The middleweight division was once a barren wasteland ruled by Anderson Silva. The Brazilian had cleared the division of any serious contenders and was defending his belt against fighters who could not even keep him interested for five rounds, let alone provide a dangerous threat to his belt. How times have changed.
With Chris Weidman dethroning Silva, then proving once again that he was superior to the long-reigning champion, the doors have been thrown open to a whole new line of potential contenders. Among these, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Gegard Mousasi may have the most valid arguments for a future title bid. First, though, one must topple the other. On Friday night, they’ll get that chance.
Mousasi and Souza headline UFC Fight Night 50, which takes place at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Ledyard, Conn., just down the road from a competing show from Bellator MMA. Combat Press writers Rob Tatum and Bryan Henderson discuss the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza wanted a title fight after besting Francis Carmont. Instead, he draws Gegard Mousasi in a rematch of a 2008 fight in which Mousasi won with an upkick TKO. Will Souza avenge his loss and claim a title shot, or will Mousasi end Jacare’s rise to the top?
Henderson: The Jacare of 2008 is a far cry from the Jacare of 2014. In 2008, the Brazilian was a well-regarded grappler in between gold-medal finishes at the 2005 and 2009 editions ADCC. Now the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and judo black belt is a predator on his feet as much as he is on the mat. He scored a 41-second knockout of Derek Brunson in the Strikeforce cage and needed less than three minutes to finish Yushin Okami via TKO in his sophomore UFC appearance. Mousasi upkicked a version of Jacare who was insistent on getting fights to the ground. Now, he’s fights a version of Jacare that’s interested in getting the finish wherever the fight takes place.
This rematch is a truly compelling one. Jacare has only suffered one loss, a five-round decision against Luke Rockhold, since his previous meeting with Mousasi, and the Dutch striker has only suffered two defeats, five-round decisions versus Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Lyoto Machida. Mousasi has also stepped up to face bigger men in that stretch, handing Mark Hunt and Mike Kyle submission losses and topping Ovince St. Preux on the scorecards. A Master of Sports in boxing and black belt in judo, the 29-year-old Mousasi has proven to be a well-rounded threat.
In their first meeting, Jacare was dominating Mousasi on the mat right up until he was rendered unconscious by what really seemed like a lucky upkick. The Brazilian was able to take down Mousasi despite lunging for a single-leg takedown from a mile away. Now, Jacare should find more success with his takedowns because he’ll be able to set them up with his improved striking arsenal. On the ground, he’ll have to avoid the upkicks. As long as he’s able to do so, he should find success in controlling Mousasi for the duration of the bout.
It would be extremely impressive if Jacare were to stop Mousasi before the final bell. The Dutch fighter has only been submitted twice in his 41-fight career, and the last of those stoppages came in 2006. If Jacare can get the finish, it’s going to be really difficult for the UFC to deny him a championship tilt. The more likely scenario involves some good exchanges on the feet, frequent Jacare takedowns and aggressive ground control from the Brazilian en route to a decision win. Even that may be enough to put Jacare in the cage with the middleweight champion in the very near future.
Tatum: Fluke is an odd word in the fight game because every action is meant to harm your opponent. Yet, if there’s a shining example of a flukey finish, it’s Mousasi’s win over Souza in 2008. It was unexpected, lightning fast and, most importantly, devastating. Jacare fell to the mat like a ton of bricks.
As Bryan pointed out, that was six years ago and both men have had very different paths to this fight. Jacare’s Strikeforce reign came to a close in controversial fashion when he was bested by Rockhold on the scorecards in a very close bout. Since then, he’s reeled off six straight wins with five coming by finish. Mousasi has also held Strikeforce gold since their first meeting, but he had the holes in his takedown defense exposed by a superior wrestler in King Mo. He was lethargic against Machida, but completely crushed Mark Munoz in his last outing.
The winner of this fight will have a strong argument for a crack at the Chris Weidman-Vitor Belfort winner. Bryan alluded to Mousasi’s durability, but don’t expect Jacare to make the same mistake twice. The Brazilian is simply the more talented fighter and has more ways to finish this fights. Jacare forces Mousasi to tap to an arm-triangle in round two.
