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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 241’s Daniel Cormier

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight kingpin, Daniel Cormier, will look to defend his title a second time opposite the man he stole the strap from, Stipe Miocic, this Saturday (Aug. 17, 2019) at UFC 241 from inside Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

For several reasons, it’s easy to forget just how great Daniel Cormier is.

The biggest cause is definitely his feud with perennial great Jon Jones. Even with all the failed drug tests and other controversies, there can be no doubt who is currently ahead in their rivalry, and the bad blood between the two will dominate headlines seemingly as long as both men are fighting. Outside of “Bones,” though? Cormier is perfect in the Octagon, undefeated at Heavyweight, and he’s finished his last four victories before the third round. Technically, Cormier is undefeated since 2015, picking up two titles and retaining them on five separate occasions.

There’s a reason “DC” sits atop the pound-for-pound list, so let’s take a closer look at his skill set.

Striking

Starting with the second Jon Jones’ bout, there has been a clear improvement and effort in improving Cormier’s boxing. His famous slip over to his right side remains far too built into his game to remove — thus making it a habit that can be countered — but Cormier’s offensive and defensive striking has jumped considerably.

Cormier’s jab was particularly sharp against Miocic. The setup was the same — Cormier repeatedly reached out to hand-fight with both hands before stepping into a very fast jab. The jab bruised and split Miocic’s face, and later in the fight Cormier began to switch it up by using the initial clinch feint setup but into harder punches (GIF). The parry into the left hook-cross seen in the previous GIF is a prime Fedor Emelianenko technique.

The other notable improvement is an extra focus on low kicks. Cormier’s kicks have never been technically beautiful, but you don’t have to be a perfect technician to throw a damn hard low kick if you weigh well over 200 pounds. In his bout with Miocic, Cormier did a nice job of helping to eliminate his range disadvantage by kicking out Miocic’s lead leg as the boxer stepped toward him.

Opposite Jon Jones, many of those kicks came at the end of his combinations — which is great — but he also counter kicked. For example, after Jones attempted to stomp on Cormier’s lead leg, “DC” would immediately return with a hard low kick while Jones was out of position (GIF).

On the whole, Cormier works with a high volume of jabs and crosses, mixing in shots to the body as well. Cormier doesn’t often throw extended combinations, largely sticking to two punch combinations. To help himself land these shots, Cormier does an excellent job of mixing level changes into his offense. Frequently reminding his foe about the threat of the shot, Cormier disrupts timing and causes hands to drop before crashing forward with hard punches.

Perhaps the best part of Cormier’s striking is his clinch work. The clinch in wrestling may be a bit of a different position, but Cormier’s expertise on posture control definitely carries into the cage. It’s difficult to describe without actually having experience opposite a truly great wrestler, but there’s a different level to their push and pull at close distances.

In Cormier’s case, this most often results in a wickedly effective uppercut. Particularly in his fights with Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, Cormier would hang on the neck of his opponent with a single collar-tie. It’s a horrible wearing technique that breaks posture and saps energy, but Cormier will also be bloodying his opponent with the other hand using uppercuts (GIF). Against Miocic, Cormier built on that wonderfully by catching Miocic circling out with his head leaned back, which was likely an adjustment by Miocic to avoid the uppercut (GIF).

Alternatively, Cormier can look to grab the double-collar tie and land knees. At any point in the clinch — from the double-collar tie to a single underhook — Cormier is likely to yank on his opponent’s head and start throwing uppercuts. He’s also aggressive on the break, looking to leap forward with a heavy left hook and catch his foe with his hands low.

Defensively, there are definitely holes in Cormier’s game. His hands often begin to dip when he throws in combination, which leaves him vulnerable to counter punches, particularly when he is leaning into his punches. In addition, Cormier has shown a weakness to body shots. A single body kick won’t cause him to crumble to the floor, but it does affect and slow him down. Steroids or no, Jones exploited these weaknesses perfectly in the second bout. Cormier started strong and arguably won each of the first two rounds, but it was clear that Jones’ dedication to body shots was slowing him down. In the third, Jones switched it up with a high kick, Cormier’s hands dropped, and the great wrestler was felled.

Wrestling

Cormier has a strong argument as UFC’s best wrestler. The Olympian is masterful in all parts of the takedown, setting up his shots well, transitioning with ease, and usually finishing with a hard slam. Only Jones has been able to stand up to his wrestling, and even then, neither man was ever able to control the other on the mat for more than a couple seconds.

