How Daniel Cormier Killed the King
With a first-round knockout of Stipe Miocic at UFC 226, Cormier is now the world champ in two weight divisions.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
It took Daniel Cormier just one round to put an end to Stipe Miocic’s record-setting reign as UFC heavyweight champion. Never troubled, barely breathing hard, Cormier looked the best he ever has and he did it while performing his weird reaches and dips that have fans and pundits on edge throughout his fights. Cormier is a warts-and-all kind of fighter and as ugly as some of the technique looked when held up against a boxing textbook, it was also one of the most beautiful performances of the year.
In our Tactical Guide we examined Cormier’s peculiar "mummy guard," wherein his hands are extended towards the opponent in the manner of a Scooby-Doo mummy. It is a term that we stole from Muhammad Ali who used it to describe the awkward palms-out style of George Foreman. Foreman learned it from Sandy Saddler and Dick Saddler, who in turn attributed it to Jack Johnson. The hands are held far forwards of the traditional guard in a way that seems as though it is exposing the fighter to hooks, but the palms occupy the lines of the opponent’s straight punches. The straights are the fast ones, the ones that will catch a fighter out and the blows upon which a scientific fight is built. This mummy guard, therefore, takes away the weapons of the scientific boxer and for all Ali’s mocking of it, he couldn’t jab Foreman up, he had to go to the rope-a-dope and outlast him. Daniel Cormier also looks pretty ridiculous if you compare his striking to a "textbook" fighter, but you cannot deny that he’s making it work and jabbing up fighters who look a lot better shadowboxing in front of the mirror.
Just as he had against Volkan Oezdemir, Daniel Cormier was able to stifle much of Miocic’s straight hitting. The reaction of many fighters when confronted by an opponent checking their hands is to attempt to either swing around the outside, or to withdraw the hands into the body in order to free them, both result in opening the path for the jab of the fighter doing the hand checking. Miocic has previously shown the finest jab in the heavyweight division and yet he scarcely found a home for it and ate sharp jabs from the shorter wrestler as he tried to work it all out.
In boxing, when both hands are smothered there isn’t much else a fighter can do. In combat sports where kicking is legal, there are still plenty of options on the table and ultimately this is why Cormier struggled so much with Jon Jones. But against Stipe Miocic, Cormier was the one throwing the kicks. Slipping inside jabs, Cormier would counter with hard low kicks, and when Miocic got drawn into the hand fighting, he even snuck a step-up left kick to the liver in. Very surprising for a man who, to the casual observer, looks as though he would struggle to raise his knee to his chest.
This mummy guard is just one tricky method of fighting, of course. There’s no way to do things perfectly and there are still plenty of ways this style can be exploited. Most notably, a fighter reaching with both hands can be tied up in a stalemate if his opponent does the same, and then the man who is quicker to turn over the elbow can make his opponent’s life hell. Miocic actually met DC in the hand fight later in the first round, but rather than turning over sharp elbows, pulled Cormier’s hands out of position only to land a jab with just a few inches of momentum on it.
Cormier’s strategy in this fight seemed to be very similar to his fight with Oezdemir despite his opponents’ very different qualities and styles. Cormier went after both men, checking their hands and shooting jabs, and if they threw the right hand or slipped his jab, Cormier’s left hand shot over their shoulder. In pugilistic times this was called a "bar" of the right hand, but it is also called a "leverage guard": by straightening the arm over the opponent’s shoulder, the opponent’s punch can be obstructed and muffled at the elbow and shoulder. As we mentioned last week, it’s ugly, but back in bareknuckle days it was the most reliable method of stopping a right hand.
Where Cormier was able to pick up his high crotch straight off the collar tie against Volkan Oezdemir, Miocic was a considerably bigger, stronger man and a quality wrestler in his own right. Readers will have noticed on Saturday night, and against Oezdemir, that Cormier is quite happy to grab a hold of a headlock when he shoots his lead hand over the opponent’s right shoulder. This is generally considered a bad position in MMA but Cormier wants clinches at any cost and giving the opponent a head start seems to convince them to give him a chance.
