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UFC 252 on Saturday in Las Vegas features an excellent main card from top to bottom. The headliner may not feel like “the biggest heavyweight bout of all-time” billing it carries, but it has obvious stakes and will likely serve as the final appearance of Daniel Cormier’s stellar career. If their trilogy seems a bit too normal, more requisite weirdness can be found further down the lineup, with Junior dos Santos facing Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Meanwhile, Sean O’Malley looks to make the jump to true bantamweight contender, Merab Dvalishvili gets his toughest test yet and Herbert Burns tries to continue a scintillating Ultimate Fighting Championship run.
Now to the preview for the UFC 252 “Miocic vs. Cormier 3” main card:
UFC Heavyweight ChampionshipStipe Miocic (19-3) vs. Daniel Cormier (22-2)
ODDS: Cormier (-115), Miocic (-105)
Business has finally started to pick up now that fight week has arrived, but for what should be one of the biggest heavyweight fights of all-time on paper, this feels like a relatively muted culmination to a trilogy between two top-flight fighters, as well as the scheduled end of Cormier’s career. The pandemic plays an obvious role, but this always been an odd rivalry of sorts between Cormier and Miocic, with a year separating each of these three bouts. That gets to the heart of a strange feeling: At the core of this, either man would rather be doing something else, whether it is Cormier’s now-scuttled pursuit of a big-money retirement fight with Brock Lesnar or Miocic’s other duties as a first responder. Yes, these are the obvious two top heavyweights in the world at the moment, and yes, they are skilled in ways that most of their peers are not, but these two do not feel like career rivals. Instead, they are just obstacles for one another, two men who happened to be the best at a time when their legacies have already been written thanks to the other phases of their career.
Win or lose, retirement or not, it does feel like Cormier’s book has already been written. His win over Miocic in their first fight was finally a clean, no-questions-asked title victory for a man who has spent his entire athletic career trying to get out of second place. His collegiate wrestling career ended with a runner-up finish to Cael Sanderson, and his Olympic career ended without any medals: Cormier finished in fourth place in 2004, then was pulled from the 2008 Olympics after a failed weight cut. Cormier was already 30 years old by the time he made his professional mixed martial arts debut, and despite being a quick study who turned into a well-rounded fighter faster than anyone expected, he was still the No. 2 heavyweight on his own team. While it was his own decision, Cormier deferred his dreams of heavyweight gold to cut down to light heavyweight, owing to his friend and teammate Cain Velasquez reigning over the division at the time. Of course, that is where Cormier ran into Jon Jones and started the rivalry that will likely wind up defining his career. It was and remains the perfect dynamic outside of the cage. Cormier was the barrel-shaped grinder who, in his mind, worked hard for everything he earned, while Jones stood tall as a cocky prodigy who, despite his own efforts, kept falling backwards into success. As far as inside the cage goes, Jones was just a puzzle that Cormier could not solve. In their first fight, Cormier essentially coasted to a loss in pursuit of at least one point-proving takedown, while their second fight saw Cormier have some early success, only to get knocked out. Cormier went into that second fight as champion, but the popular perception was that Jones was essentially the real 205-pound king, given that he was only stripped of the title due to his transgressions outside the cage. That made it oddly cruel when Jones failed a post-fight drug test, which resulted in Cormier being reinstated as light heavyweight champion. It was almost as if, in a final twist of the knife in their rivalry, Cormier was once again forced to hold a belt that made clear he could only be champion when Jones was not around. However, after a title defense against Volkan Oezdemir, Cormier finally went about crafting his own first-place legacy. With Velasquez eternally on the shelf and the UFC chasing superfights between champions, the call was made that Cormier would go for double gold against Miocic—an opportunity “DC” made good on in quick fashion. Brock Lesnar stormed the cage afterwards to cause a scene and build to a fight with Cormier, and it looked like after everything he had been through, the Lafayette, Louisiana, native would finally get his happy ending. Cormier had self-imposed a retirement date of his 40th birthday, and that left enough time