If you’re ranking the greatest mixed martial artists of all time in terms of charisma, Stipe Miocic is not in your, oh, top thousand or so. If your criteria for star power includes prefight bluster or even in-cage razzle-dazzle, this UFC champion does not shine so brightly.
But if you’re looking for the greatest heavyweight fighter in the sport’s history, you’ll find him in a firehouse in suburban Cleveland.
Well, maybe give Miocic a few days before he’s back home and on the job. He spent Saturday night working in Las Vegas, securing his preeminent status among the biggest of the big guys with a unanimous decision victory over Daniel Cormier in the main event of UFC 252. It wasn’t easy. Cormier, competing in what he said both beforehand and afterward would be the final fight of his career, gave the champ everything he had. But Miocic did what an all-time great does. He got better as the fight progressed.
Miocic dropped Cormier in the final seconds of the second round, sat on top of him against the cage and wailed away until the challenger was saved by the horn. So the champ went back to work in the next round, patiently pursuing DC, connecting with punches and kicks, clinching him against the cage, wearing him out. An eye poke near the end of Round 3 further compromised Cormier, but DC kept coming, pushing Miocic right to the end.
“DC’s a hell of a fighter,” Miocic said. “I wish him nothing but the best.”
Miocic, a 37-year-old Ohioan who even as a two-time world champion is not too much of a big shot to continue serving his community as a part-time firefighter and EMT, now claims four successful title defenses — twice as many as any other UFC heavyweight has ever managed. It was Miocic’s second victory over Cormier, who steps away from the Octagon as one of the top five heavyweights in MMA history.
No. 1 on the list is Stipe Miocic.
That proclamation might not go over so well in Stary Oskol, hometown of the Russian great Fedor Emelianenko. The Miocic résumé, after all, shows nothing as snazzy as the decade-long run during which “The Last Emperor” went 28 fights without a defeat. Emelianenko’s record is dotted with conquests over some of the greats of the game, and he has long been the gold standard among heavyweights.
To old-school fans especially, it is sacrilege to elevate anyone above Emelianenko. But Miocic has earned his spot at the top of the mountain. The consecutive victories over Cormier were not his only victories over an all-time great. Miocic became champion in 2016 with a first-round KO of Fabricio Werdum, who six years earlier had put a halt to Emelianenko’s revered winning streak with a shock-the-world submission. Werdum sewed up his own place among history’s heavyweight elite by tapping out both Emelianenko and fellow A-list dominator Cain Velasquez. And then Miocic simply smoked Werdum.
A one-punch KO in that championship bout — crumbling Werdum in front of his countrymen in Curitiba, Brazil — set Miocic off on a run unprecedented among UFC heavyweight champs. Within a year, he had scored two more first-round knockouts, clobbering former Strikeforce and K-1 kickboxing champion Alistair Overeem and then ex-UFC champ Junior dos Santos.
Chael Sonnen breaks down Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier and explains what the difference-maker was in Miocic’s unanimous decision victory.
Next came a date inside the Octagon with the scariest man on the planet. Francis Ngannou has 10 victories in the UFC, seven of them first-round knockouts. His past four opponents have lasted 45, 26, 71 and 20 seconds, respectively. But back in January 2018, Miocic went 25 minutes with Ngannou and tamed those sledgehammer fists, earning a dominant decision victory with a performance in which the champ relied less on his own mighty punches and more on a brainy strategy and well-rounded skill set.
Since then, it has been all DC, all the time, for Miocic. Their first fight, in July 2018, was over practically before it began, as Cormier landed a sneaky, short right hook out of a clinch to take away the title with a first-round knockout. A little over a year later, Miocic turned the tables with a fourth-round TKO, adjusting his game plan midfight and using a deadening succession of body shots to reestablish himself as champion.
That set up the biggest fight in MMA heavyweight history. Saturday’s bout was the tantalizing completion of a trilogy in which each fighter had already separated the other from consciousness. It was the final fight in the accomplished career of the 41-year-old Cormier, a former Olympian and two-division UFC champion. And it was the crowning achievement for Miocic as the greatest heavyweight ever.
This is by no means a diminishment of the Emelianenko legacy. Like Miocic, he is a humble man of exceptional achievements. Victories in the Pride Fighting Championships over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic, Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman, among many others, made the Russian worthy of all the accolades heaped upon him when the game was all his.
Emelianenko was just 33 when Werdum stopped him. That’s the prime of many fighting careers, early prime for heavyweights. Miocic, on the other hand, turns 38 on Wednesday and is still going strong, and the fighters who make up the rest of ESPN’s heavyweight top 10 average 35 years of age. All but one of them compete in the UFC.
Back in Emelianko’s day, it was up for debate whether the best heavyweights could be found in the UFC or Pride. So while Fedor did compete against several elite contemporaries, he did not have the opportunity to cross paths with other greats. The MMA landscape is different today. To remain UFC champion, Miocic must navigate the sport’s most violently choppy seas, inhabited by unquestionably the best heavyweights on the planet.
Saturday night truly set Miocic apart. He had evened the score with Cormier last summer, and this weekend he took ownership of the trilogy and tightly secured the UFC heavyweight division as his domain.
It was Miocic’s night, to be sure, but even he surely would acknowledge that it was not his alone. That this was Cormier’s final rodeo (unless you believe UFC president Dana White) cannot be overlooked. “God bless him. He’s having a baby in October. God bless him with that — a healthy baby and a long, happy life,” Miocic said after the fight. “He’s an amazing champion, an amazing ambassador.”
Some will frame this closing chapter as DC once again falling just short of his ultimate goal. It happened years ago in the NCAA wrestling tournament, when he finished second, and at the Olympics, where his bid for a medal ended with a loss in the semifinals. It happened both times he challenged Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight belt. And now it has happened in his final trip inside the Octagon. But take note of who it was that handed Cormier his only MMA defeats: the greatest heavyweight of all time and the greatest light heavyweight in history — maybe the best fighter the sport has ever seen. Finishing in second place to them is no indignity.
As Cormier was receiving all of the hosannas in the lead-up to this big night — he is as loquacious as he is likable, and he basked in the spotlight — Miocic appeared comfortable in the shadows. During a 45-minute UFC news conference with the two heavyweights on Thursday, DC easily had 80% of the microphone time while the champ spoke sparingly, at times barely audibly. One thing Miocic did say was that he did not object, not even a little, to having all of the attention go to his challenger.
“He can take it all, man. It’s all good. I don’t mind it,” Miocic said with a sly smile. “Good for him. I’m just going to hang out in the back.”
That’s Stipe Miocic, a man who relies not on clever wordplay, letting his fists do his talking. After Saturday night, there are only four words that matter: greatest of all time.