Stipe Miocic is the best heavyweight the UFC has ever seen. If you have a realistic assessment of the great Fedor Emelianenko’s abilities and opposition, Miocic might well be the best heavyweight MMA has ever seen. For Miocic to take on the incumbent UFC light heavyweight champion might seem like a step down in competition from the monsters of the heavyweight division, but Daniel Cormier is no stranger to the big lads. Bigfoot Silva, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir—Cormier has thrown around some of the biggest bodies you can find, he has simply spent his last few years watching his diet a little more closely.
With Max Holloway already off the UFC 226 card due to terrifying concussion-like symptoms, and Cormier himself managing to take a tumble over a cable at the pre-fight press conference, to be an MMA fan is to be in a prolonged state of anticipation and dread ahead of the fights so I won’t test your patience with story-telling: let’s just examine the details of the match up.
The Jab or the Kick?
Daniel Cormier’s trouble against Jon Jones was largely due to Jones’s control of distance and his ability to attack Cormier from outside of Cormier’s own effective range. Though he did slip in some straight punches to the gut, Jones is a kicker at range. Stipe Miocic has a couple of inches less reach than Jones and is the same height, but while Jones’s game is entirely based around his legs, Miocic actually owns a jab.
As we examined in Eight Limbs: The Masters of Each Strike in MMA, kicking techniques are the longest usable strikes in a fight, but a kicker makes sacrifices in his balance and movement as he plants his pivoting leg and takes his striking leg off the ground. They are powerful but limiting and considerable maneuvering must be done between kicks to set each one up and ensure correct distancing so that the opponent cannot simply run through it with a right straight or takedown attempt.
Because the act of kicking means removing a foot from the floor and locking yourself in one place, the danger of the opponent simply smashing straight into the kicking fighter is ever present. For this reason, straight line kicks wherein the path of the kick occupies the space between the two combatants are considered safer. Side kicks and front kicks have a little more room for error than round kicks if all the opponent wants to do is rush straight up the center. Change the target to be the opponent’s nearest limb—the lead leg—and you will understand why side kicks and oblique kicks to the knee have become so valuable to strikers in MMA. They are very low risk even if the reward isn’t always as great as slamming a roundhouse kick into the opponent’s midsection or head.
But even in the safest of kicks, a fighter cannot change the fact that only one foot is on the floor. From his stance a fighter’s feet ferry him across the mat but during a kick the pivoting foot acts more as an anchor, pinning him in place. For an infamous example of that, Jon Jones’s mistimed oblique kick at Alexander Gustafsson’s restless lead leg led to him being taken down for the first time in his career.
Striking with the fists will always carry the advantage that, while punches carry less thud than a strike from the lower limbs, the feet are planted throughout the entire process. Where kicks are long, powerful and unstable, punches are shorter, weaker, but stable. Good hitting is done by involving the entire bodyweight, building kinetic chains from floor to jaw, but a fighter can just as easily flick out his hands in one direction while moving his feet and body in a completely different one. T.J. Dillashaw, for instance, flicks out partial punches while his feet carry him to new positions, then drives up from the floor when he wants to hit with some spite.
Not all punches need to be connected with the movement of the feet and that is where Stipe Miocic’s jab comes in. Miocic can step in on his jab and shake a man to his boots if it connects, but his ends are better served by feinting and flicking the jab out there, a piston from the shoulder and elbow rather than the hips and legs. Pumping shoulder feints and stepping in afterwards to connect legitimate jabs is the mark of someone who actually understands how the jab works. Watch Georges St-Pierre or Robert Whittaker stutter-step into their jabs and you will see how it throws off even the best fighters in MMA.
The jab could be Daniel Cormier’s worst nightmare in this fight. It is lengthy and fast and versatile enough to build off of when he goes into his overcommitted defensive sways. Miocic has a limited set of weapons on the feet but usually goes to his jab to tease out reactions from his opponent and then capitalize on them. Lack of reaction, of course, means it is high time to be force-feeding the opponent the right hand, but against dangerous opponents who are working on a hair trigger, Miocic will play with their expectations.
