MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 252.

UFC 252 takes place Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN/ESPN+.

Stipe Miocic (19-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’4″ Age: 37 Weight: 250 lbs. Reach: 80″
  • Last fight: TKO win over Daniel Cormier(Aug. 17, 2019)
  • Camp: Strong Style Fight Team (Ohio)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:

+ UFC heavyweight champion
+ Golden Gloves winner
+ NCAA Division 1 wrestler
+ Regional MMA title
+ 15 KO victories
+ 9 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Excellent footwork
+ Good sense inside the pocket
^ Pulls and returns well
+ Dangerous right hand
^ Counters well off of inside parry
+ Solid takedown transitions
^ Favors head-outside singles
+ Good positional rides
^ Active ground striker

Daniel Cormier (22-2 MMA, 11-2 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’11” Age: 41 Weight: 236 lbs. Reach: 72.5″
  • Last fight: TKO loss to Stipe Miocic(Aug. 17, 2019)
  • Camp: American Kickboxing Academy (San Jose, CA)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:

+ Former UFC heavyweight champion
+ Former UFC light heavyweight champion
+ Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix winner
+ 2x U.S. Olympian (wrestling captain)
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt
+ 10 KO victories
+ 5 submission wins
+ 8 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Deceptive distance closer
+ Heavy overhands and uppercuts
+ Strong clinch game
^ Effective dirty boxer
+ Diverse takedown game
^ Favors chains from singles
+ Transitions intelligently on top

Point of interest: Shoring up striking holes

The main event for UFC 252 features an anticipated trilogy fight for the heavyweight title between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier.

In their first meeting at UFC 226, we saw Cormier use his clever clinch savvy to set up strikes that Miocic didn’t see coming en route to upsetting the odds. And in their rematch at UFC 241, Miocic – though still getting stung by similar shots – was able to weather the initial storm from a head-hunting Cormier, as he made adjustments late by going to the body (a target that has traditionally been available to hit on the former champ-champ).

For this fight, I expect both parties to bring potential adjustments to the table.

Although Cormier has publicly claimed that wrestling will be a heavy part of his game plan, he will still need to shore up the holes that were exposed on the feet in his last outing. But given Cormier’s inherent aggression and built-in style, I will be curious to see if he former double champ can successfully tack on more defensive wherewithal this late in the game.

Hailing from San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy, Cormier embodies a style that is deeply embedded within that historic training camp (as seen with Cormier’s longtime stablemate and two-time former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez).

Stalking forward with feints, fakes and prodding jabs, Cormier will attempt to slip and rip his way inside off of a crouch variation that feeds nicely into his close-quarters attacks. In recent years, Cormier has also applied a variation of hand-trapping, extending his arms out in order to bait opposition into exchanging with him on his terms (something that he had success with in his second meeting with Miocic).

Often punctuating his presence with hooks up high, the champion has no issues finishing with leg kicks down low. In fact, I think that Cormier has an underrated kicking ability, and I would not be surprised to see him pick up where he quietly left off in the first and second fights by continuing to kick at Miocic’s legs (perhaps trying to replicate the successes that fighters like Junior Dos Santos found).

In both fights, Cormier was able to land at least 6 hard leg kicks in the first round before getting tunnel vision and going for the finish in the rematch. Though I think this adjustment would be a wise and energy-efficient one, Cormier will still need to be mindful of the potential counters from Miocic.

A Golden Gloves boxing winner before he even began his MMA career, Miocic has continually stood out among his contemporaries with his striking skills. Although Mioicic’s athletic ability and background in wrestling add an undeniable dimension to his game, it is the work that the champion does in small spaces that tends to make the difference.

Akin to a heavyweight version of Frankie Edgar, Miocic will steadily work behind a series of jabs and feints, stepping slightly off at an angle in search of his counters or followup shots. Moving just as well laterally as he does in and out, Miocic shows a good sense of the action inside the pocket, almost preternaturally pulling and returning his punches.

Whether Miocic is using his patent inside-parries or slick step-offs to the side, his battering ram of a right hand is undoubtedly his hallmark. In fact, I will be curious to see if Miocic gets back to his inside parries given the later success it afforded him in regards to combating Cormier’s hand-trapping tactics.

Throwing crosses off rear-handed parries also flow nicely into Miocic’s left hook, which he smartly directed at a tiring Cormier torso in their last encounter. Prior to throwing 30 body shots at UFC 241, the most body attacks Miocic ever clocked in a previous UFC fight was 11, which makes me wonder if he’ll be able to consistently turn the volume up in that department again.

