A reprisal of their bout at UFC 226 in mid-2018, Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic 2 is a bout that should’ve coalesced immediately afterward, but took a year to come together; it was only after Cormier finished an overmatched Derrick Lewis and Brock Lesnar’s UFC return didn’t pan out that the UFC and Cormier circled back to the most deserving man.
It’s a terrifically consequential bout, one that has about as much importance as any fight at 265 pounds; in a division that doesn’t have a whole lot of truly new challenges for him, Cormier is about the final frontier (perhaps excepting one Jon Jones) for the greatest UFC heavyweight champion of all time, where Cormier can be one of the few greats to avoid going out on their back if his career ends with a second win over the Clevelander while holding the heavyweight title belt.
It’s somewhat unfair to say that Daniel Cormier’s career has been defined as much by his failures as by his successes, but it’s a situation at least somewhat of his own making; while Cormier has effectively cleaned out the light-heavyweight division and even knocked out the greatest heavyweight to enter a UFC cage, and while he hasn’t failed nearly as many times as he’s found success, he himself has made the story of his career inextricably tied to that of the man who dominated him twice.
A second win over Miocic doesn’t rectify that; after all, even now, the narrative involves Jon Jones as a potential opponent for the winner, and any successes that Cormier finds only add to the legend of his eternal foil. However, a win for Cormier introduces himself as an all-time great among 205 and 265 in a sense that Jones never was; while Jones was fine with clearing generations of light-heavyweight and defending against middleweights, Cormier went up to find harder challenges, and overcame one of the best fighters to exist above middleweight. If he can defeat that fighter again, his legacy would be even more secure than it is right now.
The foundation of Cormier’s success (even more so than his wrestling pedigree, which is fantastic) is absolutely freakish athleticism; somewhat overlooked due to his short frame and his contests against opponents who appear larger (such as Jones and Alexander Gustafsson) is Cormier’s absurd superiority in nearly every athletic facet over nearly every opponent he’s faced.
Cormier is one of the fastest heavyweights one can find (both of hand and of foot), he’s an extremely powerful wrestler, he’s capable of driving a hellish pace for five rounds that most heavyweights can’t take for two, and he’s proven nearly impossible to stop without a sustained attrition attack (even under the clean blows of notorious hitters such as Anthony “Rumble” Johnson); this gives him a margin of error as a technical striker that he uses to the fullest. Cormier’s process is simple: push his opponent to the fence, rough them up in the clinch, take them down, and wear them out until they break.
Cormier is a very good takedown artist (particularly with his high-crotch entry, which he can turn into a trip or his signature dump) and has a solid top game, which is how he finished Volkan Oezdemir, but a lot more damage has been dealt by Cormier out of the clinch against fighters who could frustrate his wrestling; Cormier is a strong striker out of the single-collar tie (battering Gustafsson from there with uppercuts) and his first win over Miocic came with a short right hand as Miocic looked to exit the clinch.
Cormier’s advantages have only been magnified at heavyweight (a division where he’s undefeated); he’s more dangerous moment-to-moment than he was at light-heavyweight, given the finish of his last fight, and his durability has held up against one of the bigger punchers in MMA.
Most of Cormier’s issues come in open-space, where he’s far from a refined technical striker; while his athleticism lets him bull into the clinch fairly regularly, it isn’t an approach that can be termed defensively responsible at all. Cormier consistently does some bizarre reaching and leaning that buys him time to enter clinches, but it leaves him open to a variety of attacks; Stipe Miocic jabbed Cormier up when he engaged the hand-trapping battle, Volkan Oezdemir was able to draw his deep lean and land left hooks as Cormier bit on feints, and Jon Jones took advantage of Cormier’s defensive overreactions by making him lean into a head kick (as his response to the body kick was mostly to just bend over).
Cormier’s vulnerability to the body was shown repeatedly by Jones and even late in the fight by an undersized short-notice Anderson Silva, and it’s a combination of a few things; Cormier spends a lot of his time with his feet completely squared (which leaves his body exposed in a way keeping a stance does not), and his defense almost begins and ends with deep leans from that position that leave him completely out of position to defend anything that isn’t to the head.
Even in his best wins, Cormier has displayed a good deal of technical porousness; Anthony Johnson found clean connections mere moments into their fights, and Alexander Gustafsson drew him into a long and messy affair where Cormier didn’t have the ability to cut him off and even had more trouble in the clinch than one would expect. His durability served as a safety net from all of those flaws, but as Jones showed, it can’t cover everything, and it’s Miocic’s job to find those holes on August 17.
Before his loss at UFC 226, Stipe Miocic was the rarest of heavyweight champions; while he wasn’t flashy, he was extraordinarily skilled, and most importantly, he was consistent. The previous champions hadn’t fit that bill (and the best that the best could do was two title defenses), but Stipe Miocic’s title reign brought a sort of regularity to the scene in every sense; he showed up every few months in a stark contrast to champions like Cain Velasquez, and he didn’t have any trouble in reaching the previous record for title defenses (smoking Werdum and Overeem and dos Santos, all in under ten minutes total).
