If you’re going to put together a short list of the very best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners competing in MMA, you’re probably going to have Roger Gracie on there. You’ll probably include Demian Maia. Maybe you’ll mention Fabricio Werdum, B.J. Penn, or even Shinya Aoki or Rani Yahya. But one name that you’ll mention for sure is Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
And while some guys seem to either not utilize their grappling skills (Penn) or have difficulty translating them to MMA (John Olav Einemo), Souza has taken his skill set and applied it beautifully. Already, Souza has won by submission 11 times in 14 career wins (although three of those submissions are due to strikes). It’s probably safe to say that no middleweight not named “Maia” can win a fight against Souza on the ground.
Enter Luke Rockhold, a 7-1 challenger with six submission wins on his record. This includes one armbar and four rear-naked chokes. Now, there’s a cliche: “anything can happen in MMA.” But man, that cliche gets stretched pretty darn hard if you’re to suggest that Rockhold is going to beat Souza by armbar or rear naked choke. There’s no doubt that Rockhold possesses considerable skill on the ground, but submitting Jesse Taylor is a far cry from coming close to submitting the Strikeforce champion in Souza.
So Rockhold will probably want to keep this fight standing. And he did win by TKO in his last fight, against Paul Bradley, showing decent boxing and kicks, so he’s at least demonstrated that he’s capable of stopping his opponent with strikes. Souza’s striking game primarily exists as a means of keeping him unhurt until getting the fight back to the ground, so Rockhold may find himself trying to strike against a very defensive opponent.
As far as resumes are concerned, “Jacare” is better, hands down. While Souza has been beating the likes of Robbie Lawler, Tim Kennedy, Matt Lindland, and Joey Villasenor, Rockhold’s best win is against your choice of Bradley, Cory Devela, or Jesse Taylor.
Another potential factor in this fight is “cage rust.” Rockhold is in the unenviable position of challenging for a title after a 19-month layoff, caused by various injuries. While I haven’t studied the effect of differing layoffs on the performance of fighters (my impulse is to say it’s overstated, but that’s just a gut feeling), 19 months is a long time, especially when the opponent is somebody as good as Souza.
SILVA PREDICTION: RONALDO “JACARE” SOUZA (33.03) OVER LUKE ROCKHOLD (32.59)
Those SILVA scores are pretty darn close, and under normal circumstances, I might allow for a strong possibility of an upset. In this particular instance, I just don’t see it. Rockhold’s strength is his grappling ability, and he’s just not nearly as good at it as Souza. That leaves a “sprawl and brawl” tactic for Rockhold, and it’s difficult for me to envision him being able to do that consistently. Factor in the layoff and its potential to make the fight even more difficult for Rockhold, and everything just seems to add up to a Souza victory on Saturday night.