Upon the announcement that the UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier would be debuting at heavyweight to challenge Stipe Miocic for the UFC Heavyweight Championship, many in the MMA universe were skeptical about Daniel Cormier’s chances for victory.
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While Cormier’s Olympic wrestling pedigree certainly provided a route for him to win through a takedown to top control strategy, doubts about the change in weight classes and Miocic’s striking prowess — specifically his long reach, formidable jab, and superb defensive footwork — led many to believe that Cormier’s chance of achieving “champ-champ” status were slim, and contingent upon getting the larger Miocic down to the mat.
Needless to say, when Daniel Cormier knocked out Stipe Miocic in the first round, bewilderment ripped through the MMA populace like a shockwave.
While the initial response of many was to consider Cormier’s method of victory as a fluke, a closer inspection of the bout shows that the knockout was actually the result of an expertly designed and flawlessly executed gameplan. Prior to Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic’s rematch at UFC 241, let’s take a look at the specific tactics Cormier used to take the UFC Heavyweight Championship title from the formidable Miocic, as these same tactics just might be replicated at UFC 241. Cormier vs. Miocic is part of the main card that streams live on ESPN+.
And your enemies closer
Immediately following Marc Goddard’s commencement of the bout, it was apparent that Daniel Cormier would be looking to close distance and clinch with Stipe Miocic. This was an expert tactical decision, as it moved the bout into close quarters where Daniel Cormier’s attributes would be bolstered, and Stipe Miocic’s would be hampered.
As the tale of the tape highlighted a whopping reach discrepancy of 80-inch to 72.5-inch in favor of Miocic, it doesn’t take a hand-to-hand combat aficionado to deduce that Cormier would not want to allow his opponent to sit at range and pick him apart with his longer reach.
And as Cormier is a former Olympic wrestler, it was no surprise that he was looking to get in close and clinch with the taller, larger man, as that created the potential to pursue a takedown. While the mismatch in wrestling skill is an obvious justification for Cormier’s desire to close distance, we didn’t see the wrestling skillset utilized in this bout; instead, we saw the light heavyweight champion utilize another close-range tactic that amplified his physical attributes: his strategy of dirty boxing.
While the term “dirty boxing” has been appropriated by all sorts of grifters looking to sell “street-ready self-defense systems,” our usage of the phrase is more in-line with its original meaning: the art of boxing from an incredibly close range, usually from the clinch.
This was considered cheap and unfair in the earlier days of boxing, hence the epithet “dirty.” While perfectly legal in MMA, Daniel Cormier’s implementation of dirty boxing allowed him to simultaneously bolster the effectiveness of his striking while drastically reducing that of his opponent.
While the combination of Miocic’s reach advantage and superb defensive footwork led many to give the striking advantage to Stipe, where his advantage actually lay was when the fighters were striking at an extended range.
If the fight was at an extended distance, Miocic could work from behind his jab and mitigate Cormier’s wrestling, racking up damage and staying on his feet. But, when Cormier was able to close the distance, Miocic’s once-advantageous length became a detriment. While long limbs make straight strikes such as jabs, crosses, and kicks incredibly effective, the length becomes a disadvantage when the two fighters are in close.
Without the required space for a jab or cross to be effective, the advantage shifts to the shorter, stalkier fighter (in this case Cormier), who can use the close-range weapons of uppercuts and hooks while the taller, lankier fighter (Miocic) is hamstrung by their once-beneficial long limbs.
Think of it this way, if you had to fight someone in a phone booth, would you rather have a baseball bat (which requires ample space in order to be an effective weapon) or a knife (which requires almost no space in order to be used to a deadly effect). We’ll look at just how this in-close dynamic allowed Daniel Cormier to not only beat Stipe Miocic but to knock him out in the first round — a method of victory that shocked many in the MMA fandom, your writer included.
One element of the bout that puzzled fans was the manner in which Daniel Cormier chose to go about closing the distance with Miocic. Rather than taking the orthodox approach of forcing his opponent to cover up with strikes before subsequently crashing into him, Cormier elected for more passive methods.
The first tactic Cormier used to clinch with Miocic was to intice Miocic to close the distance by placing himself against the fence and creating the opportunity for Miocic to take the underhook, which Miocic happily did; once Miocic had established the clinch, Cormier would go about gaining dominant clinch positioning by recovering the underhook.
Here we see Daniel Cormier allow himself to be pushed straight back onto the fence, an occurrence that is almost always a faux pas, but is actually a genius tactical decision from Cormier. Once Miocic has initiated the clinch, Cormier regains dominant positioning by framing on Miocic’s head with his left hand as he circles his hips out.
