’t matter, but he apparently came into that fight with a bad injury. His deliberate swagger over to a collapsing Brunson looked awesome as hell, but it also made me think: maybe he just can’t run.

Prognostication

David: I know every reason to pick Jacare, but it’s fitting that talk about Chuck Liddell returning in the air, since I suspect this is the fight where Jacare officially becomes old, but not old enough to retire. Basically, Gastelum can get away with more than one strategic error. Jacare can’t miss once. Kelvin Gastelum by TKO, round 1.

Phil: Normally in this kind of fight deterioration is weighed against improvement, but I think in this case Gastelum is essentially just more of a flat line. His overall record against powerful grapplers is poor, from Magny to Weidman. Even in his win against Kennedy, it was largely because Kennedy was a shell of himself who uncharacteristically faded after a single round of takedown attempts. He always wants that laser one-two, and he lands it at least once almost every time. That’s a huge concern for a fading Jacare, and maybe Souza just can’t keep up a pace for three rounds. Either scenario spells bad news, but Gastelum is just too prone to drifting out of fights for me to trust him. Jacare Souza by submission, round 2.

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