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The moments after a tough fight are often a fighter’s most honest. The physical and emotional ups and downs of prolonged combat wash away both the energy and the desire to be anything other than yourself. It’s why some of the most memorable and human moments are the post-fight interviews inside the Octagon, when whatever filter a fighter usually speaks through has been muted by his or her exhaustion. You’ll be forgiven, however, if you don’t really remember what Stipe Miocic said moments after breaking the record for most consecutive Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title defenses in the UFC 220 headliner on Saturday in Boston.
That’s not a cheapshot at the champ but rather a testament to the lingering effects of a hard-fought war with Francis Ngannou. Miocic took to his Twitter account later and sounded much more coherent, though his face was still outfitted in “The Predator’s” handiwork. Ngannou may not have worn the damage he received as grotesquely, but for what he lacked in visible bruising, he more than made up for in complete and utter exhaustion.
It’s easy to point out the slow, plodding nature of the heavyweight division. Even in the UFC 220 main event, which was one of the best five-round title fights the division has ever given us, the majority of the 25 minutes was fairly inert. The first round was spectacular, but both men steadily faded after that. If the heavy huffing and puffing wasn’t sufficiently obvious, the stats bear this out. In the first round, Ngannou was working at a respectable 12.4 strikes thrown per minute. He threw less strikes in the next four rounds combined than he did in the first, plummeting to a pace of 2.55 strikes thrown per minute for the rest of the fight. Miocic didn’t fluctuate nearly as much. He attempted exactly five strikes per minute in the first round, which dropped to 3.5 attempts per minute over the course of the next four rounds. Ngannou’s decline and Miocic’s more stable yet still low output speak to just how much more taxing MMA is for the big guys.
There’s a lot to be said about why Miocic, a slight underdog going into the fight, was able to win in such dominant fashion. The most obvious one is that he didn’t gas nearly as quickly or as comprehensively as Ngannou did. He was more patient and accurate on the feet; he attempted 18 fewer strikes and landed 49 more. Part of that accuracy was a result of Miocic’s more balanced attack. He attempted 21 more strikes to the body and legs than Ngannou, and 13 more takedown attempts, six of which he completed. This speaks to a greater overall breadth and depth of skill than Ngannou currently possesses. That’s to be expected. Miocic has fought for three more years and has seven more pro fights under his belt. That experience difference -- Miocic’s patience, timing and strategy -- was abundantly evident by the second round.
There is perhaps a more important distinction than the technical disparities, though. Ngannou had previously defeated fighters with superior skill sets. He was able to make up for whatever deficiencies he had through sheer power and athleticism. That’s not to say Ngannou is a talentless brute; on the contrary, he was able to employ his physical gifts by making subtle adjustments. Ngannou has mostly been a smart tactical fighter in the UFC. It would be foolish, however, to say his striking is anywhere near the level of Alistair Overeem’s or that he is anywhere near as well-rounded and experienced as Andrei Arlovski. However, it didn’t matter with those men, because it only took one bomb from Ngannou to scramble their consciousness.
What Miocic has that sets him apart from virtually every other heavyweight on the roster is durability. He got touched up with shots that would have put down a lot of other fighters and proceeded to implement his game plan. That’s a testament to his talent and his coachability; he was operating on instinct, and his instincts served him well.
Now that Miocic has raised the bar for heavyweight title defenses in the UFC, the expected all-time ranking talks have begun. There is something to be said about the recency bias of MMA and the fact that such a short history often validates such a perspective, but Miocic clearly belongs in that discussion. He has accomplished what Fabricio Werdum, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos couldn’t, and we can only speculate as to whether or not Fedor Emelianenko could have. That alone puts him on the shortlist, especially since he put convincing beatdowns on both Werdum and dos Santos. Velasquez, on the other hand, has not had the durability that Miocic has shown, at least not outside of the cage. Both have only been knocked out once in their 14 UFC fights, but Velasquez has averaged one fight per 21 months, whereas Miocic has fought every 14 months. It’s still valid to say that Velasquez is more talented or that he would be favored to beat Miocic, but when you’re accounting for all-time greatness, being active matters. It says something when the only potential comparison that isn’t immediately favorable is Emelianenko.
Miocic deserves the lofty praise he is getting. He is a multiply talented, intelligent fighter who has handily beaten the best of three generations of heavyweights. What truly sets him apart, however, is his toughness, in and out of the Octagon. Miocic accomplished something special at UFC 220. He is putting together one of the most spectacular heavyweight careers the sport has ever seen, even if it is taking time for people to recognize it. If his performances have proven anything, it’s that he will probably keep sticking around for a while.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.