Francis Ngannou dropped his weight and set his feet wide to swing his counter punches—this was especially noticeable when he moved in a very high, narrow stance and dropped into a long stance to strike back in his early UFC fights. Miocic would show a shoulder feint or slight level change to simulate a jab, Ngannou would begin a counter swing and then rethink it, and then Miocic would punt the flustered giant’s lead leg as he returned to guard.
Single- and double-jabbing Cormier into his backwards or sideways lean—as he showed against Jon Jones and Volkan Oezdemir—would be a great time to drop the right hand on him. Oezdemir repeatedly caught Cormier with short left hands as the light heavyweight champ leaned out to his right.
Countering the Level Change
Yet Daniel Cormier’s most dangerous tactic will always be changing levels and picking up the high crotch single. The standard response in every fans mind will be “uppercut,” because they have seen dozens of effective counter uppercuts and knees against level changes. Jose Aldo vs. Manny Gamburyan is the one scorched into this writer’s mind. But there is danger in attempting to counter the level change with the uppercut as Miocic himself demonstrated against Ngannou.
The uppercut is a very powerful, but limited, weapon; it does not simply cover everywhere the opponent can put their head when it drops below shoulder height. Ngannou fired the right uppercut every time Miocic threatened to step in and after connecting one good one, it simply stopped working. Miocic would level change with his head off to Ngannou’s right side and suddenly Ngannou’s punching path would intersect with nothing.
This was something that Cus D’amato was acutely aware of. It isn’t the case that you can slip or level change, you can do both at the same time. Any time Mike Tyson dipped below his opponent’s shoulder level he would usually slip to left or right as well, or immediately after his initial level change. While Miocic slipped to the inside of Ngannou’s uppercut, he could just as readily have slipped towards the elbow side and attempted takedowns with his head outside Ngannou’s right hip. You will notice in this clip that Miocic, trapped on the fence, expects a right uppercut and both ducks and slips off to the side, avoiding the horizontal right swing that comes instead.
A safer option exists when using the same weapon to counter level changes, and it was demonstrated well by Takanori Gomi all the way back at PRIDE Bushido 9. During that lightweight grand prix, Gomi ran through Tatsuya Kawajiri and Luiz Azeredo in the same night, showing pressure and body shots like MMA fans had never seen. When he met Azeredo, Gomi walked him to the ropes constantly and after he had dinged the Brazilian’s chin with a hook, Azeredo began ducking for takedowns. Rather than swing wildly for Azeredo’s head, Gomi uppercutted lower, smashing his right hand into Azeredo’s chest and midriff each time he ducked in. Even if Azeredo plowed forward, Gomi’s elbow was still on the inside and he had an underhook with which to apply some control.
There are two types of level change—whether we are talking boxing or wrestling. There are level changes that hinge at the waist and level changes in which the back remains relatively upright and the legs do the work (whether that be by squatting down or dropping a knee into the mat). Cormier and Miocic both change level at the waist in most of their bouts. This style of level change presents the chest to the uppercut in a manner which it would be impossible to strike with that weapon at any other point in the fight. We also know that Cormier will tire when hammered with attrition strikes like low kicks and body shots because Jon Jones exhausted him in their first fight this way and was on his way to doing it in their second fight.
The Mummy Guard
For Cormier, the fight seems to come down to whether he can get his shots in on Miocic’s hips and whether he can run through his usual sequence of attacks off the high crotch with the same effectiveness. In terms of his ability on the feet, Cormier will probably never be anyone’s favorite striker but as herky jerky as he looks he is at least comfortable.
The gaping hole in Miocic’s game is that he scarcely uses a left hook and ends combinations with his right hand, completely exposed to a counter. Most coaches stress the importance of “closing the door” with the left hook or jab to return a fighter to his guard while striking the entire time, but Miocic swings for the fences with his right hand and forgets about his left after it has done the groundwork for his right. A good left hook off the level change or off the jab could turn Miocic’s head around, and Cormier was happy to hook off the jab against both Jones and Oezdemir.
