The main event of this weekend’s UFC 252 is the trilogy fight between heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former champ Daniel Cormier. The winner of this rubber match will be regarded as the greatest heavyweight in UFC history. Compelling reasons exist for why each man could win this fight, but both face questions.
Saturday’s main card also will feature rising phenom and 14th-ranked bantamweight ‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley in the co-main event. He takes on Marlon Vera.
Let’s break them down.
Stipe Miocic -110 vs. Daniel Cormier -110, heavyweight (265-pound) championship
Cormier had been dominating world-class freestyle wrestling talent from the time he was in the NCAA to 2009, when he set his sights on mixed martial arts.
Like a bulldozer, Cormier won 15 straight before losing to Jon Jones. He then ran through six other top challengers before moving from the light-heavyweight division to heavyweight and dominating there. Were it not for two defeats to Jones, Cormier’s sole loss would be his latest bout, when Miocic regained his heavyweight strap.
Cormier’s wrestling gives him an advantage against anyone except Jones, and that holds true here. Cormier thinks he got a little punch-happy in their second fight and has vowed to make this a wrestling affair. Should he, at 41, be able to execute that plan for five rounds, he would win this fight as well as stump Father Time.
With a 25-foot cage, a totally focused Cormier is vowing to wrestle Miocic. He has had a full camp to train for one thing and one thing only — his legacy. A highly motivated Cormier is something this handicapper respects.
Unrelenting pressure wrestling consumes abundant energy. It usurps strength and may greatly affect one’s endurance. So the question for Cormier’s camp is: At his age, will he be able to execute a plan of effective wrestling against Miocic, who has sound wrestling ability and a more refined precision striking game?
Miocic enters this fight looking to defend the title he took back from Cormier last August. Miocic is younger and taller with an 8-inch reach advantage. After two bouts, he knows he has a great edge if he can keep this fight standing and at range. He needs to measure the early rounds when Cormier comes at him hard, then take this fight deep, where his opponent’s older legs may begin to flail.
It’s my judgment that Cormier will sell out in this small octagon to take Miocic to the ground and keep him there for a seven-course meal of ground and pound. Wrestling and the mat are keys to Cormier’s success outside of a one-punch power shot, which Cormier must not rely on.
For Miocic, it’s stick and move and make the portly wrestler utilize precious energy, then take the fight into Rounds 4 and 5 and transition into a more power striking game. Miocic’s biggest problem is that Cormier has shown he can take Miocic down as well as stay in top position.
Cormier has been living with his championship loss and has been using it to fuel him, for he has shown in every test that he is of championship mettle. He has had more than a full camp without distraction, and I know Saturday we’ll get the absolute best he has.
For Miocic, it’s simple: Stuff the takedown attempts from Cormier and stay on the move and at distance, especially early. Make Cormier use his energy. The longer this fight goes, the more Cormier will telegraph his strikes, and the more one-dimensional he’ll become in his attempts to take down Miocic.
There’s where Miocic’s opportunity lies — catching Cormier coming in.
This fight opened Cormier -120 to Miocic + 105 and is now a basic pick-’em.
Total is 2.5 Over -155.
If Cormier is to win, the Under seems to correlate. Those thinking Miocic has the advantage may side with the Over.
I’ll completely pass here unless one becomes a decent underdog.
Sean O’Malley -305 vs. Marlon Vera + 255, bantamweight (135 pounds)
O’Malley hit the MMA scene in immediate and full-blown fashion. A flash KO on Dana White’s contender series was all he needed to be marked as a future star and given fights to nurture his way up the rankings.
O’Malley, a blue belt in BJJ, is tall and long for a bantamweight. He uses fluid movement and his length to leverage unusual speed and power with arm strikes and his diverse array of kicks. O’Malley is just 12-0 as a professional. This will be his fourth and most challenging UFC fight by far.
Vera is an accomplished mixed martial artist who will hold the advantage in experience, having faced a higher caliber of opponent on several occasions. Vera will be giving away 2 inches of height and 2 inches of reach, so he’ll need to be aware that his attacks must come from inside the pocket or from the clinch. Vera does not want O’Malley to be able to use space, distance and his length in a striking battle.
While O’Malley has all the flash, brilliance and future potential, I have yet to see him battle past a round or two. On top of that, I have not seen him have to get dirty on the mat. In both of his decision victories, he slowed considerably in the third round.
Vera, on the other hand, is coming off a loss that he and I both regard as a win. His opponents are vastly superior to anyone O’Malley has faced, and Vera has looked fresh and effective in all his bouts, whether winning via decision submission or KO/TKO. And he had won his last five before being totally jobbed of a decision in his last outing.
Vera, a black belt in BJJ, has the grit, drive and more refined all-around mixed martial arts arsenal to take this fight into the third round and give O’Malley all he wants.
Merab Dvalishvili -218 vs. John Dodson + 188, bantamweight (135 pounds)
Dvalishvili, out of the Longo/Serra gym in New York, is ranked 15th in the division, though I believe his ability and body of work make him a top-seven talent. He’ll be the taller, longer man Saturday, but that might not provide much advantage as he does not intend to spend much time on his feet. Dvalishvili is a wrestling-based dynamo with unrefined striking skill. It’s mandatory that he maneuver this fight to the floor, where he’ll own the advantage.
Dvalishvili fights like a bullet on ricochet in that he is in constant motion as he attempts to gain the clinch and clasp opponents against the cage, then onto the floor. His grappling pressure is unrelenting, his strength is overpowering and his motor never shuts off. If Cormier had this guy’s gas tank, he’d be -450 vs. Miocic!
But to hold advantage in this bout, Dvalishvili must make it a wrestling match, as his offensive striking is limited in its effectiveness and his strike defense leaves him open to exposure.
The 12th-ranked Dodson remains lightning quick, supremely powerful and stylistically beguiling at 35. He’s 21-11 as a professional fighter but 3-3 in his last six. A closer look at the level of those six fighters shows his losses have come only to the division’s elite.
Dodson’s advantages in the striking game will be evident early. His speed, quickness, precision striking, fluid movement and evasive strike defense will work together to make this a difficult matchup for Dvalishvili.
Of all the potential bantamweight opponents, this is the most dangerous to Dvalishvili’s style. For that reason, I’ll look to back Dodson, as I handicap Dvalishvili as the favorite but more like -135.
Dodson + 188
As with all underdogs, it’s often best to wait until closer to the event to make your move. Last week the UFC gave us a production that resulted in 10 favorites winning out of 12 fights. Since the UFC returned May 9, favorites are running 103-42 (71%), and for the year favorites are 166-81-4 (66.1%).
Despite those numbers, my thinking is to attack the underdogs that provide value. But like last week with the Derrick Lewis release, it’s important to understand that advantage may come in any form. It’s up to us as handicappers to recognize advantages, then profit by that diagnosis with actions.