This creates enough space for Cormier to pummel his left arm inside for the underhook, which he immediately turns into the double underhooks body lock, the most coveted of all the upper body clinch positions. This position gives Cormier immense control over Stipe, allowing him to theoretically initiate takedowns (a tactic we didn’t see utilized) or back away slightly and land strikes from in close (a tactic we did see).
When the fight was in the center of the Octagon and away from the fence, Cormier chose to take a slightly more risky approach. By reaching both his arms out towards Miocic, Cormier was able to lure his opponent in by using his head the way a hunter employs a decoy. With his arms extended, Cormier was purposefully exposing his skull to Miocic’s punches; yet when Miocic took the bait and threw strikes, Cormier would evade with head movement as he reached up in an attempt to clinch.
Here we see Cormier present his head as a target: Miocic takes the bait and engages, but Cormier evades Miocic’s second volley with an impressive display of head movement. As Cormier secures a sole underhook, Miocic counters by framing on Cormier’s face. Feeling that he is unable to secure a dominant clinch and pursue a takedown attempt, Cormier decides to switch to his dirty boxing strategy: a swift hook and a right straight snap Miocic’s head back.
What mystified many about the result of Cormier vs. Miocic wasn’t that Daniel Cormier won — that was always a perfectly plausible outcome — but that he won via knockout.
As previously stated, once Cormier was able to trick Miocic into closing the distance on his behalf, if he wasn’t able to get an effective clinch and work for a takedown, Cormier would immediately start striking from the close-quarters range, where his stalky build was an asset and Miocic’s lankiness was a detriment.
Here we see Cormier attempt but fail to establish a clinch, so he immediately throws an uppercut, catching Miocic while his head is ducked low.
And a similar occurrence here: Cormier allows himself to be pushed to the fence and attempts to clinch but is deterred; he lands a stern uppercut, which prompts Miocic to force Cormier back to the cage. Cormier yields Miocic the underhook, which he will immediately look to reclaim.
In the seconds preceding the knockout, we see the effectiveness of Cormier’s dirty boxing strategy really start to shine.
By getting the fight into an extremely close range, Daniel Cormier is able to strike with Miocic in a way that many predicted would be untenable; as an in-close distance means that the then-heavyweight champion is no longer the sole fighter with the ability to reach his opponent, Cormier is able to evade and reciprocate Miocic’s strikes as if the two had identical reaches.
In a perfect summation of Daniel Cormier’s entire strategy for this bout, this clip of the finish shows us all of Cormier’s tactics rolled into one seamless exchange.
First, he lures Stipe Miocic in by extending his arms out and up high; Miocic responds first by striking, then by taking the easily obtainable underhook, as any well-trained combatant would do. This was exactly what Cormier wanted, and he immediately regains the underhook. Unable to secure Miocic fully with his other hand, he elects to return to his dirty boxing attack.
The powerful right hook of a Daniel Cormier unrestrained by the 205-pound weight limit is completely unseen by Stipe Miocic: as it crashes into his skull, the UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic is immediately removed from the realm of consciousness. A brief moment of ground and pound is all Marc Goddard needs to see; he steps in to save Miocic, thereby rendering Daniel Cormier the simultaneous holder of the UFC Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Championship belts.
As perhaps the most underappreciated fighter in the upper echelons of the UFC, any analysis that has Daniel Cormier’s knockout victory over Stipe Miocic as a “fluke” should be considered counterfactual.
While there is no doubt that Javier Mendes and the rest of American Kickboxing Academy’s coaching staff were instrumental in helping devise the close-quarters gameplan that led to Stipe Miocic’s demise, all credit should be attributed to Daniel Cormier, who stepped into the Octagon and manifested it into reality.
The importance of breaking down the first bout between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic is not just to explain the result of a past contest, but because it is highly likely that we see a lot of the same strategies, tactics, and techniques that we saw in the principal fight re-emerge in the second.
Perhaps Daniel Cormier will be able to utilize his wrestling more this time around, or perhaps he will stay with the dirty boxing strategy that won him the UFC Heavyweight Championship; either way, if Stipe Miocic has been abiding by the same mistake as many in the MMA ecosystem that Cormier’s victory, or the violent method in which it was obtained, was just a matter of random happenstance, then it is likely he will run headfirst into the harsh consequences of reality as Daniel Cormier implements another expertly-crafted plan of attack and retains the heavyweight title.
I can't believe this sport is legal. But it is, so I'm here to write about it