One way or another, UFC 252 marks the end of an era.
The usual disclaimer: This is MMA we’re talking about so no one can truly say for certain what the aftermath of the main event will be, but if everything goes as planned, Daniel Cormier will be make that walk to the octagon for the last time and possibly leave it on the highest of notes.
Reigning heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic isn’t going to lie down for him. The two are 1-1 in their series, with each man owning a knockout win over the other, so this trilogy bout will leave no question as to who is the better man (though again, it’s entirely possible we see a split draw or a double KO just to amuse the puckish MMA gods).
Where a victory places either man in the history books is up for debate. Best UFC heavyweight ever? Best heavyweight in MMA history, period? Where would another title win put Cormier on the all-time pound-for-pound list? For now, you can imagine both fighters are focused entirely on the 25 minutes of competition that awaits them tonight.
In other main card action, bantamweight wunderkind Sean O’Malley looks to keep the hype train rolling against veteran Marlon Vera, former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos faces Jairzinho Rozenstruik, John Dodson defends his spot in the bantamweight rankings against Merab Dvalishvili, and Herbert Burns tries to make up for missing the featherweight mark on Friday in his fight with the returning Daniel Pineda.
What: UFC 252
Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Aug. 15. The two-fight early preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by four-fight preliminaries at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
In two previous encounters between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, I picked the champion to retain. Both times I was incorrect. So, of course, I’m picking the champion to retain again.
Truly, Cormier is a living legend, and on his best day, I’d pick him to defeat any heavyweight who ever walked this Earth. We already know he can beat Miocic. The thing is, I’d say the same about Miocic. If Miocic beats Cormier again, he adds to a resume that arguably already has him positioned as the heavyweight G.O.A.T.
One big difference to look out for in this third matchup is how much Cormier utilizes his wrestling. Even with Miocic’s staunch wrestling defense, Cormier showed he could take him down in their last fight. Hell, we know Cormier can take anybody down if his timing is right. He admitted afterwards that he went away from his greatest strength during the rematch, which cost him. A return to form could make this fight look completely different from meetings one and two.
However, Miocic should be able to survive on the ground, and if he can avoid an early finish, I see him outlasting Cormier. That’s not a knock on Cormier’s cardio, but asking any fighter to go five hard rounds at the age of 41 is a lot. Miocic has outstanding hands and he’s going to punish Cormier’s body as much as he hunts for head shots, just like he did in their previous fight.
A storybook ending is in play for Cormier and win or lose, he goes down as one of the best to ever do it. Keep that in mind when Miocic puts him down on the mat for one final time.
There’s no more doubting Sean O’Malley’s potential.
I was hesitant to get on the “Suga Show” bandwagon, but after seeing how O’Malley handled respected veteran Eddie Wineland and the underappreciated Jose Quinonez before that, I’m liking his chances heading into a favorable matchup with “Chito.” Yes, Vera is an absolute slugger at 135 pounds and the kind of opponent who only gets stronger as a fight progresses, but I also think he’s so confident in his chin that he might wade into a clean shot from O’Malley that will change the whole complexion of the fight.
Maybe O’Malley will get the chance to show off his ground skills that he’s often talked up, because we certainly know that when Vera hits the mat he’s just as likely to finish there as he is on the feet. Don’t expect O’Malley to play around much in the grappling department though.
More likely, O’Malley makes Vera miss enough to frustrate him into making a mistake, allowing O’Malley to add another big finish to his growing highlight reel.
Going into this matchup, one could argue that Junior dos Santos is a superior all-around striker to Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Then again, I would have said the same about his matchups with Curtis Blaydes and Francis Ngannou and both of those bouts ended in calamity for “Cigano.”
Dos Santos just doesn’t have the speed anymore to stay ahead of this next generation of heavyweights. There, I said it. Are we all happy now? Much like his contemporary Alistair Overeem, dos Santos is more than capable of dazzling with impressive stretches of technical striking, but without the ability to explode and lay the hammer down, the 36-year-old dos Santos is in constant danger of his more athletic opponents zeroing in on him and landing a KO blow.
Rozenstruik caught Overeem in the final seconds of a fight that he was losing and it’s that finishing threat that has me picking him to take out dos Santos too. He can afford to take a few shots from dos Santos, I’m not sure how many of Rozenstruik’s power punches dos Santos absorbs before crumbling.
This will be a knockout victory for Rozenstruik.
John Dodson vs. Merab Dvalishvili is the toughest fight to pick on this card.
While it’s tempting to just write that the hulking Dvalishvili will ground Dodson for three rounds, it’s actually really difficult to get a hold of Dodson for any extended period of time. “The Magician” has made a career out of being evasive and making his opponents’ attempts at offense disappear. I can’t picture Dvalishvili ragdolling him as he has his recent foes.
So if this is going to be a striking battle, then one has to favor Dodson. His KO power isn’t what it was when he was a flyweight, but he remains one of the peskiest strikers in the bantamweight division and Dvalishvili has never faced anyone like him. This will test how well-rounded Dvalishvili’s game is and if he’s ready for a top-10 opponent or still needs seasoning.
I’m fascinated to see what Dvalishvili and his team come up with to solve Dodson, but for now I’m leaning towards the veteran earning a decision win.
Firstly, finger of shame to Herbert Burns for missing weight. Coming in 3.5 pounds over the limit is egregious and will probably overshadow his performance on Saturday no matter how strong it is.
That’s a shame, because you can expect Burns to make another statement here against Pineda, a tough and experienced featherweight who was already going to have his hands full on fight night even without giving up the extra size. Tilting things even further in Burns’ favor is that he appears to be treating this matchup with the utmost seriousness, going as far as to call Pineda “more dangerous” than current featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. Lofty praise, for sure, and it gives you an idea of the mind set that Burns brings into the cage.
Submissions were Pineda’s Achilles heel early in his career, but it’s been over a decade since he was last forced to tap. He’d be wise not to test that luck against Burns. Even so, Burns will find a way to get this one to the ground and if he has any time to work at all, he’s going to break Pineda’s submission-less stretch.