Souza, Rockhold cross paths in Cincy

Ronaldo Souza has one handful of a reason to perform at his best every time out. Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog.com

Despite different sensibilities, Ronaldo Souza and Luke Rockhold covet similar things. Top of the list this week: Strikeforce's middleweight championship belt.

Souza, the titleholder, came from nothing, a poor son of Brazil's Amazon. He knows what it is to want.

Rockhold, the challenger, needed little more than hearty waves and paved roads in sun-swept Santa Cruz, Calif., to be happy. He had plenty of both.

Yet they enter the cage motivated to fight. Chalk it up to individuality. No two athletes are alike in mind, body or spirit. What drives one may not do a thing for another.

"You can be well off but still have that motivation as someone who's hungry to do well in this sport. I don't think that being poor is the only motivation that's needed to be a champion," said Javier Mendez, chief trainer at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., and Rockhold's top supporter. "I think all walks of life can get to that point depending on that motivation. A lot of poverty does make for great motivation, but there are other situations with fighters who haven't had that poverty who are just as motivated -- if not more so. There are certain parts of their life that they want to prove they can do."

In Rockhold's case, a strong need to challenge himself in areas where people don't believe he can succeed is what drives him, Mendez said.

Adrenaline, admits the 26-year-old Rockhold, is the overriding explanation for why he fights. There's nothing quite as stirring to the adrenal glands that doesn't literally require the wind of an onrushing bull.

"He's going to have a lot of adrenaline to burn when he sees 'Jacare' on the other side of the cage," quipped Souza's friend and manager Gilberto Faria.

Souza, 31, understands and enjoys that part of it too. Almost every fighter does. More important to him, Saturday's fight is one chapter in a larger campaign that began when he was a kid with little to look forward on the streets.

"I'm a survivor," said Souza, who rose to become one of the top Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitors and mixed martial artists in the world. "All the friends I have from my early age up to 16 are all gone. I lost them all. I don't have any friends from that part of my life. That gave me the idea that I have to live my life to a better environment, and the sport put me on the right track. That's the love and passion I have for jiu-jitsu and martial arts training. That's given me what I have now and I know it will give me a lot more. Especially in the case when I look back. Where all my friends? They're gone. I'm the one that survived that generation."

Two weeks after UFC's return to Brazil following a 13-year absence, Souza is positioned to make the most of the surging momentum for MMA at home. He's quiet, and the recent attention will take some getting used to, but he understands the need and welcomes it.

"Everything I went through, I want to make sure my family doesn't go through that," he said. "I use that as a lesson to use the energy, the power, to enjoy, to do better, to be professional."

Souza trains, returns home to his pregnant wife and little girl living in a beautiful place in Rio de Janeiro, eats well, and trains again. If that's all he ever did, Jacare would be a happy man. Yet success demands more out of a man, and these are the lessons he's beginning to realize. Being around greats like Anderson Silva and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira helps manage this perspective.

Rockhold, too, has solid influences to draw upon. When he walked into AKA for the first time, he was reckless. He grappled, sparred and trained like each experience was one more adrenaline dump. The camp's top stars were unwilling to train with the guy, long and athletic as he was, for fear that he'd hurt them.

"He couldn't control himself," Mendez said. "Over time, he learned how to. He's got it down now, but he was very reckless in the beginning."

It's ironic, then, that Rockhold the Reckless comes into Saturday's title fight believing he needs to be more cautious than ever before. For a fighter who's never been out of the first round in eight fights -- winning seven -- that's saying something. Because his strength is also Souza's and because the obvious analysis suggests the Brazilian is better on the ground, "it's definitely going to change my game plan a little bit," Rockhold conceded.

The idea: Don't push from specific positions for fear of being exposed.

"With certain attacks and finishes you have to give something away a little bit, but that's why you have to be a little conservative." Rockhold said. "He has that other piece to his game that not a lot of other people have. But lucky for me, I have all that athleticism, power, strength and size. I can match him on a lot of levels, and I think that will be a huge factor for me in this fight."

Souza (14-2) went 25 minutes with Tim Kennedy 13 months ago to capture the vacant belt. He defended it by submitting Robbie Lawler in January. As it stands, Jacare is ranked No. 3 in the world at middleweight by ESPN.com. He is more experienced than Rockhold and comes into the bout as a significant favorite.

"It's a huge step up," Mendez said. "It's a fight I didn't want because I didn't think Luke was mentally ready. Experience-wise, I would have liked two more high profile fights before he fought for the title. It isn't that he's fighting Jacare; it's that he's fighting for the title that concerns me. Having that discipline to stay relaxed and not go a little crazy in there is hard thing to do the first time in the big spotlight.

"He got offered the fight. Of course, he decides whether he takes it or not. I was not for it because I thought there was a lot we had to do. Now that we're involved in the fight and I see his mental transition -- how he's adapted to the challenge -- I can absolutely say 100 percent he's ready to go. The inexperience factor and everything that I thought from the beginning, you can throw that out."

These are the long odds Rockhold loves.

This is the position Souza has cultivated from scratch.

This is where the two will intersect.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.