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Editorial: Jacare was never a UFC champion, but he was a generational talent all the same

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The MMA world will miss Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza for a lot of reasons that both have and don’t have to do with the sport.

Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza does his famous gator walk after beating Chris Camozzi in Brazil.
Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza does his famous gator walk after beating Chris Camozzi in Brazil.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There are few better stories in MMA than the one that belongs to Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza. Raised in the streets of Cariacica, Brazil, he was fortunate enough to adopt Brazilian Jiu Jitsu after witnessing a friend get shot to death. On the mat, he was an eight-time World Jiu-Jitsu champ, winning gold medals in the openweight class, and adding ADCC titles to his illustrious mix.

Inside the cage, he was the rare mix of pugilism and positivity. Sure, he went into every match trying to snap limbs, and deny oxygen to opponent’s brains, but his goofy but fun alligator chomp celebration brought home an attitude we’re usually denied in the world of Just Bleed animosity: no matter how violent this sport gets, these are still just games between the world’s best athletes.

It was sad to hear him call it a career, but only as a fight fan. From a human perspective, what could be more joyous? Jacare once talked about going to the gym and crying in his car. That interview in 2019 was a revelation for many reasons, but mostly for the fact that Jacare was willing to set his bias aside against something he was never fond of beforehand: psychology.

“Everyone has problems,” he told Guilherme Cruz of MMAFighting. “Where I came from, if someone told me I was having psychological problems I would say, ‘Brother, this guy is crazy. Are you eating crap?’ I would say something like that [laughs]. I have no problem talking about it, I think it’s actually good so people identify that as well. Some people think that those who kill themselves are the ones who have problems, and that’s not cool.”

What will define Jacare’s legacy more than most other fighters was his sense of adventure. Not just a sense of adventure in relation to admitting his faults. But a physical sense of adventure. After dominating much of the grappling world, he set his sights on MMA. His debut wasn’t the outcome he wanted. He lost to Jorge Patino by KO at Jungle Fight’s inaugural event. But he also went out on his own terms, scrambling for the knockout as he quickly discovered he could be as dangerous throwing knuckles as submissions. Not just as dangerous. But dangerous enough.

Jacare would dramatically rebound. Not only did he have the pedigree of being one of the world’s best grapplers, but he had other tools. Part of what made Jacare’s transition into MMA so successful — where others like Roger Gracie, Marcelo Garcia were not — is that Jacare was simply a phenomenal athlete. Being a technician is great. But it’s not always enough. It pays have that little something extra. He’s not Michael Phelps, producing half the amount of lactic acid a normal athlete produces, but Jacare was a smooth operator; a fighter who looked as comfortable in a cage as he would on a football field.

For most of his career, it served him well. He made it to DREAM’s Middeeweight Grand Prix Finals in 2008, losing to Gegard Mousasi by upkick: a loss he’d avenge six years later. In Strikeforce, only Luke Rockhold stood in his way after taking the Strikeforce Middleweight belt.

When he got to the UFC, he proved himself part of the elite. He scored seven performance of the night bonuses. Sometimes he did it with submissions, as he did against Gegard Mousasi. Sometimes he did it with punches, as he did against Vitor Belfort. And sometimes it was just plain ole’ fashioned resolve, as he did against Chris Weidman.

The ensuing years were less kind. He lost a split decision to eventual Light Heavyweight champ, Jan Blachowicz, which gave fans the appearance he might still have something left. But then was knocked out in brutal fashion to Kevin Holland (from the ground no less), and was submitted by Andre Muniz: two things that are hard to imagine ever happening during his prime.

As I’ve said during the Obscure Fighter of the Week series, and it bears repeating, but there’s nothing wrong with failing to become a UFC champion. Few fighters ever win titles, and just as few find themselves on the cusp of challenging for one. Fighters don’t have to fight forever to create a legacy that will. Between his fun post-fight theatrics, his candidness, being pulled out of the darkness, and positive aura in spite of it all — Jacare will always have a place in history precisely because he cast a shadow larger than many champions ever will.