The Trilogy ends tomorrow!
Who leaves as the greatest heavyweight of all-time?
LIVE on PPV https://t.co/F5vdwUv1iB #UFC252 pic.twitter.com/3wDzAjMGU6 — UFC (@ufc) August 14, 2020
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One of the most consequential fights in heavyweight mixed martial arts history will unfold this Saturday inside the empty UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Reigning champion Stipe Miocic will square off against former two-division titleholder Daniel Cormier at UFC 252 in a rubber match 12 months in the making—the tiebreaker fight that will simultaneously define the legacies of its principals and this era of heavyweights.
The significance of this fight is both a testament to the careers of Miocic and “DC” and an indictment of a historically underperforming division. Whereas the heavyweight championship in boxing was lauded as the richest prize in sports for over 100 years and the sport’s success and reach was largely dependent on and attributable to the dominance and popularity of a single titleholder—think Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson—the heavyweight division in the Ultimate Fighting Championship has played a decidedly less central role in the promotion’s story.
The general paucity of high-caliber athletes and the lack of a divisional flagbearer in the mold of a Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva or Jon Jones has meant that big men have at many times languished in the shadows of their lighter counterparts. In the mid-2000s, it was the 205-pounders who captured fan imagination and jettisoned the burgeoning sports-entertainment property into the realm of popular culture; and for the better part of the last decade, it has been the 155-, 170- and 185-pound divisions that have commanded the most attention and intrigue from fans and media.
Whereas this trend has been periodically bucked by the likes of Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez—athletically gifted and needle-moving champions who many expected would reign for lengthy periods of time—both had their careers cut short by injury, illness and inactivity. Until 2018, the company record for heavyweight title defenses stood at a paltry two—by comparison, the light heavyweight, middleweight and welterweight records were each eight-plus—and the weight class was defined by instability and stagnation.
In his typically understated way, Miocic began to disrupt this status quo when he began piecing together wins on route to challenging Fabricio Werdum for the heavyweight strap in May 2016. Stoppage wins over Mark Hunt and the resurgent Andrei Arlovski were enough to put the part-time firefighter within striking distance of the title, and when Velasquez withdrew from his scheduled rematch opposite Werdum at UFC 196, Miocic got the opportunity for which he had been screaming.
Though Miocic marched into Arena da Baixada as the underdog against the recently crowned “Vai Cavalo” at UFC 198, he made short work of the Brazilian, knocking him out in the first round to the chagrin of a partisan, pro-Werdum crown. Four months later, he did the same to Alistair Overeem in his native Ohio, then exacted revenge upon former champion Junior dos Santos, who had beaten Miocic via contentious decision in 2014, also via first-round stoppage. Within 12 months, Miocic had tied Velasquez, Lesnar, Randy Couture and Tim Sylvia’s title defense record, but it was his UFC 220 contest against Cameroonian juggernaut Francis Ngannou that really established him as something special.
Ngannou, who had gone a perfect 6-0 in the UFC with a finishing percentage of 100 percent, was being billed as part “Mike Tyson, part Ivan Drago and part wild imagination” in the leadup to what many expected would be his coronation on Jan. 20, 2018. With Ngannou possessing terrifying knockout power, a super-hero physique and the full backing of the UFC’s promotional machine, one could not help but favor “The Predator” to vanquish Miocic, who looked like a middleweight when the two squared off. However, the incumbent weathered Ngannou’s hellacious first-round storm, dragging the Next Big Thing into deep waters and drowning him over the course of 25 minutes. Against the odds—and ostensibly the wishes of his promoter—Miocic vaulted himself into MMA immortality, becoming the first heavyweight champion with a trifecta of consecutive title defenses.
Miocic, who had been embroiled in a drawn-out contract dispute with the UFC in the intervening period between the dos Santos and Ngannou fights, struck a pugnacious scowl during his Octagon interview with Joe Rogan in its aftermath, having earlier snatched the heavyweight title out of UFC President Dana White’s hands and delegated the task of wrapping it around his waist to his coach. At the post-fight presser, he expressed his frustration and bemusement at how willing people had been to count him out, declaring he was “here to stay” even when that evidently was not what the UFC and the media had been hoping for.
The greatest heavyweight in UFC history withdrew to the trappings of his determinedly blue-collar lifestyle, complete with his firstborn child, and waited until the phone rang.
Whereas Miocic might diplomatically be labeled as a fighter generally lacking in the promotional nous the UFC likes to cultivate in its athletes, his adversary has for some time now demonstrated a mastery of the sound bite.
Fresh off of his run through the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix and awaiting his transfer to the UFC after the Zuffa purchase, Cormier all the way back in 2013 was busy creating hype around his drop down to 205 pounds to face pound-for-pound king Jon Jones—a move down in weight necessitated by Cormier’s relationship with Velasquez, then the UFC heavyweight champion. In the aftermath of his lopsided victory over Dion Staring in Strikeforce’s last-ever event before the roster was absorbed by the UFC, Cormier announced into the microphone that he would first take out former heavyweight champion Frank Mir before moving down to “kick [Jones’] ass,” jumpstarting a rivalry that would singularly define his light heavyweight tenure.
