For the second straight weekend, a UFC event featured a major middleweight matchup in a featured slot on the card, as renowned jiu-jitsu player Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza took on upstart Australian Robert Whittaker in Kansas City, Missouri.
The bout was an opportunity for both men to stake their claim to positioning in the ongoing evolution of the middleweight title picture, and it didn't disappoint. Whittaker took advantage of the big stage of Fox on a Saturday night, taking home the biggest win of his life in a somewhat one-sided, entertaining affair.
Whittaker looked slicker and more mobile early in the first round, with Souza attempting to close distance and get his hands on the shifty former welterweight. When he eventually did, there was a heated scramble; however, Whittaker did a great job of protecting himself and getting things back upright.
It was a sign of things to come and also not something seen often—a person standing up once Souza takes them down. Whittaker had some thoughts:
FOX Sports: UFC @UFCONFOX
LATER GATOR! @RJWhittaker1990 is making his move in the middleweight division. HUGE finish. https://t.co/FkVNgz0Zd32017-4-16 01:08:33
“I think a lot of people let the hype get in their heads given he’s a legend of jiu-jitsu and MMA. I have great coaches and I train to fight. I know that it’s a fight at the end of the day, it’s not a grappling match, it’s not a jiu-jitsu match; all I have to do is get back up and punch him," he said after the bout.
That's what he did.
When it was back on the feet it was apparent the stand-up battle was one of skill against power, as Whittaker showcased movement and a clean jab, while Souza winged power shots over the top in hopes to scoring a home run blow. The discrepancy in quickness was incredibly apparent, and after five minutes, Whittaker had secured himself a 10-9 lead.
The second was more of the same in the early going, punctuated by a savage right hand right down the middle that put Jacare on dream street. Though he shook out the cobwebs and bought himself some time, Whittaker continued to pour it on and score points with a blend of technical striking and power shots of his own.
Another knockdown moments later, and there was no chance to reset things. Whittaker landed a head kick and chased the Brazilian to the ground, where referee Mario Yamasaki eventually decided to halt things once Souza's defense began to lose its enthusiasm.
Ariel Helwani @arielhelwani
Whittaker: "As a fan of the sport, I'm gutted to see Jacare lose." What a mensch!2017-4-16 01:08:25
It was a tour de force for Whittaker, a prospect-turned-contender over the past year or so who has quite evidently found a home at 185 pounds. This win is the signature he needed to get his name in the mix with the big dogs, and a bout with Luke Rockhold or Yoel Romero might make more sense than anything at this point, though he had a suggestion of his own:
"I think [middleweight champion Michael] Bisping owes me a fight. All the best to him, doing his own thing, but here’s the thing: He owes me a fight and I just proved that I’m deserving of it. I have to see how my injuries heal up first and see how things go, then who knows?”
It's also a devastating setback for Souza, who looked every bit of his 37 years in this one. It's hard not to wonder if all the years of sitting around and waiting for others to get their title shots figured out might not have cost him his best chance to get one for himself.
He'll need at least two wins before the end of the year to get back into title talks, and he won’t want to take a major step down in competition, so maybe a rematch with Gegard Mousasi or a shot at former champ Chris Weidman could work.