Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight kingpin, Stipe Miocic, will rematch knockout artist, Junior dos Santos, this Saturday (May 13, 2017) at UFC 211 inside American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Heading into 2016, few expected Miocic to capture the crown, much less defend it.
Instead, that’s precisely what he did. Miocic walked into the cage and gunned down a trio of Top 10 Heavyweights in a round a piece, cementing himself as the best Heavyweight in the world. However, Miocic’s rise also reminds us that the Heavyweight division is an ever-changing mad house. In this fight, Miocic will attempt to tie the record for title defenses at two, as well as handing the most recent man to defeat him a loss.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Miocic is a smart boxer. While nothing he does is exceptionally complicated, Miocic has been able to dominate the field thanks to expert fundamentals, a great understanding of mixed martial arts (MMA), and of course some considerable athletic gifts.
Miocic does most of his work from the outside, where he's active with his footwork and feints. For a good-sized Heavyweight, Miocic is quite mobile and generally keeps himself at the perfect range to land his punches. Plus, he's constantly feinting his straight punches, waiting to counter any punches that these feints draw out.
Feints are a major part of Miocic's success. Since his offensive boxing at range is pretty straight forward -- Miocic largely stabs at his opponent with jabs and crosses (GIF) -- it's imperative that Miocic can disrupt his opponent's timing with feints and keep his foe off-balance.
This was especially important in Miocic's victory over Mark Hunt. Hunt, as the smaller man, was looking to slip his opponent's punches and counter punch. Instead, Miocic did an excellent job throwing him off by feinting and utilizing the jab to discourage his counters and set up his own takedowns (GIF).
That relationship between jabbing, feinting and wrestling is important. It’s an integral part of his game that creates a ton of openings, which is why I chose to analyze it for Miocic’s technique highlight.
Miocic really showed off his intelligence in his last fight, as well as more depth to his boxing game that usual. Opposite a tricky veteran and devastating kickboxer in Alistair Overeem, Miocic was able to hold his own, landing (and admittedly eating too) some very hard shots on the feet.
For much of the bout, Overeem stood as a Southpaw. Pawing at Miocic’s lead hand, Overeem looked to take away the jab and maintain the kicking range, where he could slam home hard kicks to the body and look to counter any forward movement with a brutal overhand left.
It definitely worked on some levels, but Miocic did his best to pressure relentlessly without becoming an easy target for the left hand. One of the things he did best was reach out and grab Overeem’s lead hand, catching and closing the distance. Overeem could fire his left, but that would mean accepting close range with Miocic. Often, Overeem literally ran away, which allowed Miocic to chase him down with doubled up punches. Alternatively, his hand control backed Overeem into the fence, where Miocic both doubled up and dug to the body in order to work around Overeem’s defense.
It’s worth mentioning that Miocic has some nasty low kicks (GIF). He goes to the inside and outside well with different intentions. Usually, Miocic's inside low kick is quick and shakes up his opponent's stance, allowing for follow up punches. On the other hand, Miocic's outside kick is simply devastating and painful. Prior to his Octagon debut, Miocic actually finished one of his opponents via low kicks.
Thanks to Miocic’s outside work, a reasonable strategy when facing the Ohio-native is to pressure him. While his wrestling does a nice job of deterring that plan, his counter right hand is another major tool in his arsenal.
It earned him the strap (GIF).
In most of his fights — even opposite Overeem — Miocic looked to work from the end of his boxing range. However, he completely switched up his approach opposite “JDS” last time around. By copying Cain Velasquez’s approach and forcing wrestling/clinch exchanges, he looked train dos Santos and take away his best weapons.
It’s not his usual game plan, but it’s a great ability to be able to so dramatically switch up his strategy if necessary.
In these close range exchanges, Miocic does a nice job digging hooks to the body. He also capitalizes whenever his opponent looks to break away, attacking with wide hooks when his opponent attempts to circle (GIF).
Miocic also moved away from his outside attack in his bout with Andrei Arlovski. Instead of working from the range of Arlovski's brutal overhand, Miocic pressured his opponent immediately and made him uncomfortable. While advancing, Miocic did an excellent job of keeping his hands tight and slipping off the line while punching. The bout only lasted about a minute, but in that time most of Arlovski's wide blows glanced off Miocic's guard.
Before long, a tight right hand found his opponent's chin.
Lastly, Miocic's transitions between the clinch and range striking have become quite fluid. This was a pivotal element in his bout with Mark Hunt, as Miocic was able to land with his long strikes then suddenly smother his opponent and batter him with knees and short punches (GIF). Plus, at the distance, he was in range for a sudden takedown as well.
Miocic’s college wrestling background has been a major asset to his game even if he hasn’t always relied on it, as he’s been quite successful in wrestling exchanges on offense or defense. It also helps that Miocic is a quality athlete for the division, a solid mix of speed and power.
One of the most interesting aspects of his game is his habit to mix half-hearted takedown attempts into his offense. These half shots serve a significant purpose, as they keep his opponent off-balance and give Miocic an opportunity to read his opponent. More than anything else, it's another layer of complexity for Miocic's offense, as his opponent must more often react and respect these feints.
Otherwise, they’re going to end up on their back.
Often, Miocic will drop down for a single-leg in the center of the Octagon. After securing the leg, Miocic will attempt to run the pipe. He usually catches his opponent off-balance, allowing him to easily dump them. If his opponent stays standing, Miocic will transition into a double or abandon the takedown altogether and throw some punches.
Once again, the real exception is the dos Santos fight. Rather than a few well-timed single legs, Miocic was frequently driving through double leg takedowns. Though dos Santos stuffed the vast majority of them, Miocic was able to force the fight into the clinch and work from there.
In the last couple years, Miocic’s ground striking has become more effective. He’s always been dangerous, but Miocic’s ability to control his foe and land devastating shots is now a notable asset.
The first example of this development came opposite Hunt. From top position, Miocic would secure half guard and lock his legs, trapping his squirrelly foe in place. Then, he’d look to pin one hand to the mat, leaving his other arm free to drop elbows.
To finish Overeem, Miocic showed off the benefits of proper posture at Heavyweight. From full guard, Miocic stood over his opponent and picked his shots. Thanks to his size and gravity, Miocic’s punches quickly ended the contest (GIF).
For the most part, Miocic's takedown defense is quite solid. Even when he is taken down, he's pretty quick to scramble back to his feet. Thus far, none of his opponent's have found consistent success in taking him down, though he's yet to face a real wrestling specialist.
Miocic has yet to be put on his back long enough to really display any submission game. Offensively, Miocic has never submitted any of his opponents nor even really attempted to.
However, Miocic has proven to be a strong guard passer. In his bouts against Shane del Rosario and Joey Beltran, Miocic was able to slice through their guards, achieve dominant positions, and maintain top position. While Beltran is not exactly a jiu-jitsu specialist, del Rosario was known for having a dangerous bottom game, but Miocic nullified it.
As mentioned, Miocic really likes to hold the half guard position. He does a nice job of keeping heavy shoulder pressure while delivering strikes, which keeps his safe from submissions and allows him to do damage.
Miocic has all the tools to extend his reign as dominant Heavyweight champion. The problem is the margin of error, which is smaller than any other weight class. If Miocic can avoid the kill shot and learn from his first bout from dos Santos, he’s got a great chance to hang onto the strap for a bit longer and potentially break the title defense record next time around.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.