His performances grew more impressive even as his competition grew stiffer, and his bout against Francis Ngannou was a domination that only seems more impressive the more wins Ngannou racks up among the heavyweight elite. Miocic is the sort of champion that truly set a standard for the division in a way few champions have, and if he defeats Cormier in their rematch, it’s hard to find a man that can test him. First, he has to get past the only man to defeat him in over four years.
Miocic’s toolset isn’t all that broad, but among heavyweights, he’s one of the few strikers who has a game with real depth; while he mostly uses the same few tools when he’s allowed to, they perfectly set up his A-game, and are also versatile enough to let him change things up against different opponents.
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Fundamentally at this point in his career, Miocic is a pressure fighter, and an extremely good one; his showing in the rematch against Junior dos Santos was Miocic at his absolute peak, both in terms of skill and in terms of facing an opponent who wasn’t able to take away the sort of fight he preferred. Miocic stalked forward and aggressively countered dos Santos’ body jab, put the Brazilian against the fence, cut off his escape routes with hooks off both hands, and blasted him with a straight up the middle.
Miocic is one of the best counterpunchers above 187 pounds, which makes both pressuring him and trying to back him off very dangerous (Werdum looked to put Miocic on the back-foot and got knocked out because of his aggression, and Ngannou was put off leading by Miocic’s sharp right-hand counters), but giving him the initiative is almost moreso; Miocic possesses a very good jab that he can use to make reads and draw counters, and this leaves his opponent without many options as a fight goes on.
Against Ngannou, the jab was the foundation of Miocic’s success; Miocic could force reactions out of the counterpuncher with noncommittal shots, feint to exhaust him and make huge committed counter-combinations less likely, and eventually turned those feints into takedowns that won him large stretches of the fight (something similar to what he did against Mark Hunt).
Miocic isn’t flawless, but he generally does a good job covering for his areas of weakness with smart strategy and consistent improvement at forcing his opponent to play his game; in addition, the difference between the first and second dos Santos fight tell the tale of a fighter who is also keenly tuned into his opponent’s strengths and how to take them away.
That said, Miocic has shown some defensive vulnerability in the past; while he’s generally stronger positionally than anyone he faces and his head movement looked very good against Francis Ngannou, the speed of Cormier seemed to give Miocic some trouble (especially after a nasty eye-poke that visibly changed the momentum of the fight).
Miocic’s messiest win in recent years was against Alistair Overeem, who couldn’t compare with Miocic as a ring-general and eventually was flustered by Miocic’s relentless pressure, but not before running Miocic into a straight that dropped him as he was too eager to keep the pressure on. Cormier’s edge in the clinch is likely less pronounced than the finish made it look (especially since Miocic had good success in the clinch earlier in the round), but Miocic also has shown a bit of vulnerability there (namely in the first dos Santos fight).
Miocic is a very well-constructed fighter, and being able to exploit flaws in any area of his game have proven tough amid his command of his central process and his strategic intelligence; Cormier got the win in their first fight, but all indications are that it’ll be more difficult a second time.
Conclusions and Capping
Picking against Daniel Cormier is generally a tough ask, considering how often he’s been in fights where he doesn’t really have a technical striking edge and still found success gutting through punishment and pushing a pace; Cormier’s athleticism generally takes a perfect fight to beat, and while Jon Jones managed it, Miocic brings a much different skillset.
Miocic’s success in the first fight before the first eye-poke was fairly decisive, beating Cormier to the punch with his jab and often finding the right hand amid Cormier’s bizarre defensive reactions; while he hasn’t shown the tools to take full advantage of Cormier’s defensive problems (Miocic’s lead hand is basically just a jab; a very good one, but a polished left hook would help a lot here), he made it work for a good deal of time despite facing an opponent who seemed much faster and durable enough that Miocic wouldn’t just put him out with the first shot.
Given Miocic’s strong wrestling and his size, it’s fairly unlikely that Cormier just manhandles him, and Miocic had enough success in the clinch in the first fight that he didn’t seem totally outgunned there (and the pivotal clinch-entry that led to the finish was marred by another eye-poke).
Cormier’s first win is a fairly decent case to favor him in a rematch, but between the series of eye pokes and facing an extremely adaptive and smart opponent, it doesn’t seem like enough to call it a total wash in his favor; where Miocic has consistently shown the ability to change his approach and adapt to his opponents through rematches, Cormier’s last rematch was a damning indictment of his ability to fix the problems that sunk him (his pressuring mechanics and his vulnerability to body shots).
In a fight that seems otherwise close, the fact that it’s a rematch decidedly favors Miocic, and Miocic’s advantages in space seem a bit too steep to favor Cormier overcoming them again. It’s a competitive fight where DC undeniably has a few real advantages, but relying on durability against a fighter like Miocic isn’t a particularly replicable way to survive.
Prediction: Miocic via KO2. This writer caps Miocic at -130.