We’ve had a ton of great fights within the past week or so … and now we get the one I’ve been the most excited for: the best BJJ practitioner at 185lbs against the man who seems to nullify the best offense from everyone in MMA (save a few). With the turmoil at the top of the division the winner of this fight could meaningfully lay claim to the winner of Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman 2 later this year.
Yushin Okami has been a stalwart of the middleweight division for a long, long time and has been entrenched in the Top 5 of the division for nearly as long. He’s been the gatekeeper to a title shot for a long time, even before his failure in Brazil against then champion Anderson Silva. If you could beat Okami you were ready for (or one fight from) a title shot. After his thrashing by Silva he was seemingly written off, career wise, especially after Tim Boetsch’s epic comeback win.
It felt like Okami’s championship window had closed, permanently, and that he was going to ease into gatekeeper status as a middleweight, Japanese version of Cheick Kongo. And then a funny thing happened … he started winning again.
A perfunctory win over Buddy Roberts was followed by a win over Alan Belcher, who had title aspirations at the moment. He then took a split decision from much hyped Hector Lombard in Okami’s backyard of Japan, leaving him potentially in the mix for a title shot. With the UFC middleweight division having been shook up by Weidman’s upset of Silva, Okami’s aspirations for another chance to wear UFC gold suddenly have become closer to reality (as opposed to fiction). He’s only lost to Silva, Sonnen, Rich Franklin and Boetsch in a UFC career that started in 2006 … that is pretty remarkable for a career that hasn’t wound up being one where he held a championship at least once.
All the while Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza has done is look like an absolute killer since a remarkably close title loss to Luke Rockhold for the Strikeforce middleweight belt. He made longtime UFC middleweight staples Ed Herman and Chris Carmozzi look absolutely foolish in his last two fights, the former his final appearance in Strikeforce and the latter his UFC debut, Souza is the latest middleweight contender looking for one final big win before laying his claim to the UFC title.
Fight Breakdown – Okami has a pretty simple game plan he implements in nearly every fight. Work the clinch, get inside, get the fight to the ground and grind out a win. He’s been a poor man’s Chael Sonnen in that regard; he doesn’t do anything fancy or special, just implement his strengths and get people down. He has a crisp dirty boxing game, a good chin and is a game fighter. The one thing Okami doesn’t do is deviate from his game plan or give guys the ability to exploit a flaws in his game. He’s dogged in his determination to do so, as well; he resembles Sonnen a lot in this degree but without the marked submission defense flaw.
I don’t expect Okami to deviate from this tactic against Souza; he’s got great submission defense and has never been tapped in his career. His submission defense is excellent and he’s faced guys with similar high level backgrounds before (Dean Lister comes to mind) and hasn’t been tapped. His top game has gotten better since he’s been working with Team Quest (and now Alliance) and Chael Sonnen. He might get in danger but he’s skilled enough in the grind to not give up something that could finish him. Look for him to box Souza just enough to get on the inside, go for the clinch (or push him against the cage) and work from there. He’s going to try and grind this out; he doesn’t have enough power to finish Souza but he has enough to keep him on his heels. Okami is good enough to be able to embrace the grind and ugly this up; if he wins like how we think he can win then it’s going to be a remote-throwing type of fight.
This is where the fight gets interesting because in Souza he’s facing one of the best BJJ practitioners in the sport and easily the best in the division. Souza is a bad dude on the ground, someone you don’t want to get into a grappling exchange with, and has complimented his ground game with a burgeoning striking game that works with his general explosive athletic ability. Ed Herman wanted to try the grapple game with Souza and wound up being tapped pretty quickly. Carmozzi got close … and then got choked for his efforts.
Can Souza tap Okami? I think he can … but Okami’s top game is so good, and his defense of submissions so stellar, make the odds that much more difficult in his favor. Most likely he wins this fight by using his striking and catching Okami with his hands before he gets a submission. Okami’s top game is good enough to keep Souza on his back but look for Souza to try and keep this standing, using his striking and catching Okami when he tries to get inside. Okami’s boxing game is good but a bit overrated; Souza has improved enough (and has KO power) with his offensive striking that on his feet is where the fight can be won.
The problem is that Okami has the wrong nickname. He’s more of a Neutralizer than he is “Thunder” … but no one wants to watch someone fight whose skill is just neutralizing everyone. His talent in MMA is doing just that and whether or not Jacare can get his offense off will be the true test of his talents.
Why it matters – If Okami wins then he has to be in the title mix; it’d be four in a row against credible competition, including his third Top 10 fighter in a row. He’d have to be in a title eliminator next, especially considering he just keeps winning against guys he’s supposed to lose to. Souza is a fresh name in the division and an intriguing matchup with the winner of Weidman/Silva.
Prediction – Okami … he keeps beating guys who he’s supposed to lose to and I can’t pick against him, even for a guy like Jacare.
Tags: Mixed Martial Arts, Ronaldo Souza, Ultimate Fight Night 28, Yushin Okami