Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight strap-hanger, Stipe Miocic, will face off with power-punching sensation, Francis Ngannou, this Saturday (Jan. 20, 2018) at UFC 220 inside TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
For how badly Miocic is being overlooked ahead of this match up, one would expect that Miocic’s recent performances have been sub-par in some way. In fact, they’ve been anything but, as Miocic has won all three of his championship bouts in the very first round. Furthermore, Miocic has a chance this weekend to break the record for Heavyweight title defenses. The firefighter is no fluke, he’s a legitimately great fighter with a growing resume that places him among the division’s best ever.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Since day one, Miocic has stood out from the pack of Heavyweight contenders thanks to his smart striking. Miocic may have the power to melt people, but he claimed the championship by staying composed and using great fundamentals to pick apart opponents.
Miocic makes the most of his 80-inch reach by doing solid work with the jab. Unlike many fighters, Miocic recognizes that while a jab can do damage, it doesn’t have to. Miocic throws dozen of jabs without fully committing, doing little more than swatting his opponent’s nose or punching his gloves.
The jab sets up most of Miocic’s success by establishing his range and drawing strikes from his opponent. A common sequence in Miocic’s bouts sees the champion land a jab and pull back, avoiding his opponent’s looping power shot. Then, as his foe tries to regain good position, Miocic steps back in with a more committed pair of punches.
The demonstration of Miocic’s jab remains his bout with Mark Hunt, one of the division’s better counter punches. Hunt is used to fighting at a reach disadvantage, but Miocic is one of the few who made it count, picking at Hunt with the jab constantly (GIF). Miocic kept his head back on most of the jabs, which helped him stay safe from counters, and he also feinted constantly. Those jab feints made Hunt hesitant, unsure of when to fully commit to his counter attempts.
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).
Much of Miocic’s success comes from maintaining his distance and sticking his opponent with the jab and cross, mixing in some low kicks and clinch work when appropriate (GIF). That’s the strategy that carried him into the Top 10, but Miocic’s recent bouts have seen a change in approach. While he still does a good job of maintaining stance and working behind the jab, Miocic’s focus has been on pressuring fighters and finding a home for his crushing right hand.
This trend began in Miocic’s title eliminator opposite 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 brutal right hand from Miocic found a home on Arlovski’s chin (GIF).
Opposite Alistair Overeem, Miocic had little interest in trading kicks with the former K-1 champion and was obviously motivated to get in the pocket. 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.
Miocic may have ate some shots in the process, but as the younger, more durable fighter, that was a fair trade to land his own heavy blows.
Finally, Miocic’s last fight showed yet another aggressive game plan that was both planned and improvised. Miocic likely intended to back Junior dos Santos into the fence — he did in the first bout, and “JDS” has long struggled from that position. However, a few heavy low kicks from the Brazilian damaged Miocic’s lead leg, motivating him even more to push into the boxing range.
While backing up dos Santos, Miocic showed his craft. He kept a jab on dos Santos, getting the Brazilian to move his head and then firing a tight right hand when dos Santos’ head movement stalled or he hit the fence (GIF). Another smart decision by Miocic was to switch to Southpaw when dos Santos hit the fence, as it tricked “JDS” to circle into his new power side and absorb a couple left crosses.
Defensively, Miocic does stand a bit tall and can occasionally forget his patience, as seen when he quite literally walked into a massive left hand from Overeem. Each of his recent opponents lacked either the durability or power to trade with Miocic in the pocket, so it will be interesting to see how the champion adjusts for a challenger who will look to counter him.
Miocic’s college wrestling background has been a major asset to his game even if he spends more time boxing, as he’s been quite successful in wrestling exchanges on offense and 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 Miocic’s 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. The jab is a great setup for the single, as it gets his opponent leaning back and open to having his leg snatched.
The real exception to Miocic’s usual wrestling style is his first bout with dos Santos. 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 fence and work from there.
In the last couple years, Miocic’s ground striking has become more and more effective. He’s always been dangerous, but Miocic’s ability to control his foe and land devastating shots is now a notable asset. In this week’s technique highlight, we look at why Miocic often prefers to work from the half guard.
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. In truth, he’s yet to face a real wrestling specialist, which are few and far between at Heavyweight.
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. At the same time, Miocic does like working from the half guard as explained above, so it often benefits him to stay there and drop heavy shots.
Miocic’s well-rounded approach is perhaps the reason he’s so overlooked. He knocks guys out, but it’s with a consistent one-two combination rather than a single massive uppercut like his foe. Miocic is a strong wrestler with great ground strikes, but he doesn’t dominate everyone on the mat compared to someone like Cain Velasquez. However, Miocic’s ability to do it all and do it well earned him the title, and it very well may be enough to derail Ngannou as well.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion 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.