The Strange, Complex Legacy of Stipe Miocic

By Lev Pisarsky Apr 6, 2021

I've mentioned in a past article that I have no interest in discussing who is the “greatest of all time”, which is completely subjective, based on ill-defined criteria, and ultimately pointless. At the same time, it can often be useful to look at a great fighter's career and see what it represents, at least for oneself. And while he is not quite done, one of the most interesting such careers belongs to Stipe Miocic, not only for what it tells us about him, but about his division and the sport as a whole.

My acquaintance with the Croatian-American was different than that of most. While I had been a fan of MMA since 1995, when I was 8 years old, I stopped following it closely from 2010 to early 2018. Thus, I missed Miocic's rise up the ranks, championship victory over Werdum, and subsequent defenses as they were happening. When I started following MMA closely again, one of the fighters I was most looking forward to checking out was the then heavyweight champ, whom many were already anointing the “greatest of all time,” Miocic himself very much included.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed. Miocic was a very, very good fighter: a tough, tremendously well-rounded guy with no major weaknesses, who possessed dangerous, polished striking and solid wrestling and always came into a fight determined and prepared, and would never give up. At the same time, there just wasn't anything amazing or exceptional about him. His stand-up was good, but it wasn't on the same level as that of a prime Junior dos Santos, Mirko Filipovic, Fedor Emelianeko or Alistair Overeem. Indeed, a dos Santos closer to his prime had knocked out Miocic, and even a past-his-prime Overeem had Miocic hurt and in serious trouble before Miocic stopped him with ground-and-pound. As for his wrestling, it was a nice weapon, but he clearly wasn't on the level of many past heavyweights, beginning with Mark Coleman.

To me, Miocic's success largely represented how weak the heavyweight division had become, especially with so many 220 pound-plus fighters choosing to cut not only to light heavyweight, but middleweight as well. In a more talent-rich, lighter division, someone with Miocic's relative skills and abilities would have been a solid top-10 contender, maybe even cracked the top 5, but no more. I definitely wasn't amazed with Miocic the way I had been by young versions of Emelianenko, Cain Velasquez, or even dos Santos.

However, there was one fight Miocic had which impressed me tremendously. A superlative performance that I rank right up there with the very best victories of Fedor, Cain, or any other heavyweight. I'm talking about his first fight against Francis Ngannou.

On paper, this was a very bad match-up for Stipe. Ngannou, even then, not only possessed murderous knockout power in both hands, but was lightning fast, with a titanium chin of his own, and possessed both takedown defense and an ability to get up. Considering Miocic had almost been finished by Overeem, how was he going to avoid the blows of the Cameroonian-French slugger?

But here, Miocic showed the heart, will, and intelligence of the greatest warrior. He formulated a risky and demanding gameplan, choosing to stand with Ngannou to start the fight, when he would be most likely to stuff and punish takedown attempts. After Ngannou had slowed down and devoted more attention to the striking, Miocic started using his wrestling, timing his entries beautifully and leaning heavily on superior cardio and improved top control. Doing this for five rounds, with Ngannou repeatedly getting up and always a second away from turning his lights off with a punch, was the equivalent of a soldier traversing a minefield for 25 minutes. And yet, that's exactly what Miocic accomplished, executing a difficult, demanding strategy perfectly.

It was a sensational victory, right up there with Emelianenko’s wins over “Cro Cop” and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Velasquez's wins over dos Santos, or Fabricio Werdum's upset of Velasquez.

After this supreme triumph, Miocic had his trilogy against Daniel Cormier. Now, there are a number of valid ways to interpret those three fights. However, let's start with a certain dose of objectivity. Cormier, who was 39 years old for the first fight and 41 for the last one, was widely seen as moderately past his prime and also unable to compete with the current crop of heavyweights given his disadvantages in height (5-foot-11) and reach (72.5 inches). Despite this, he knocked out the widely-regarded “greatest heavyweight of all time” in the first round, thoroughly dominated him for the first two and a half rounds in the rematch before gassing and then being knocked out, and then lost the rubber match by a razor-thin 48-47 margin on most scorecards.

On a personal note, despite thinking Miocic wasn't all he was cracked up to be, I repeatedly erred in his favor. I thought he would win the first fight and very easily prevail in their third one. One interpretation here is that Cormier was just that damn great, and Miocic showed his own greatness by ultimately prevailing in the trilogy. That's true. Another interpretation is that even a Cormier who was very old, running on fumes, and painfully short and stubby for heavyweight, largely dominated and exposed Miocic until the effects of age betrayed him. That's also true.

From 2018 onwards, Miocic didn't endear himself to me or certain other fans by repeatedly, loudly claiming he was the greatest ever. Typing this sentence out, it doesn't make much sense, does it? Fighters claim they're the best ever all the damn time, exaggerate their own abilities, make excuses for losses, and we accept it as part of the sport. Why should it bother us in Miocic's case? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, he had simultaneously cultivated an image of the humble, blue-collar Ohio family man and volunteer firefighter. Suddenly turning into Apollo Creed and repeatedly declaring himself the greatest ever was a contradiction to that, and came across as fake.

Another reason is more subtle. Past heavyweight greats had always been genuinely humble, downplayed their own abilities, and praised fellow greats. Listen to Emelianenko talk about how amazing and incredible Velasquez is. Or “Cro Cop” praise “Big Nog.” And incredibly, every really great heavyweight champion was like that, from Randy Couture onward. Miocic broke that chain, and it was especially hard to swallow his endless self-praise with the memory of Cormier knocking him out in the first round.

When Miocic fought a rematch against Ngannou, I was absolutely convinced that the Cameroonian would destroy him. I thought the champ’s only chance was for Ngannou to make a huge mistake or to fight foolishly and recklessly. Of course, neither of those happened, and we have a new heavyweight champion.

At the same time, let me come to the former champ's defense. Miocic is 38 years old, definitely past his own prime, while Ngannou is very much at his apex, as well as being a uniquely bad match-up for him. Miocic, as usual, got into outstanding shape against the challenger, fought very intelligently, and maximized his chances. It just wasn't enough this time.

So how will I remember Miocic? For one, an endlessly tough overachiever who got the absolute maximum out of his skills. Also, as a guy whose skills weren't on par with those of other fighters talked about as the greatest ever, and whose success at heavyweight exposed how awful that division is as much as it proved his greatness. However, among his defenses, the triumph over Ngannou was one of the finest performances I have ever seen in a MMA fight, and likely doesn't get enough credit. As a personality, he was a contradiction, and I'm left not knowing who he really is.

That's quite a unique, conflicting series of thoughts about a martial artist we often think of as a simple, blue-collar man! And what about you, dear reader? How do you think of Miocic's career up until now?
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