Before MMA was MMA, no-holds-barred fighting was created to determine which martial arts discipline was best. Back in the early days of Royce Gracie, the answer was clearly Brazilian jiu jitsu. But just a few years later, with the rise of champions Dan Severn, Don Frye, and Mark Coleman, wrestling took over as the dominant art form in mixed combat.
In the 20-plus years that have passed, BJJ practitioners and wrestlers have continued their longstanding grappling rivalry. And while Gracie may have submitted Severn at UFC 4, middleweight Yoel Romero, a former Olympic Silver medalist on the wrestling mats, will have an opportunity to right that ship at UFC 194, when he takes on multiple time Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
Ranked numbers two and three, respectively, by the UFC, Jacare and Souza have been eyeing each other for quite some time. The pair was initially set to square off at February’s UFC 184, but a case of pneumonia knocked Jacare out before the duo could take the Octagon. A few months later, it was Romero who withdrew from a second booking at UFC on FOX 15, citing a ligament and meniscus tear.
But finally, on Saturday night, the UFC’s premiere middleweight grapplers will go at it, resuming MMA’s decades-long BJJ-versus-wrestling rivalry.
Considered by many to be the finest pure BJJ practitioner on the UFC roster, Jacare has developed one of the most imposing submission games in the sport during his dozen years as a professional mixed martial artist.
He effortlessly smothers and swallows opponents whole, clinching necks and arms, or both, so tight that the opposition has no choice but to tap out. Twice bitten by Jacare, Chris Camozzi didn’t even have the chance to surrender during their first meeting; Jacare put him out in the first round because that’s what Jacare does—once he grabs ahold of you, the end is near.
But if anyone has the credentials and game to withstand Jacare’s clutches, it’s Romero, the UFC’s most decorated wrestler not named Henry Cejudo.
Romero is far less experienced on the MMA mats than Jacare, only turning pro in 2009. But his Olympic silver medal at the 2000 Sydney games, along with multiple victories over USA Wrestling great Cael Sanderson were enough to help him make the jump up to the UFC after only five professional MMA bouts. Inside the Octagon he has been lights out.
A Cuban national who trains out of Florida’s American Top Team, Romero and his MMA game have looked better and more refined every time he’s stepped inside the cage. Unlike the lay-and-pray wrestlers of days past, fighters who just constantly fish for the takedown and smother once they hit the floor, Romero uses a vast repertoire of strikes to keep opponents guessing. And when he finally does go for the takedown, it’s rather effortless to complete.
Just ask number-five middleweight Lyoto Machida, who was tossed around the cage by Romero in June of this year, or sixth-ranked Tim Kennedy, who had his face rearranged by the Cuban in September 2014. Thirteenth-ranked Derek Brunson suffered a similar fate 23 months ago, and, Brad Tavares, the only man to ever go the distance with Romero, was thoroughly battered for the entirety of their 15-minute affair.
For Romero, it’s the mere threat of his world-class wrestling that opens opponents up to his strikes. He owns a tool so devastating that competitors forget that this “Soldier of God” can punch. And this is exactly why Jacare is the ideal opponent. So dynamic off of his back, so agile and able to sweep is Jacare, that he can defend on the feet and from his guard; it’s one of those cases where the best offense is a good defense.
Now 10 months out from their initially scheduled bout, the stakes are higher than ever for both Jacare and Romero. Not only is this matchup a prelude to the UFC 194 middleweight title fight between Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, meaning the next title shot is likely on the line, but in the time that has passed, both fighters have solidified themselves as part of the division’s big four—previously Machida, Gegard Mousasi, and Vitor Belfort were cluttering up the top of the weight class.
There is another important factor in this bout; with both athletes nearing 40 (Jacare turned 37 on Monday, Romero is 38), this is likely to be their last run at a title shot. And while higher weight competitors seem to fight later into life, 45-year-old Dan Henderson is living proof that championship form in your 30s is often followed by a remarkable downturn in the fourth decade.
So before Jacare and Romero begin to feel the lingering effects of aging, it’s only fitting that they should finally meet on one of MMA’s biggest nights. And once that opening bell rings, it’s anybody’s guess who will prevail; however, it is a certainty that some of the finest BJJ and wrestling for mixed martial arts will be on display, resulting in a fitting homage to the MMA’s early days where specialists represented a singular discipline.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.