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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 241

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Daniel Cormier’s career is very much in question after his heavyweight title loss on Saturday to Stipe Miocic.

But as his days wind down in the sport as an active competitor, he’s become a fighter that to a large number of fans, and maybe even more to those in the that knew him a little, empathized with him more than any other fighter.

It’s hard to explain. Cormier certainly never had the drawing power of a Brock Lesnar, Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre or even Jon Jones. He was a great opponent for Jones as far as box office went, and would have been for Lesnar had that fight taken place.

But they all had a certain larger-than-life aura, whether it was from their size, talking ability or talent. Cormier obviously could talk, and you don’t get UFC titles in two weight divisions at the same time without superior talent.

But that’s not what people think of Cormier as. The big draws have a super hero aura. Perhaps because of his past tragedies, his sports history of a history of not winning the big one but always coming back, or his openness in interviews, he came across as a real-life person. He’s, as he once said, the guy living down the street who is out there once a week mowing his lawn. He’s a father, a coach, a team captain, and even a friend.

There was never a sense of arrogance regarding his accomplishments in person, even if he did play up a little of what he learned growing up a fight and pro wrestling fan in building fights up. When he won, he celebrated and got people celebrating with him. More than any other modern fighter, when he lost, people could feel his pain in his interviews and sympathized with him. You knew he was giving up reach, and was older, in almost every fight, but you also knew he was a competitor to the end. Only once, in the first Jon Jones fight, was he not competitive right until the end.

Cormier’s loss to Miocic on Saturday would probably be talked about as a fight of the year candidate this week, had not Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero had a potential winner in that category early in the show.

Cormier vs. Miocic was intense from start to finish. It was fast moving, particularly for big guys. It was intense. The stakes were high. You knew that the right punch could end it at any time.

Cormier, at 40, hardly moved like an old heavyweight. He had the speed, landed 230 punches with great accuracy, an amazing number for a heavyweight over less than four rounds. Until the fourth round, Cormier outlanded Miocic in every round. But even with Cormier landing, Miocic was taking everything Cormier was delivering. Miocic seemed to hit harder, but the key was Miocic’s amazing durability. He was taking clean shots over-and-over, and coming back for more.

What made the fight to interesting is how it changed as it went on. The first round was Cormier domination. The second and third rounds were closer, and Cormier appeared to be tiring faster, so even if he was up 29-28 or 30-27 after three, you knew it was anyone’s fight.

Then in round four, Miocic changed his strategy, and kept landing lefts to the body. He kept landing clean shots, taking Cormier out of his game plan and Cormier never fully was able to counter. And that set him up for the punch that he didn’t see, and Miocic won.

Miocic put on a performance to be applauded. He withstood three rounds of clean head shots without backing down or off. He changed his strategy and he finished a guy who was only finished once, and that result was overturned, in his career.

Yet there was also a feeling of sadness that one rarely gets watching a title change. Cormier was never the most popular fighter, although he was always among the most respected. Even with a huge heavyweight title fight, when watching the show, it felt like Nate Diaz was the biggest star to the California state record setting gate of $3.2 million at the Honda Center in Anaheim. And at the same time, even with the Diaz win and the Costa vs. Romero fight, the enduring memory of the night was feeling Cormier’s pain after the loss.

The question becomes whether or not he fights again. He had previously stated he would retire on his 40th birthday, this past March, but stuck around, first for the idea of a fight with Lesnar, and then for the fight with Miocic. A third fight with Jon Jones was talked about constantly, with Cormier insisting he’d cut to 205 for it.

He left the cage, and the arena, with no decision.

He was not blown out by Miocic. His win last year was a first-round knockout, and he gave Miocic a rematch even though Miocic never fought in the interim. If we are looking at a fair world, which fighting rarely is, they are 1-1, each with a stoppage win. It’s the perfect storm for a trilogy and the third fight should have more interest than the first two.

What we know from Saturday is that Cormier vs. Miocic is a fight either man could win, and it will come down to durability, stamina and strategy. Age can be a factor, but it didn’t appear to be on Saturday. Miocic got a title shot off a loss, so if Cormier wants it, Miocic should give him a rematch, even with Francis Ngannou the contender on the horizon.