to get in a big-money retirement fight against Lesnar before riding off into the sunset. Once again, plans went sideways. Lesnar essentially was just using the UFC for leverage to re-sign with World Wrestling Entertainment, and after stepping in on short notice to defend his title against Derrick Lewis, Cormier did not hold firm to his scheduled retirement, instead putting a rematch with Miocic on the books. For about three rounds, it looked like Cormier would still get his happy ending, as he spent 15 minutes essentially proving himself as the better fighter. However, Miocic hung around, adjusted with some strong work to the body and ended up regaining the title. Since then, Cormier has basically harangued Miocic for a rematch in a manner similar to how the Strong Style Fight Team star harangued him, and with that wish granted, he looks to essentially take back the happy ending that was handed to him two years ago. In a greater sense, those are basically the stakes here for Cormier, less so about questions of overall legacy than just the chance to end on an upbeat note. Owing to his accomplishments at 205 pounds, he might still be ahead of Miocic on many all-time pound-for-pound lists, even with a loss here, though he will always have to sit behind Jones. In the end, the takeaway might be to just enjoy one of the all-time greats doing some work, likely for the last time.
Compared to all that passion and emotion for Cormier, Miocic’s career stands in stark contrast and basically sums up the current champion’s blue-collar persona. There is not a lot of flash or drama, but Miocic excels at his job. Miocic does not have a career rival anywhere near the level of what Jones was for Cormier, in part because he has never been much for the promotional side of things. It seems funny in its own way to think of the alternate universe in which Lesnar was trying to build for a fight against Miocic, as compared to the more theatrically savvy Cormier. Instead, Miocic’s battle is more with accomplishments and the record books, although much has been made of the talking point that his 2018 win over Francis Ngannou quietly made him the first man to defend the UFC’s heavyweight title three consecutive times. That has been the path of Miocic’s career. Others have seemingly had higher highs and others have done enough to garner more attention, but at the end of the day, Miocic winds up being the most accomplished of the bunch. That was even true of Miocic as a prospect. He put some solid wins together but never knocked down the doors as heavyweight’s Next Big Thing, and he got knocked out by Stefan Struve in his first opportunity at a showcase. However, Miocic just kept winning, and after beating down Mark Hunt and running through a resurgent Andrei Arlovski, he suddenly found himself spoiling Fabricio Werdum’s homecoming by taking the heavyweight title. Since putting himself among the heavyweight elite, Miocic’s fights have almost been more notable for his opponent’s flaws than anything the Clevelander has done himself. He has some solid boxing, some solid wrestling and some solid game planning. In the land of weird giants, that has been more than enough.
Another factor adding to the strangeness of this trilogy: Even with this being two of the most skilled heavyweights of all-time, there does not seem to be much of a sense that past is prologue; skilled heavyweights are still heavyweights, and as their first fight showed, one well-placed shot is usually all it takes to end a fight with men this large. Over the course of their second fight, Cormier probably proved he is the better overall fighter in a vacuum. He had some success wrestling as the much smaller man, and he was able to tee off on Miocic for the better part of the first 15 minutes. Then, of course, Miocic suddenly realized that Cormier’s body was available to be punched; and while “DC” did a good job of trying to fight through it, the strategy eventually turned the tide of the fight to a point where Miocic soon got the victory. Cormier should at least be prepared for the body shots this time around, and while seeing them coming will have some value—the shots you do not see coming always hurt the most—it is also hard to see how he actually adapts his approach to stop them. In Cormier’s case, that probably means just not giving the champion the opportunity and relying even more on his wrestling, and while that should result in some success, Miocic does seem to have found the key to winning these exchanges on the feet. As long as Miocic picks up where he left off in the last fight, he should be able to win a war of attrition, even if he will have to eat some takedowns and take some damage to get there. The pick is Miocic via third-round stoppage.
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