Alistair Overeem is returning to action against Ben Rothwell, but the formerly feared heavyweight striker is just 1-2 over his last three fights and 2-2 in the UFC. Is he capable of rallying his way back into title contention?
Tatum: Short answer: yes. Long answer: maybe. How’s that for a non-answer?
Overeem is a very talented fighter, both on the feet and on the ground. But his once impressive resume is tarnished from elevated levels of testosterone and embarrassing knockout losses to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Travis Browne. The Dutchman has switched camps (to Jackson’s MMA) and has slimmed down quite a bit since his early UFC days. The biggest question is whether his suspect chin can hold up against heavy-hitting heavyweights.
For Overeem to move back into title contention, he’s going to have to shore up the holes in his striking defense and avoid getting into firefights with his opponents. Unfortunately, that isn’t what the fans want to see. In his last outing at UFC 169, he bullied another fragile-jawed veteran in Frank Mir to a lackluster decision. It was anything but the type of performance that once earned him the moniker “The Demolition Man,” but it put Overeem back in the win column.
Rothwell represents another experienced fighter who has shown the ability to turn out the lights on his opponents. Overeem has to avoid getting cocky on the feet and put away Rothwell in an impressive manner to get his name back into title talk. Even then, he’s still going to have overcome a Junior dos Santos or Mark Hunt before he can be considered a true threat in the division.
Henderson: Rothwell is an extremely attractive fight for Overeem, but also a very dangerous one. The former IFL heavyweight has suffered a knockout loss to Andrei Arlovski and a TKO at the hands of Cain Velasquez, and he has also lost UFC bouts to Mark Hunt and Gabriel Gonzaga. But he went the distance with Hunt and has 19 victories by some form of knockout, including UFC finishes of Brendan Schaub and Brandon Vera. Overeem could knock him out, but Rothwell could shock Overeem in the same fashion as Bigfoot and Browne did.
Overeem’s PED use has resulted in a turbulent UFC career, but his own cockiness has led to his biggest downfalls. He’s willing to get into firefights with bruising heavyweights because he has convinced himself that he’s the far superior striker. His more measured approach against Mir demonstrates that he has learned to use caution. Whether he keeps that up against Rothwell is another story. The Wisconsin native has a habit of looking overwhelmed at times, but he’s always just one punch away from finishing his opponent. If Overeem believes he has Rothwell in a bad spot, he could fall into old habits and find himself laid out on the canvas.
Do I really think Overeem is going to fall to Rothwell, though? No. This fight gives him the chance to start building a winning streak, and his technical abilities on the feet should allow him to either finish Rothwell or outpoint him by a large margin on the scorecards. Those fights with the likes of dos Santos or Hunt will be a different scenario. Overeem is reaching the later stages of his career, and where his skills will allow him to excel against the middle tier of the heavyweight division, his chin won’t hold up against the elite strikers he’s sure to cross paths with in his effort to get to the top of the UFC ranks.
This event marks the first time the UFC is going head-to-head with Bellator MMA, but UFC President Dana White has denied that it will be a regular thing. Is the full slate of fights a good thing for the fans? And with big names like Jacare, Mousasi and Overeem, will the card deliver on a Friday night?
Henderson: I look at this card and the recently concluded UFC 177 pay-per-view and I wonder why the UFC opted to do what it did here. Obviously, a title bout on pay-per-view makes sense, but the supporting cast of fights for UFC 177 reads more like that of a fight night card, whereas this Fight Night card has a supporting cast that would seem to be more fit for a pay-per-view event. I mean, fans have to pay to see Yancy Medeiros fight, but they get Overeem and Derrick Lewis for free?
There’s only one credible explanation for this: the Bellator counter-programming factor. When the UFC wants to show its dominance, it puts everything into that effort. In this case, it’s going to make fans choose between seeing a card that features two heavyweight knockout artists and a middleweight No. 1 contender bout and a Bellator card featuring King Mo and a featherweight title tilt. If the UFC served up its typical Fight Night fare, the competition between the two events would be close. But with this lineup, it shouldn’t be. Dedicated fans will be flipping channels or using their DirecTV Genie’s picture-in-picture feature to keep tabs on both events, but the casual fan will see a lot of big names on the UFC card and opt to focus on it.
