By all measurable standards, Ronaldo Souza has been on an absolute tear.
Since coming over from the now-defunct Strikeforce organization in 2013, Jacare has carved a path of destruction through the UFC middleweight division. In the process, he has solidified his place as one of the elite competitors in an increasingly competitive collective at 185 pounds and has proven to be a nightmare matchup for anyone the promotion has tapped to step into the Octagon with him.
The Alligator is becoming more dangerous each and every time out, and that spells trouble for the rest of his peers in the middleweight fold. That said, a versatile arsenal isn't something Souza could always lay claim to.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace parlayed his grappling skills into a successful run as a mixed martial artist that took him to a Strikeforce title in 2010. Yet the current state of MMA is one where a well-rounded skill set is a requirement to rise to the top of the sport, and while Souza has always been lights out when he gets his opponent to the canvas, his striking skills were still in the developmental process.
Souza knew he needed to get his stand-up game to the next level, and if successful in doing so, he could make a legitimate run at becoming the best middleweight fighter in the world. A setback against Luke Rockhold in 2011 would cost him the Strikeforce middleweight title, but it would also spark the most dominant run of his career.
Since coming out on the losing end of a hard-fought battle with the AKA product, Souza has rattled off six consecutive victories, all but one of those wins coming by way of finish. The surging contender has looked like an absolute monster during his current run, as he's put both his world-class submission skills and his newfound knockout power on display. This success has brought him to a place where he's one of the most highly touted fighters in the middleweight division, and his personal push for progress has finally yielded a multifaceted attack.
He will be looking to continue his climb up the 185-pound ladder Friday night when he squares off with fellow contender Gegard Mousasi at Fight Night 50 in Mashantucket, Connecticut. A victory over The Armenian Assassin would make it seven straight victories for Souza and make his case for a title opportunity hard to deny.
That said, Souza's focus isn't on potential championship bouts. He has his focus locked on Mousasi and their high-profile showdown on Friday night.
"This means a lot to me," Souza told Bleacher Report. "It is my first main event in the UFC, and Mousasi is such a great fighter. I'm really happy with this fight, and I've been working really hard for this. I'm not really thinking of anything beyond this fight because I'm trying to be 100 percent focused on my fight and my opponent."
While this will be the first time Souza and Mousasi clash under the UFC banner, it won't be the first time they battle for supremacy under the bright lights. The two fighters initially collided at Dream 6 back in 2008, and the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion earned the victory via flash knockout from a well-timed upkick from his back.
With their first encounter coming so long ago and with the substantial growth both men have shown in the six years since, Souza didn't take their first meeting into consideration during his preparation for Fight Night 50. He's knows his opponent has a versatile arsenal and will be dangerous wherever the action takes place.
"I don't really think about our first fight when preparing for this one because it happened so long ago," Souza said. "I didn't even watch that fight for this training camp because of that reason. I didn't make any mistakes in that first fight, and Mousasi had a great game in that fight. Mousasi just had a great game on that night.
"There is no way to deny that I am very strong on the ground, but he is such a complete fighter. I admire him a lot. I admire him both as a person and as a fighter. I think he's very capable of bringing a different game and he's going to be tough wherever we are fighting. I know this fight is going to be awesome for the fans."
When Souza and Mousasi step into the Octagon to handle their business at Fight Night 50, there will be more than just pride on the line. In the aftermath of Anderson Silva being dethroned by Chris Weidman, the middleweight division has turned into one of the most competitive collectives under the UFC banner. Where most weight classes are sparse on potential title challengers, the 185-pound fold has a handful of hungry fighters all battling for a shot at the middleweight strap.
While Souza's recent run has cemented him as one of the divisional elite, he's modest when looking at his place in the bigger picture. He recognizes the wealth of talent he's surrounded by and is honored to be a part of what he sees as a solid division.
"This division is so full of great fighters," Souza said. "There is Lyoto Machida, Luke Rockhold, Vitor Belfort and so many other great fighters in this weight class. Tim Kennedy and Michael Bisping are also very good fighters in the division. There are so many great fighters to list I can't name them all, but that is how strong I think this division is. There is no way for me to consider myself the strongest fighter in the middleweight division because of that. I can't say this is the hardest division in the UFC, but it is the most fun division for the fans.
"Not for the fighters," he added with a laugh, "but for sure for the fans."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.