In twenty years of the UFC heavyweight title, no one has defended the crown three times. When a new heavyweight wins the belt the fans can’t imagine them losing—Brock Lesnar was just too big, Cain Velasquez was just too technical, Fabricio Werdum was just too technical, times two. All of them suffered crushing defeats and dropped the belt shortly afterwards. And yet Stipe Miocic is on the cusp of pulling off that elusive third defense and he seems to be rather under-appreciated by the UFC’s ravenous fanbase.
Miocic is understated in the cage and in the media. Fans don’t queue around the block to see him at the press conference and this isn’t even his day job. Despite his sterling knockout record and victories over big names, some still see the Ohio fireman as something of a placeholder champion while the average age of the heavyweight top ten creeps closer towards 50. When Cain Velasquez throws up a wheel kick fight fans lose their minds, but Miocic has been painted into the mundane roll of a good wrestler with a jab and a great right hand—the old "wrestle-banger." No razzle-dazzle, just meat and potatoes punching and shooting. But the truth of the matter is that Miocic’s minimalist "move set" serves to shine a light on just how great an adaptive fighter he is in the cage.
The heavyweight division doesn’t tend to be the standard bearer for technical and tactical brilliance. Most heavyweights have one or two remarkable skills or techniques which carry them into the world’s elite. But there is a difference between being "basic" and being a minimalist. Don’t misunderstand, there are plenty of top heavyweights who are basic, but while Stipe Miocic uses the same four or five techniques or "moves" over and over again to best everyone they put in front of him, it’s the tactics that make the difference.
Roy Nelson – The Big Right Hand
In June 2013, Roy Nelson was a hot ticket at heavyweight. Three back-to-back knockouts had Nelson in the running for a shot at the heavyweight title. Then UFC 161 fell apart and Nelson was brought in to add some much needed star power. Nelson was slotted in to replace Sao Pelelei against the unheralded Miocic, returning to action for the first time since the Stefan Struve knockout. Just a few weeks earlier Nelson had cornered Cheick Kongo and starched him with an overhand along the fence. This was when Kongo was being billed as a world class striker. Miocic had no world kickboxing titles to his name, but he proceeded to give Nelson a boxing lesson.
Rather than hanging around on the fence as Kongo did, Miocic consistently circled out to his right side, shooting his left arm out across Nelson in a leverage guard as he did so and keeping his left shoulder high. Each time Nelson wheeled around to follow him, Miocic would drop a vicious right hand on him. Where Nelson’s defense when other fighters have out-maneuvered him was that it didn’t feel like a fight but more of a sparring match, there was no excuse here. Each time Nelson took his foot off the gas, Miocic would get in his face with the jab and the feints—keeping Nelson under stress and preventing him from taking breaks.
Where Matt Mitrione and Dave Herman got too confident against Nelson, Miocic made no such mistake. Nelson had caught both Mitrione and Herman on the counter, but when Miocic wanted to step in on Nelson, he stayed alert. He desensitized Nelson with feints, and when he committed his weight to the right hand he would duck out or change the angle, sometimes resulting in this gorgeous quarter turn that looks more like something from the arsenal of Willie Pep than some a 250 pound mixed martial arts fighter would do.
Over three rounds Miocic drew out Nelson’s money punch, punished him for throwing it, and kept the heavyweight contender paralyzed between exhaustion and passivity.
Mark Hunt – Counters and Bursts
Mark Hunt’s career resurgence coincided with a move to a more counter based style of striking. Rather than going after opponents and opening up his hips, Hunt will make opponents come to him and look to nail them on the return. The counter left hook is a favorite, along with the cross counter—an overhand across the top of the opponent’s jab—and to deal with a wrestler the counter right uppercut works a treat.
Miocic immediately got to work desensitizing Hunt’s counter instincts with feints and jabs. Hunt was given the choice—swing wholeheartedly each time Miocic promised that he was stepping in, or wait a little longer to discern if the strikes were real. Feinting the jab, doubling the jab, anything Miocic could do to get Hunt out of position and himself close enough to strike without opening up.
On several occasions in the first round Hunt became uncomfortable with the feints and jabs and decided to swing at Miocic first, whereupon Miocic countered excellently.
In the opening seconds of the bout, Miocic bent down and snatched up a single on Hunt. It wasn’t subtle and Hunt immediately exploded up to his feet, but that wasn’t the point. From that point on, each time Miocic bent a little at the waist Hunt’s hands would drop and Miocic could come up jabbing. Any time Miocic got Hunt jabbing back at him, he was in on Hunt’s hips again.
Hunt’s counters never found the mark and he quickly became too tired and beaten up to be any real threat. By the final round Hunt was just surviving and Miocic was still thriving.
Stefan Struve – An Actual Giant
Stefan Struve is seven feet tall and, while it is true that you can’t teach that, his coaches have also been unable to teach him to use it. Struve stands out as something of a misstep in Miocic’s largely unhindered career. Miocic’s team came up with a great strategy to deal with Struve, they had their man maintain the range, slip inside of Struve’s punches, and bang the giant’s body. Nowhere else has Miocic shown so much bodywork.