Cormier’s high-crotch takedown is his best weapon. “DC” is an expert from that position and probably knows a dozen potential finishes once in on the shot. All of the small details in his shot and finishes -- be it his grip, hip pressure or posture -- are done perfectly. All those years of practice and experience are what make Cormier so successful and allows him to ragdoll excellent defensive wrestlers like they’re children (GIF).

Most of the time Cormier shoots, it’s for the high crotch single leg. Often using a roll to set up the shot, Cormier will drive into his opponent’s hips. In addition, Cormier will sometimes just drop down and turn a corner when his opponent moves forward with punches, which he did successfully against “Rumble” multiple times (GIF). Once Cormier successfully penetrates his opponent’s hips, his opponent is likely going for a ride. Cormier is simply a master of finishing the single leg and regardless of how his opponent looks to defend, Cormier usually has an answer. After looking to run the pipe and dump his foe to the mat -- the standard high crotch finish that Cormier routinely hits -- Cormier will react accordingly to however his opponent attempts to defend.

For example, Barnett was able to keep his balance when Cormier first attempted to dump him. However, Josh Barnett did not use an overhook to keep Cormier bent over or even fight his hands, allowing “DC” to easily push his hips in and lift the Heavyweight into the air (GIF). Alternatively, Cormier will look to trip out the remaining leg. While keeping a tight grip on the single leg, Cormier can use his legs to land an inside or outside trip. If these trips fail, Cormier is usually in position to transition into a double leg instead and run through his opponent.

Against Derrick Lewis, Cormier demonstrated why working to off-balance bigger men is such a successful strategy. Cormier never looked for a takedown above the waist, always going to one leg. Once that leg was secured, Cormier looked to finish with the dump, by elevating the leg, even with an ankle pick (GIF) — any way to avoid going strength-for-strength and directly attack his foe’s balance.

Aside from the single-leg, Cormier will often work from the clinch. He’s very physically strong from that position, which means he’s happy to work punches, jam his foe into the fence, or look for the takedown. When in tight, Cormier uses a wide variety of takedowns. For example, he’s a big fan of the inside trip, driving his opponent backward before hook the leg. Alternatively, Cormier will react with a slick lateral drop is his foe pushes back into him.

From top position, Cormier often uses the half-guard to dominate his opponent. Coincidentally, we covered the same position and some similar tactics for Miocic a couple years ago, though there are some differences between the two men’s approaches:

Cormier’s defense wrestling is outstanding. More often than not, takedowns simply bounce off him. Against other elite fighters like Jones, Gustafsson, and Miocic, Cormier may have momentarily been brought to the mat on a couple of occasions, but he always pops up within a few seconds.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Cormier’s overall style is to control and beat up his opponent until they turn their back. Once that happens, Cormier is more willing to jump the back and strangle his foe compared to some of his American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) teammates who operate in similar fashion.

As discussed in the video above, Cormier threatened some submissions against Anthony Johnson from the half-guard. Americanas and straight armbars from half-guard are generally low percentage, sure, but they did effectively keep Johnson on his back and force him to defend.

Cormier mostly hunts for the rear-naked choke, which accounts for each of his five submission wins. There’s not a ton to it — Cormier breaks down his opponent from top position until it’s easy to latch onto the neck and squeeze. His style of top control and pace is brutal, opening up opportunities for the choke simply via pressure. In the first round of his bout with Oezdemir, Cormier landed a takedown, climbed onto the back, and locked in a choke in all of about 15 seconds, though the bell prevented the tap.

The Derrick Lewis bout followed in this exact pattern. In the first round, Lewis was twice able to stand by turning his back and fighting hands, but that’s exhausting, and Cormier was happy to simply take him back down. When Lewis was moving a bit slower in the second, “DC” moved to take the back and strangle him.

Defensively, Cormier hasn’t been threatened all that often. When he did go to the ground with Barnett, Cormier did a nice job staying safe within the guard and landing nasty elbows. Once Barnett opened up and began attacking, Cormier would simply pull away and let him back up. Similarly, Cormier has had little difficulty on the mat with black belts like Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, and Anderson Silva.

Conclusion

Cormier is a fantastic fighter, working hard into his forties to secure his legacy as an all-time great. Miocic is likely the best win on his resume, his moment to step up and prove himself the best in the world without any possible asterisk or controversy. It’s been more than one year since Cormier’s thunderous knockout proved his immense talent, and now Cormier can prove himself once more.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.

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