In the end, it took Cormier four UFC fights—two at heavyweight, two at 205 pounds—to make his way to Jones. By the time he had gotten there, the energy and anticipation around the contest had increased by orders of magnitude. Memorable callouts, a pre-fight brawl and hot mic death threats were enough to fully capture the attention of fans desperate for Jones to meet his equal, with the genuine antipathy between the two men translating into 800,000 pay-per-view buys.
Cormier ended up on the wrong side of a unanimous decision at UFC 182 but would be appointed as the effective caretaker champion four months later at 187, as Jones was stripped of his title for a hit-and-run and “DC” captured the vacant belt by neutralizing knockout artist and No. 1 contender Anthony Johnson. He would defend the title twice and lose it to Jones at UFC 214 via knockout before being reinstated after “Bones” tested positive for banned substances and the fight was retrospectively deemed a no contest. A third title defense against relative newcomer Volkan Oezdemir reinforced his status as the second-best 205-pounder of his era.
In retrospect, it’s easy to forget that Miocic’s pairing with Cormier, who had defended his 205-pound title in the co-main event of UFC 220 with a second-round TKO of Volkan Oezdemir, was more a reflection of the promotion’s lack of options and imagination than it was a driven by genuine fan intrigue.
Miocic had effectively cleaned out the upper echelon of the heavyweight division after his curb-stomping of Ngannou, with the likes of Alexander Volkov and Curtis Blaydes being respectively at least a win or two away from establishing themselves as the clear No. 1 contender. The 205-pound division was even more of a proverbial wasteland, with literally no intriguing matchups for “DC” outside a trilogy with Jones, whose career looked like it could be cut short due to doping.
“DC,” who had cut his heavyweight career short out of respect for Velasquez, was also able to rationalize the move up due to his teammate and mentor’s continued injury-induced hiatus and Cormier’s imminent retirement, which he had planned to coincide with his 40th birthday. It was a matchup born of circumstance and convenience—a champion-versus-champion superfight during a period that was chock full of them, punctuated by stints on “The Ultimate Fighter,” which had been in need of two high-profile coaches.
Miocic marched into the Octagon a comfortable favorite to beat “DC” at UFC 226 but was vanquished inside the opening stanza by a perfectly placed right hand. In the space of five minutes, the winningest heavyweight champion in promotional history had been summarily dispatched, with the UFC hype machine going into overdrive by inserting Lesnar—winless in nearly a decade and serving a suspension for banned substances—into the cage to square off with the newly crowned “champ champ.” The stage was set for “DC,” a longtime White favorite and renowned company man, to compete against Lesnar in a blockbuster swan song, lining his pockets before relinquishing the title.
Like their first pairing, the rematch between Cormier and Miocic at UFC 241 was foremost attributable to the negation of other options. Lesnar wisely reconsidered his return to MMA and withdrew his name from the hat, and after Cormier squeezed in a short-notice bout opposite Derick Lewis to save the UFC’s tertiary Madison Square Garden event at UFC 230, he ultimately welcomed a mulligan with Miocic, who had been marching a one-man picket line in support of exactly that outcome.
This time, it was Miocic who managed to get the job done, overcoming adversity in the opening three rounds to knock out Cormier in the fourth before chasing a superfight of his own against heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury, who clinched the World Boxing Council title in February. It was Cormier’s turn to do the pleading: “You’re honorable, right Stipe?” he said on a post-event show in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was working as an analyst. “You’re a fireman. You save lives. You do the right thing all the time, right? Do the right thing and give me my rematch.”
It is ironic that the most important heavyweight trilogy in the past decade was the subject of so much reluctance and inertia from its two principals. “DC” wanted no part of Miocic after UFC 226—until the Lesnar payday was definitively off the table—and Miocic was more than happy to see the back of Cormier after UFC 241, seemingly as a means of spiting White. However, as the days to UFC 252 turn to hours, it is difficult to imagine either man’s legacy being complete without one final showdown.
If Cormier can win, he will do what few of his predecessors have been able to achieve: retiring with a UFC championship, his faculties, a bag full of cash and a smorgasbord of opportunities in the commentary, professional wrestling and media realms waiting for him. He will have definitively rewritten his career eulogy, from second-best light heavyweight circa 2014-18 to perhaps the greatest heavyweight in company history; and he will have finally escaped the specter of Jones.
If Miocic emerges victorious, he will be right back where he was after UFC 220, the consensus best heavyweight in UFC history quietly exceeding everyone’s expectations on his way to facing off against the next generation of contenders. The divisional flagbearer that three generations of UFC heavyweights failed to produce would go about making history in the most understated and dignified way possible.
Whatever the outcome, UFC 252 will define this era of heavyweight MMA, and with each man holding a resounding stoppage victory over the other, it remains anyone’s guess who will have the advantage when they face off for a final time. All we can do now is wait for the cage door to close.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.