Against Miocic, Cormier looked to shoot his arm over Miocic’s shoulder and initiate a clinch, but if Miocic dropped his head in and sunk back to escape the clinch, Cormier would keep a hold of the single collar tie with his left hand. Through threatening the clinch, Cormier has created a scenario wherein his opponent is encouraged to do all the things that make his collar tie right uppercut easier to land. After watching Cormier hammer this home against Alexander Gustafsson in prolonged clinches, it is fascinating to see that he has managed to build a clever set up for the blow into his distance-closing game.
The following clip shows what appeared to be a fairly wild pair of exchanges. On the first, Cormier attempts to tie up in the exchange and Miocic drops away, triggering the uppercut. In the second burst of action, the same thing happens but Miocic instead takes the underhook and presses in for the clinch—this seemed to be what Cormier was aiming for throughout the bout.
By driving Miocic’s head off line with his underhooked arm, Cormier could create enough space to suck his elbow back through and claim the underhook himself.
Cormier only succeeded in getting the underhook on a couple of occasions in this fight and was unable to build into his takedowns from them because Miocic was hell-bent on escaping the clinch whenever it happened. This, however, allowed Cormier to land with sneakers on the break. A sneaker is what Jack Dempsey termed a punch on the break in boxing—totally illegal when the referee has called for a break, but completely okay and absolutely devastating if the fighters break voluntarily. In MMA, getting into and out of the clinch is a much bigger part of the game but because the hands are occupied in wrestling at many points these are the best times to chin a fighter. A couple of weeks ago Leon Edwards observed the practice of cracking Donald Cerrone with an elbow on each exit from the clinch as though it were a religious tenet.
As Cormier got an underhook with a minute to go in the first round, Miocic went to that hips-back, head-in, frame across the neck posture again and Cormier dinged him with a right hook.
Shortly afterwards a similar sequence would play out. Miocic this time took the underhook, Cormier immediately swam through, Miocic recognized that he didn’t want to be in the clinch and began posturing to back out of the clinch again and Cormier caught him with a short right hook. It travelled a few inches, it might not even register on the UFC’s magical punch test machine, but it caught Miocic off guard and turned his lights off. Just as the legendary Henry Armstrong threw three or four hundred sneakers a fight, it only took one to land at the right time to end the contest.
Moments before the knockout, Miocic had shown one of his consistent bad habits that we discussed in the Tactical Guide and have examined many times before that: he threw his right hand, got carried away, and left his chin out and his hands down as he stood perfectly square. Cormier cracked him with a stiff one two while he was out of position and seconds later the ending sequence took place. Whether Cormier’s counter punches "set up" Miocic for the surprisingly short knockout blow, no one can say, but it is concerning that Miocic continues to throw himself into these positions when he gets trigger happy.
With the victory, Daniel Cormier becomes a simultaneous two-division champion. "Simultaneous" is a word the UFC added emphasis to when Conor McGregor fought Eddie Alvarez because it had to be a world first somehow… the fact that the UFC stripped McGregor of the featherweight title immediately after the photographs with both belts should tell you all you need to know. Should Cormier actually manage the Henry Armstrong feat of defending the belt in both divisions, that would truly be a first, but it’s probably not something you should hold your breath for. There’s a good chance he vacates the light heavyweight division (which might as well be disbanded at this point) to fight at heavyweight full time.
Endeavor was even able to trot out Brock Lesnar to help Cormier (a mark for the business) act out his childhood pro wrestling fantasies following the fight. Should that match-up materialize it might be the least deserved title shot in modern UFC history, but it would also make everyone involved a whole heap of money as Lesnar is a guaranteed million dollar attraction. One way or another, Daniel Cormier’s turbulent athletic career looks set to reach a happy conclusion, and those are just far too rare in the fight game.