The only problem was that it overcomplicated the problem. Banging the body on a man that size would be perfect if there weren’t a way to deal with Struve that is so much easier. Struve is almost allergic to pressure and will run himself backwards onto the fence. He is also far too happy to trade in the pocket—meaning that both men’s hands and one man’s head are whizzing around at six feet off the ground while Struve’s head is hanging out in the open, a foot above the exchanges. Stepping in, crowding Struve, and trying to take his head off has proven successful for a number of his opponents, but Miocic made a boxing match out of it anyway.
In the third round an errant finger found Miocic’s retina and soon afterwards the fireman was knocked flat for the only time in his career. This remains the only unavenged loss of Miocic’s MMA career.
Fabricio Werdum – Overwhelming Pace and Volume
Fabricio Werdum was the hot property at heavyweight before Miocic. After emphatically outworking Cain Velasquez, fans found it hard to believe anyone could get the better of Werdum. Werdum’s striking was herky-jerky, but his constant aggression was a killer. Working in flurries of one-twos and body kicks, Werdum would force his opponents into a shell, then work the double collar tie to score punishing knees. In fact Werdum just did the same thing to the promising young heavyweight, Marcin Tybura. In a division of front runners, Fabricio Werdum breaks wills, and getting put on the back foot against Werdum soon proves disastrous.
Miocic came out low kicking and jabbing, and making a very obvious effort to avoid prolonged exchanges.
A lovely counter low kick followed by Miocic fumbling for the right hand—a bad habit of his we will return to in The Tactical Guide to Miocic vs. Ngannou.
Picking at Werdum from the outside, Miocic looked to counter each time Werdum over-extended—a constant feature of Werdum’s career. When Werdum landed a decent shot he did what he always had done and attempted to push his advantage—give Werdum an inch and he will take a mile. As Miocic circled out, Werdum gave chase and ran onto a short right hook which sent him down on his face.
The fight could have done with being longer, and excuses for Werdum’s misjudgement were rife in the following months, but Miocic’s team put together an excellent gameplan which denied Werdum the chances to put together strikes in flurries without having to overcommit to stay on top of Miocic. In the course of a couple of minutes, Werdum had already attempted to bum rush Miocic with his chin served up on a platter half a dozen times.
Junior dos Santos – Wickedly Fast Hands
Junior dos Santos stands out as the sole rematch on Miocic’s record. Miocic lost a competitive first fight to dos Santos in December 2014, scuppering the momentum he had built since the breakout performance against Nelson in 2013. The gameplan for the first bout seemed to be in the template of what Cain Velasquez had been able to do against dos Santos in their second and third bouts. Miocic ducked in on dos Santos’s hips and drove him to the fence, holding him there for short periods and striking not to tremendous effect.
As the rounds progressed, Miocic slowed a little more considerably than dos Santos and got wilder. Pursuing dos Santos along the cage in the third round, Miocic was dropped by a hook and the fight began to turn and dos Santos took the decision in a Fight of the Night winning performance.
After Miocic rebuilt and won the heavyweight title in 2016, dos Santos was booked as his second defense of the crown. This time, however, Miocic didn’t look to wrestle. In that first bout Miocic’s most successful work came landing punches as dos Santos broke from the clinch and attempted to circle off the cage. Instead of holding him to the fence, Miocic needed to box dos Santos along it.
Junior dos Santos’s footwork is excellent—along one plane. His boxing is more akin to fence—stepping in and out on a straight line. He can move laterally but he loses track of where he is in the ring after almost every exchange. This means that dos Santos only knows he needs to circle out after his rump has hit the fence. As retreat is dos Santos’s main means of defense, being along the fence is pretty disastrous for his style. Miocic kept his back foot along the Octagon wall and stepped in to uncork right hands when he felt the time was right.
When dos Santos broke to circle along the fence, Miocic hooked from the direction that dos Santos was moving into, creating perfect and powerful collisions. Rather than a five-round war, dos Santos was knocked out in two minutes in a perfect example of a team learning from their successes and mistakes.
The Shadow of Ngannou
Stipe Miocic faces a stiff and largely unknown test in his third title defense. Francis Ngannou is a tremendous hitter who seems to improve technically in leaps and bounds from fight to fight. But Ngannou is still rough around the edges and there are a heap of things he hasn’t been asked to deal with yet—first among them being a competent boxer. After watching Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem run chin-first onto Ngannou’s counters it will be refreshing to see a fighter with a proven history following solid fight strategies try his hand against the French colossus. Perhaps Miocic gets smoked and the UFC heavyweight title curse continues, but it won’t detract from the fact that in Miocic’s run through the heavyweight division is a case study in "basics" being adapted to get the job done against a wide variety of styles and skills.