This really is a good thing for fans coming off a pay-per-view event that saw a shocking change at the last second. They receive a card that has the potential to deliver multiple exciting contests and some highlight-reel finishes, plus a Bellator card that shrugs off the tournament format and delivers its own list of recognizable names. The UFC will indeed deliver with this Friday night offering, and it won’t be the last time these two promotions go head-to-head.
Tatum: The UFC and Dana White can downplay the head-to-head aspect of these events all they want, but the fact that both events are on the same night and within 10 miles of each other tells a different story. However, with the new Bellator regime featuring former Strikeforce head (and one-time Zuffa employee) Scott Coker, the two promotions might play nice for a while.
Like Bryan said, the Friday-night line-up is more appealing than the UFC’s recent pay-per-view card and combined with a solid Bellator main card featuring a featherweight title tilt, it’s a night that fight fans won’t want to miss.
Given the plethora of notable names and solid match-ups on the card, it’s going to deliver. Heavy hitters like Overeem, Rothwell, Lewis and Mitrione will give fans a least one highlight-reel finish and top-10 ranked fighters Jacare and Mousasi will be looking to convince UFC brass they’re ready to challenge for gold. Friday night events won’t become a regular thing, but this one will be a treat.
After two first-round KO/TKO victories inside the Octagon, Derrick Lewis has earned a fight against Matt Mitrione, a man who stopped Shawn Jordan but couldn’t top the likes of Brendan Schaub, Roy Nelson or Cheick Kongo. In other words, Mitrione is a gatekeeper. So, does Lewis have what it takes to crash through this gate?
Tatum: Lewis has been a breath of fresh air to the UFC heavyweight division thus far, having earned back-to-back, first-round finishes by strikes. However, the Bellator and Legacy FC veteran has yet to face a name opponent in the Octagon.
He’ll get that chance against Mitrione. The former NFL defensive lineman has come back to earth after starting his career 5-0, but has looked good in wins over Jordan and Philip de Fries. It’s clear that Mitrione won’t challenge for a belt anytime soon, but he’s long, athletic and has the power in his hands to stop anyone.
Lewis and Mitrione have similar skill sets and it’s unlikely this fight sees the scorecards. Mitrione may have less fights than Lewis, but all of his professional bouts have come in the UFC. He’ll use that experience to get the better of Lewis on the feet and earn a second-round TKO to slow the momentum of Lewis’s hype train.
Henderson: I have to admit, I wasn’t sold on Lewis when he first entered the UFC. I had the misfortune of getting my first impressions of the big 29-year-old when he engaged in a sloppy fight under the Legacy banner against Rakim Cleveland. Lewis won that fight via TKO in the third round, but he didn’t display the type of skills necessary to hang with UFC-caliber talent. After a no-contest ending to his fight with Jeremiah Constant, Lewis produced another three victories via strikes across the RFA and Legacy promotions. It still wasn’t enough. He could beat fighters at that level, sure, but I kept flashing back to the Cleveland bout when assessing his chances in the UFC.
Well, his performances against Jack May and Guto Inocente have been much more convincing. Granted, they don’t constitute a huge step up in competition—May was a UFC newcomer and Inocente was a UFC newcomer who had been inactive for more than two years and normally fought at light heavyweight—but Lewis’s ability to finish the fights with ferociousness was enough to erase some of my doubts from his sloppier performance against Cleveland.
Mitrione has done less to convince me that he’s equally up to this task. His wins over Jordan and de Fries don’t hold as much weight in my book. Jordan has proven to be in a similar playing field as Mitrione, capable of beating the also-rans, but not the gatekeepers to the contender ranks. And de Fries? Well, a 2-3 UFC mark and a 2-4 record over his last six fights is telling enough.