Miocic will also have to be aware of his space and surroundings given that this battle will take place in the 25-foot octagon. Sure, Miocic is one of the few heavyweights who can competently fight going backward, but the smaller cage may subsequently lead to more wrestling opportunities for Cormier.

Point of interest: Winning the wrestling

Between Cormier’s claims to wrestle in the rubber match and the success that he had early rematching Miocic, it’s not crazy to think that Cormier attempts to keep his word this Saturday.

A former captain of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, Cormier is at home whenever operating inside of the clinch. When he isn’t pulling down on heads to deliver uppercuts, the Olympic wrestler is usually reaching down for his favored snatch-single, a takedown that he chains into a high-crotch position that either allows him to lift his opposition into the air, or snap them down in a motion that both allows and encourages him to hit corners and take backs.

Mixing in slick trips while forcing his opponents to balance, Cormier almost feels like he’s teaching a kids class in the way in which he makes sure to touch all the bases step by step. The former champ also has deceptively-good reactionary takedowns given his age and stature, something that could come in handy against an aggressive counterpart.

Thankfully for Miocic, the American-born Croatian came up wrestling via Cleavland State at a Division-1 level, which means that adjustments aren’t out of the question for the 37-year-old heavyweight.

Miocic may have faltered in an important position when he gave up that big takedown in the first round of their rematch (which fellow analyst, Ryan Wagner, does an excellent job of breaking down here), but it’s not an area that Miocic is unfamiliar with.

Like Cormier, Miocic also uses reactive double-legs or snatch-singles to combat pressuring opponents. Typically finishing his entries by snapping his opponents all the way down (almost like he’s hiking a football), Miocic shows a solid top game that he can go to should he choose to follow the action to the floor.

From Miocic’s shoulder pressure and short strikes from half guard to his relentless positional rides, the current champ offers a lot of tiring offense that opponents or onlookers shouldn’t underestimate.

That said, Cormier, aside from his elite wrestling accolades, is also one of the most transitionally savvy grapplers north of 205 pounds. Even fellow Olympian Dan Henderson, the lighter (albeit older) man, had difficulty in keeping up with Cormier and was ultimately privy to a plethora of positional rides that were ruthless and wearing.

Although Miocic seems difficult to hold down, he does tend to turtle hard while scrambling back to his feet, something we started to see at the end of the first round back at UFC 241. Not only does turtling briefly give your back, but it also exposes your neck to front-headlock attacks or cradle opportunities, positions that Cormier – as we’ve seen – is very competent from.

Ultimately, I believe that this constant juxtaposition of transitional threats and positional battles will make every scramble in this fight entertaining as it is important.

Point of interest: Odds, opinions and prediction

The oddsmakers opened this fight even at -110, but public money has trickled in on the former champ, making Cormier -115 and Miocic -105 as of this writing.

Between the stylistic potency of this heavyweight affair to the intangibles of a trilogy fight involving aging fighters, I have no issue with the tight betting spread above. But for me, this rivalry has all the feels of Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture.

Couture, who initially invaded Liddell’s weight class to take the title, smartly combined wrestling and boxing to score the upset. But in their subsequent fights, we saw the slightly younger Liddell (who also came from a wrestling base and could fight going backward) eventually get a beat on Couture’s advances to land devastating counters. And though either Miocic or Cormier has all the potential to end things early, I actually suspect this fight goes late.

In previous breakdowns between these two, I picked Cormier to win each outing, basing my decision on Cormier’s wrestling chops and perceived ability to fight hard for five rounds. However, given how their rematch went last year, I was forced to reevaluate that opinion.

Initially, I thought that the lighter and more skilled grappler would eventually win out exchanges on the assumption that the former light heavyweight would have the better cardio. But as we’ve seen with even the best of wrestlers, you can only wrestle so much before needing some sort of break or stalling position.

Although I do believe Cormier when he says that he wasn’t fully healthy heading into UFC 241, I’m still not convinced that he won’t make another variation of the same mistake by wrestling himself into a hole, pace-wise. And if Cormier spent the majority of this camp getting his weight down, then I’m not sure I like his chances playing the place war opposite a svelt (at least according to his social media) Miocic.

For that reason, I’ll reluctantly side with Miocic to survive the storm once again, likely landing a pull-counter for the finish once Cormier puts down the proverbial pack to catch his breath.