But that’s up to Cormier, and whether he wants to leave the sport on a loss. Or if he can leave with a smile, after a 22-2 career, a record even more impressive because 15 of his last 17 opponents were legitimate championship contender level fighters, that puts him in the category as one of the all-time greats.

Let’s look’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five.

STIPE MIOCIC - Miocic (19-3) himself changed his own career perception. Now, he has to look strong in any debate about the greatest heavyweight in UFC history and even MMA history. He proved his toughness and his heart. There is Cormier as a possibility, but if not, the clear next contender is Francis Ngannou (14-3).

Ngannou has stopped Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos in a combined 122 seconds in his last three fights. Really, aside from his loss to Miocic on Jan. 20, 2018, and a strange fight with Derrick Lewis where he never showed up, Ngannou has finished everyone he’s faced in UFC in the first or second round.

Ngannou hasn’t been in with anyone who poses the problems to him that Miocic did in their first fight. We know he’s got the punching power early. But he’s also shown if you can withstand the early storm, he’s not nearly so impressive past round two. Only two of his opponents ever made it to round three, and they were his two losses.

NATE DIAZ - There’s little question that Diaz (20-11) is one of the biggest stars in UFC today, and in the old business, which revolved around doing pay-per-view business, he’d be even more valuable.

Even so, it must have been a smile on Dana White’s face when Diaz kept pushing the idea of a fight with Jorge Masvidal (34-13). What that seems to indicate is that Diaz wants to fight again, because after three years off. Masvidal is a great opponent in the sense fans will be hyped big to see the fight. It doesn’t get in the way of any championships. Masvidal looked to have a big smile on his face at cageside when he heard his name mentioned. There’s also the third fight with Conor McGregor (21-4) which would be as big a box office fight at this point.

Outside of McGregor, the biggest money fight for Diaz at this point is Khabib Nurmagomedov (27-0). It’s really the biggest non-McGregor fight for box office the company could put together right now. But with the championship implications, it’s a problem. Diaz hasn’t fought at 155 in nearly four years. If Nurmagomedov loses on Sept. 7 to Dustin Poirier, while the fight would still be big, it would lose some of its luster. And Tony Ferguson deserves Nurmagomedov if he retains the title.

And Diaz clearly doesn’t care about UFC titles, and is only going to fight who he wants and when he wants. The positive from a UFC standpoint is that he gave the impressions he does want to fight.

PAULO COSTA - After winning a decision over Yoel Romero, Costa (13-0) called out the winner of the Oct. 5 Robert Whittaker (20-4) vs. Israel Adesanya (17-0) middleweight title fight. That’s the right fight to make.

What was notable regarding Costa, besides being unbeaten, was he went into the cage with Romero at 213.8 pounds, meaning he put on 27.8 pounds between Friday morning and Saturday night. It’s well within the modern rules, but the fact that it is fine is quite the indictment of the modern system.

The fight was close. Reporters’ scores at MMA Decisions had 50 percent for Costa and 50 percent for Romero. But the three opinions that mattered chose Costa.

YOEL ROMERO - The loss to Costa was far more significant to Romero (14-4), at 42 years old than for Costa, at 28. Romero’s time is running out, and had the judges went his way, he’d be the one getting the next title shot. Any delays work strongly against him.

The most logical next opponent would be Kelvin Gastelum (15-4).

DEREK BRUNSON - Brunson (20-7) came into Saturday’s fight with Ian Heinisch (13-2) as the No. 8 contender at middleweight. He lost the first round, but clearly took rounds two and three. Brunson’s issue is that he’s beaten almost everyone who isn’t top tier in his career. But he’s had seven fights with top contenders, two with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, and one each with Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva, Whittaker, Romero and Adesanya. With the exception of a win over Machida, and a close loss to an out-of-prime Silva, he was stopped in the rest of those fights.

He issued a challenge to Darren Till (17-2), which was smart on his part. Till, a newcomer to the division, is a bigger name than either the winner of the Sept. 28 bout between Jack Hermansson (20-4) and Jared Cannonier (12-4), which otherwise looked to be the most logical next direction.

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