Mitrione will definitely push Lewis and test the Legacy veteran’s worth as a future UFC heavyweight contender, but Lewis has the power and aggressiveness to rattle Mitrione early and keep pressing the action until he finishes the former NFLer.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: It’s not quite as far down the list as the sleepers I usually pick, but I like the Joe Lauzon fight with Michael Chiesa.
With losses in three of his last five fights and zero—yes, zero—winning streaks of three or more fights since 2007, Lauzon won’t be mistaken for a contender anytime soon. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown belt does endear himself to fans though. It helps that he has a “Fight of the Year” performance, five “Fight of the Night” awards, six “Submission of the Night” performances and a “Knockout of the Night.” He may not always win, but he always puts everything into his fights.
Chiesa is a different story in terms of contender status. The Ultimate Fighter 15 winner suffered his only UFC loss against Jorge Masvidal. His other four Octagon appearances ended in victories, including three submission finishes. Chiesa has delivered two “Submission of the Night” performances, and he’s only seen the scorecards in three of his 12 pro fights. The 26-year-old is a ground specialist, like Lauzon, but he’s certainly capable of standing toe-to-toe with “J-Lau.”
There’s a lot of potential for this fight to turn into another “of the Night” affair for Lauzon, win or lose. These two men can scrap, and they’re also capable of engaging in a very technical and fun chess match on the mat. Chiesa has consistency and reach in his favor, so he’s the safer bet to claim the win. It might be enough to push him back into the fringe contender category and another match-up against someone similar in standing to Masvidal.
Tatum: While I disagree with Bryan on the outcome of his pick for sleeper fight of the night, it’s a solid selection on a deep main card. My choice, though, is an under-the-radar rematch between Nik Lentz and Charles Oliveira.
This is a replay of a 2011 meeting that earned “Fight of the Night” honors, but also resulted in a no-contest after Oliveira connected with an illegal knee to a downed Lentz. Prior to that, though, the two fighters—then lightweights—engaged in a back-and-forth battle that saw the Brazilian’s speed and striking game get the better of Lentz’s grinding wrestling attack.
Fast forward three years and the now featherweights have both come a long way as fighters. Oliveira has dropped tough fights against Donald Cerrone, Cub Swanson and former champion Frankie Edgar, but he’s also scored back-to-back submission wins over Hatsu Hioki and Andy Ogle. Lentz struggled against Mark Bocek and Evan Dunham before reinventing himself at 145 pounds. He’s gone 4-1 in his new weight class with the lone loss coming against current No. 1 contender Chad Mendes.
This fight is going to be as much fun as the first meeting, if not more so. Lentz bring a relentless pace and is extremely durable, but Oliveira is simply the more talented fighter. Look for Oliveira to force Lentz to tap to a third-round armbar.
Pair this card with…
Tatum: Your favorite easy chair and your remote control. The UFC rarely holds events on Fridays and with the card overlapping Bellator 123, the night is going to be a fight fan’s dream. So sit back, kick off your shoes and enjoy flipping back and forth between the two cards. It’s going to be a fun night of action.
Henderson: A Friday night gathering of friends. This Friday offers two events, but the UFC’s entry is sure to be a great main card to watch with a group of friends. Joe Lauzon’s fights are always entertaining, there are two pairings of heavyweights on the main card that seem bound for big knockout finishes and there’s the intriguing rematch at the top of the lineup which features a much improved Jacare, who is capable of providing highlight-reel finishes standing or on the mat. This is the perfect card to keep even the casual or non-fans among your set of friends entertained, and it might even have the type of big finishes to convert some among them into true fans of the sport.
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET)
MW: Gegard Mousasi vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Ben Rothwell
HW: Matt Mitrione vs. Derrick Lewis
LW: Joe Lauzon vs. Michael Chiesa
FW: Nik Lentz vs. Charles Oliveira
FlyW: John Moraga vs. Justin Scoggins
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET)
LW: Al Iaquinta vs. Rodrigo Damm
MW: Rafael Natal vs. Chris Camozzi
BW: Chris Beal vs. Tateki Matsuda
FW: Sean Soriano vs. Chas Skelly
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