Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) practitioners of the highest prestige -- the most conceivably elite of the bunch -- have a storied history in MMA. In fact, the finest from the renowned Gracie clan are largely, if not solely, responsible for the very creation of our beloved sport.
In the early days of Vale Tudo and No Holds Barred (NHB), the presence of a BJJ black belt meant the fight would be over in a matter of moments if the match hit the floor. When exploiting an opponent's weakness became the most popular and effective path toward victory, the prescient philosophy of "hybrid fighting" came about to stress the importance of knowledge and proficiency in all areas of combat. BJJ was no longer some form of mysterious Hocus Pocus that few understood, but an imperative requirement for any aspiring mixed martial artist.
Nowadays, if a top-tier fighter is not a BJJ black belt nor adept at withstanding or deterring their clutches, eyebrows are often raised in collective concern. This evolution both leveled the playing field and gave birth to a new and highly distinguished clique of submissionists. The best of the best no longer just flaunted a belt color signifying the loftiest of ranks, but, rather, boasted a collection of medals and a grocery list of accomplishments in the most heralded grappling tournaments.
Enter Ronaldo Souza (18-3), who joins the likes of Roger Gracie and Demian Maia amongst MMA's finest submission grapplers. With Maia cementing his longevity and Gracie being handed his walking papers after losing his UFC debut, much of the spotlight now rests on "Jacare," and for good reason. Compared to his counterparts, Jacare is by far the most athletic, adaptable and diverse of the bunch. Since BJJ tendencies are second nature to this group, gaining ground in the aspects of striking and wrestling represents the biggest hurdle, and none have excelled as promisingly as Souza.
But the one element that stands above a lucrative specialty and encouraging ascension is proven staying power at the utmost pinnacle of the sport, and those laurels belong to Japanese middleweight Yushin Okami (29-7), who meets Jacare in the co-main event of tonight's UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Bader show.
The bettors apparently do not subscribe to the aforementioned assessment as Jacare, who is yet to either encounter or surpass an opponent of Okami's status, has emerged as a substantial favorite on the betting lines. Jacare's peerless presence could very well justify that though -- his boxing and wrestling have gone from basic to average and are presently construed as anywhere from fully functional to excellent, which forms a perilously formidable arsenal when combined with his unparalleled submission savvy.
However, outstanding fighters at the apex level are determined by more than potential, and that's where Okami shines. In a sport wherein prospects, contenders and champion come and go, a fighter who achieves and, of cardinal importance, maintains a stable presence against the world's best speaks volumes on his behalf. In his 17 turns in the Octagon, "Thunder" has been surpassed only by the two pioneering champions in Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin, the boisterous, dual-division wrestling juggernaut in Chael Sonnen and contender Tim Boetsch, the latter of which was exacted in dramatic fashion after Okami had thoroughly dominated the first two frames.
Were there a general formula comprised of the ideal tools and attributes to fend off a rare animal like Jacare, the concoction wouldn't be far astray from Okami's strongest attributes. He's one of the tallest and strongest middleweights on the UFC's roster, he's yet to be submitted in his whopping 36 career turns and surrounds the oft-immovable fortress of his Judo-based clinch game with piercing salvos of long and crisp punches.
Of the 17 adversaries he's encountered in the Octagon, the select few to remove his footing with takedowns are, per FightMetric, Nate Marquardt (3), Mark Munoz (1) and Evan Tanner (1) -- all of whom lost to Okami -- along with Franklin (1) and Sonnen (4). And his resume is not devoid of respected takedown artists, such as Olympic Judoka Hector Lombard, who failed in all three attempts, or two-time All-American and NCAA Division 1 national champion Munoz, who secured just one takedown in a hearty fifteen total tries for a measly seven-percent success rate.
Since Jacare's luster hinges on his submission savvy which, in turn, can only be implemented through wrestling and takedowns, the former is wholly dependent on the latter. While the surging Brazilian has unquestionably advanced that aspect, the best fighters he's taken down are Luke Rockhold (5 takedowns), who defeated Jacare and overtook his seat on the Strikeforce middleweight throne, and Tim Kennedy (2 takedowns) who, despite exuding an extremely commanding presence, is absent of laudable wrestling credentials.
Based on accolades, status and overall experience... the betting odds for this match strike me as either inaccurate or largely based on potential over accomplishments. But, as mentioned, those criteria do not solely dictate victory.
The buzz surrounding Jacare's advancements in boxing and wrestling will undergo a trial by fire against Okami. The emphasis on his ability to close distance with strikes and heave the hefty Judoka to the canvas obviously influence this clash the most. While comparing opponents and wrestling histories bodes well for Okami, Jacare approaches this challenge uniquely.
The key to his burgeoning striking and wrestling is extraordinary athleticism and agility. Jacare might lack the pure fundamentals of more accredited wrestlers, but few can match the explosiveness of his shot and the relentless determination of his pressure. Though, again, more attributed to his physical prowess than technique, Jacare's cage motion is exhaustively active and his submission venom so potent that few, if any, mistakes or lapses are permitted. Winning the round or finishing the fight might merely require one single takedown in the span of 15 minutes.
To counter Jacare's directives of flashing his hands whilst knifing his way into contact range, Okami, a southpaw, must dictate the pace and establish range with his long, snapping jab while staying on balance and light on his toes in order to react defensively at any and all times. If Jacare's forward pressure keeps increasing in intensity, the ideal "get the hell away from me" weapons consist of planting his feet and committing to a powerful right cross or changing levels and hitting a takedown of his own.
While that last suggestion bears the greatest risk by entering Jacare's preferred realm, it could be employed sparingly with a firm dedication to good ground posture and the intention to eject back to the standing position almost immediately. This cautious outlook would slow Jacare's nonstop stalking, task him with adjusting to an entirely different counter-attack and vault Okami ahead on the score cards. If he doesn't give Jacare a reason to hesitate and respect his striking, Jacare's only concerns will be distance and movement, which are drastically more achievable without the concern of getting punched in the face.
Jacare has made great strides with his boxing but I'm not sure he has the knack to string together combinations, land the greater volume of more effective blows or, overall, to win on the feet if he can't on the ground. Is it possible? Absolutely -- both on account of Jacare's phenomenal gameness and athleticism and Okami's tendency to coast or absorb errant punches. Though an inch shorter, Jacare's reach is longer by the same, which won't hurt either, and he's quicker with his hands as well. However, I don't think it's a stretch to assume that the thought of Jacare beating on Okami on the feet is somewhat unlikely.
The summary of this rundown steers me toward siding with Okami for the ... well, for the "upset," I guess. The only relevant factor I've yet to address is that Okami will not simply nose-dive into a triangle if Jacare is able to force a ground fight. Of course Jacare could submit him, as he could anyone, but it's not outrageous to assert that Okami will be able to hold his own and survive just as middleweights of a lesser stature in Rockhold and Kennedy could.
My Prediction: Yushin Okami by decision.