Against Oezdemir, Cormier’s bizarre mummy guard seemed to have him flirting with danger at all points until he got the takedown, but there’s some science behind this rather ugly method of fighting. With his right hand high to palm Oezdemir’s jab, Cormier moved in behind his extended left arm and attempted to put it over Oezdemir’s shoulder.
This movement raises Cormier’s lead shoulder as the stonewall does in boxing and the long guard does in Muay Thai, something which is partly undone by Cormier continuing to hold his chin high, but it also obstructs the path of Oezdemir’s right hand. In bareknuckle times this was called "barring" a right hand, Edwin Haislet referred to it as a "leverage guard." It’s hideous, but it makes striking awkward and that is really all DC needs to do.
Here DC’s extended right arm bars Oezdemir’s left.
As a bonus, reaching over the opponent’s lead shoulder has no offensive applications in boxing, but for an Olympic medalist in wrestling fighting in MMA, the collar tie is right there for Cormier to reach out and take. While Cormier can look to advance his grips off this control, he also does some of his best hitting with the uppercut from a single collar tie.
Cormier’s reaching for his opponent’s punches is often criticized, but Jack Johnson and George Foreman made careers out of it in boxing. The hands forward "mummy" style of fighting obstructs the opponent’s fastest punches—the straights—and they are forced to swing around if they hope to sneak a blow in. Circular blows are slower and can be ducked.
By checking both of his opponent’s hands, Cormier can shut down his quickest offensive options. Many opponents react by trying to free their hands or drawing them into their body, and this allows Cormier to score with his own punches.
Like the great Jack Johnson, Cormier can catch his opponents out by switching from a purely stifling use of his hands to a quick, straight-forward attack with his hands.
(For more on Johnson’s style, watch this video.)
In addition to Miocic’s tendency to leave himself exposed after throwing his right hand, and Cormier’s wrestling advantage on paper, Miocic also struggles with pace. Miocic put the pace on Francis Ngannou and Junior dos Santos (in their first fight) but hardly looked fresh as a daisy in the third, fourth, and fifth rounds. There is decent cardio for a heavyweight, and then there is decent cardio for any other division in the sport. If Cormier can enter on clinches and work from there as he did in the first round against Oezdemir, it is quite conceivable that he could tire Miocic out without taking much damage. If Miocic can be drained significantly, Cormier might well move Miocic into position along the fence and open up with knees and uppercuts as he did against Frank Mir.
One of the downsides of the hands-extended, mummy-style guard is that it doesn’t account for a shin bone sweeping up and cracking you from the side to the body or head. In boxing, you would have a check on both the opponent’s weapons; in MMA the opponent still has two limbs which he can use with impunity. Fortunately, Stipe Miocic isn’t a very dexterous kicker. If Miocic could commit to throwing a few high kicks as Cormier ducks, he might be able to convince Cormier to move more cautiously even if he doesn’t score a spectacular high kick knockout. Meanwhile Cormier has always been able to throw a hard kick even if it isn’t always with textbook form. As Cormier is the man more likely to be hunting the clinches and the takedowns, he might as well try to get some low kicks in to slow Miocic down without worrying about being taken down.
Daniel Cormier would be doing something truly remarkable if he succeeded in taking the UFC heavyweight title, and Stipe Miocic might just be the right kind of fighter for him to do it against. Cormier’s ugly striking is best against straight hitting, non-kickers, which is a perfect description of Miocic. But Cormier’s over-extensions and deep leans can cost him against fighters who build off set ups and can feint decently: things which Miocic has been known to do. Additionally we just don’t know what Miocic can do if Cormier grabs a hold of him. The interest in a Cain Velasquez match hinged around Velasquez’s gas tank and relentless wrestling, Cormier might not have quite the same intensity and pace as Velasquez but he’s the next best thing.
Something interesting is bound to happen at UFC 226 and whether it’s another defense for King Stipe, or Daniel Cormier walking off into the sunset with both belts draped over his shoulders, we will be breaking down the finer points on Monday.