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UFC 226 main event breakdown: Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier

Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

So far, 2018 has been a perfectly fine year of UFC action. It’s been strong and steady, with many young talents breaking through, one new champion crowned, and a slew of memorable action fights. But when it comes to bouts of real gravitas, it’s been tumbleweeds. That changes Saturday night, when the organization puts on a true superfight at UFC 226, pitting light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier against heavyweight kingpin Stipe Miocic.

For obvious reasons, most champ vs. champ bouts favor the bigger fighter, and on the betting line, this one is no different; Miocic is about a -225 favorite on most books. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Cormier is capable of making this a spirited battle, maybe even winning. The evidence comes from his past. As those who have watched him throughout his career will recall, Cormier began his MMA run as a heavyweight, and in fact, never lost while competing in the division, going 13-0. In the process, he earned wins over Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva, Frank Mir and Roy Nelson. He’s also spent most of his career training with one of history’s top heavyweights, Cain Velasquez. By virtue of all that experience, Cormier is both equipped and prepared to handle bigger guys.

It’s well known that Cormier (20-1, 1 no-contest) is not exactly a fan of making the weight cut down to 205 pounds. It’s never been an easy cut for him, and now his focus can stay on the fight and the opponent rather than watching his calories for the last few weeks of camp.

Most of Cormier’s success as a heavyweight came based upon his speed. Never a huge heavyweight—his average weight over his last seven heavyweight bouts was 237.5 pounds—he used his quick hands and wrestling skills to great success. Based off his Olympic background, Cormier arrived in major MMA known as a brilliant wrestler, and he used that reputation to great effect. Opponents knew what he could do when he got within shooting distance and because of their desperation to ward off his clinches, they often reacted prematurely to his fake level-changes, becoming susceptible to setups. As such, Cormier came prepared with the ability to make the fake and instead send his strikes upstairs while his opponents’ hands were lowered for an attack that never came. This is one of the reasons he had few problems getting inside despite the fact he routinely gave up several inches of height and reach.

Statistically, he’s not the takedown marvel that would be expected given his amateur achievements. For his career, he’s been successful on just 42 percent of his takedown attempts, per FightMetric. But in a sense, his capability of taking people down often matters more than his actual ability to do it. Opponents come into fights knowing that they can’t allow Cormier to take them down, because on the ground, he’s a mauler. He has submission abilities—just ask Anthony Johnson—but he’s more than happy to sit in half-guard and bust opponents with elbows and short right hands for minutes at a time, as he did to Volkan Oezedemir in the second round of their UFC 220 bout.

For Cormier, his wrestling opens up his striking. He’s got fast hands and an educated jab, but he’s crafty. He’ll lead with an overhand right, or he’ll go jab/hook based on whatever look his foe is giving him. He’s also great at chaining takedown tries when he sets his mind to it, and even if he’s not successful, he can trap opponents against the fence and drain their energy-meters. And while he doesn’t fight at a breakneck pace, he has generally shown himself to have excellent stamina in fights that have gone late, including his UFC 192 win over Alexander Gustafsson.

That last trait will be tested against Miocic, who is probably the only heavyweight other than Velasquez capable of out-working Cormier over the course of a long bout. Throughout his career, Miocic has averaged 4.75 strikes landed per minute, and he still holds the divisional record for most strikes landed in a bout when he connected on Mark Hunt a stunning 361 times in May 2015.

That’s a crazy, lung-busting pace that few big men can keep, and it stands among his most important traits.

Miocic (18-2) is one of the most complete heavyweight talents MMA has seen over the last decade. On his feet, he has nimble footwork, and is adept at cutting off the cage on his opponent as he blasts off jabs or swiping left hooks to open up the overhand right. He pressures easily and without overextending, content with the knowledge that his pace is a weapon of its own. As long as he makes an opponent continually move their feet, he reasons, they’re going to get tired and slow down, and when they’re moving in slow motion, the game changes.

Miocic loves to see any signs of fatigue in his opponent. He feasts off opponents that retreat or that otherwise fight off their back foot. In that way, he is like an anaconda, advancing forward a half-step every time his prey attempts to take a breath.

At 6-foot-4 and with an 80-inch reach, Miocic will certainly have some physical advantages on Cormier, and it’s one that can play dividends. Miocic’s jab can play well against Cormier’s advancement.

Unlike many of Cormier’s past opponents, Miocic has his own wrestling chops, with a Division I background that should allow him to ward off much of Cormier’s attack. Miocic’s wrestling is versatile. In his last title defense against Francis Ngannou, it was a major component of his offensive attack, leading to six takedowns and a slew of clinches that clearly sapped Ngannou of his power as the bout transpired. In other instances, it becomes a defensive asset, forcing opponents to play at his pace.

It isn’t hard at all to picture Cormier finding a way to win this. This is a fight where the lessons of fighting Jon Jones may well help him. Jones doesn’t boast Miocic’s power, but they can use their length in similar ways, and against Jones, Cormier’s entries to Jones lacked lateral movement, putting him in harm’s way far too often. Cormier is an incredible athlete and competitor. If he approaches the fight the right way, he can win.

Still, there is a lot for him to overcome. His undoing against Jones was the bigger man’s distance control, and that is something Miocic does well, too. The heavyweight champ can keep a frenetic pace, has power, and has the wrestling tools to negate some of Cormier’s best weapons. This fight should have some momentum shifts, and significant shots landed for each man, but in the end, the bigger man escapes with the belt. Miocic via unanimous decision.

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