The co-main event at UFC UFC 224 saw top middleweight contenders Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza and Kelvin Gastelum throw down in a fight that would have huge implications for the division.
Fighting in front of his compatriots in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 38-year-old Jacare said that he came into this one refreshed after switching to the Fusion X-Cel Performance training team, earlier this year.
“I found a great team here – a humble team, but with a great heart,” Souza said beforehand. “It’s been great to have this camp here. I feel great. It’s been a while since I had felt this good, physically – by that, I mean healthy. I was always doing well physically at X-Gym because we had great professionals but I had a rough stretch, with multiple injuries, and that made it harder.”
How much harder did those injuries make it? At one stage, the Brazilian contemplated hanging up his gloves for good after a string of injuries had him doubting his abilities.
“I’d thought about stopping before, because I thought maybe I couldn’t fight at a high level anymore. That’s was what made me think about that. The day things start getting tough, I’ll stop,” he said.
Still, before that day comes, Souza insists that he will be the UFC middleweight champion.
“When I’m happy, no one can beat me,” Souza said beforehand. “So in two fights, I’ll be middleweight champion of the UFC.”
Not that he was looking past Gastelum, who he clearly respects.
“Kelvin Gastelum is a very tough guy, and there’s no one else to fight,” Souza said. “[Luke] Rockhold is going to move up a division, he was just knocked out. Chris Weidman is injured, going through another surgery in his hand. Gastelum is the guy now. He’s the guy who’s ready to fight, and those who aren’t, lose their turn.”
Gastelum harboured his own burning ambition to become the champ and said that he believed a big win over the Brazilian would see him in the running for a title shot.
“I feel like I need to beat him and make a statement,” Gastelum said. “If I don’t make a statement, I don’t think I’ll be able to contend for the title next. But if I go in there and knock him out in the first round, then I have no doubt that the next fight will be for the title.”
The bookies installed Souza as the minor favourite at $1.80 while Gastelum was paying $2.00 to come away with the win.
Souza started brightly, securing the early takedown and controlling Gastelum on the ground for most of the first round.
Always active off his back, the Brazilian transitioned seamlessly, looking for a submission and almost got it with an armbar at the end of the round.
Gastelum came back strong in the second, stuffing the takedown and landing some hard shots. He floored Souza with a crisp one-two and for a moment looked as though he would finish the fight
But the Brazilian hung on and even launched a counter-attack towards the end of the round.
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Visibly exhausted by the end of the round, Jacare stumbled back to his stool. Somehow, he managed to get back off it and back into the fight in the third. The pair traded heavy blows for the full five minutes before the final bell rang.
Gastelum did enough to earn the split decision and is now looking for a title shot after Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero do battle at UFC 225 next month.
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