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UFC 252 predictions, preview, and analysis

With “Fight Island” a pleasant, violent memory, UFC APEX takes the reins for the latest pay-per-view (PPV) from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). This Saturday evening (Aug. 15) in Las Vegas, reigning heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic once again locks horns with the inimitable Daniel Cormier in an effort to determine the baddest man on the planet.

Meanwhile, a full 130 pounds south, “Sugar” Sean O’Malley attempts to cement his mixed martial arts (MMA) superstar status against Marlon “Chito” Vera, who’s ended eight Octagon bouts inside the distance and never once been dropped in the process.

The PPV main card also features two of the heaviest-handed men in the sport trading leather as Junior Dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik attempt to rebound from recent defeats at one another’s expense, plus inhuman takedown machine Merab Dvalishvili in an intriguing stylistic clash against John Dodson.

Unfortunately, the main card opener between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba fell through after “The Hulk” tested positive for COVID; that fight is now scheduled for August 29th, leaving former “Prelims” contest between Herbert Burns and Daniel Pineda to take its place.

Our usual main card guy social distanced himself right off an inconveniently placed cliff, so this storied task falls to me once again. As always, our thinly sliced preliminary card appetizers are here and here, while our gambling apéritif can be found here.

On we go ...

265 lbs.: Stipe Miocic (19-3) vs. Daniel “DC” Cormier (22-2)

Daniel Cormier isn’t wrong when he says that he’s spent the majority of his shared Octagon time with Stipe Miocic in firm control. His tried-and-true pressure-heavy clinch onslaught made Miocic look pedestrian in both their first meeting and the first three rounds of their rematch.

Then Miocic realized what Jon Jones and others figured out long before: as adept as Cormier is at parrying incoming fire, his linear advance makes him exceedingly vulnerable to body and leg attacks. Miocic immediately began punishing Cormier’s midsection, heedless of the return fire, and managed to batter him into submission. While that basic adjustment isn’t a magic bullet, it forms a clear basis for a winning gameplan, and I fully expect Miocic to commit to the body from the opening bell this time around.

Cormier is, of course, free to make adjustments of his own, but I’m not sure that’s a weakness he can fix without compromising the things that make his offense so effective in the first place. He needs to be aggressive to win and that, by necessity, puts him in the line of fire. Now that his slick head defense isn’t enough to save him, all he can hope is that Miocic reverts back to the bad habits that plagued him early on.

It’s also worth noting that Cormier is 41 at this point and let himself get out of shape during quarantine, which is a bad sign when a grueling pace is necessary for victory.

With Miocic’s huge reach advantage allowing him to control the fight at range and his body attack short-circuiting Cormier’s infighting, “DC’s” prospects look grim. He could very well find the mark with that right hand again, but the likelier outcome sees Miocic punish the body early and ultimately put him away with another heavy flurry.

Prediction: Miocic via second-round technical knockout

135 lbs.: “Sugar” Sean O’Malley (12-0) vs. Marlon “Chito” Vera (17-6-1)

I was slow to accept O’Malley as a legitimate A-list prospect, especially after his uninspiring Octagon debut against Terrion Ware, but even acknowledging that Jose Alberto Quinones and Eddie Wineland were favorable stylistic matchups, his talent is undeniable at this point. All that remains to be proven is his ability to handle high-quality wrestlers, a category Ecuador’s finest doesn’t fall into.

That’s not to say that Vera’s necessarily doomed; while he’s outgunned in height, reach, variety, and power, his ridiculous durability gives him a potential avenue to victory. Neither John Lineker nor Douglas Andrade managed to put a dent in “Chito” despite packing unreasonable destructive potential in their punches, meaning he’s likely to survive anything O’Malley can dish out short of a flush shin to the face. Once it’s clear the early finish isn’t there for O’Malley, things will get interesting.

Though we’ve seen O’Malley go three rounds before, he’s not done so since returning from USADA jail with a freshly shredded physique. There’s no way he isn’t cutting a considerable amount of weight to make 135, and his hyper-kinetic striking style demands a deep gas tank. If his cardio ends up failing him, Vera is more than capable of erasing any amount of impressive early work with a comeback submission or knockout.

That said, I can’t exactly bank on O’Malley gassing just because he’s now a larger lad. Even if he does slow down late, he should do enough damage at range in the first two rounds to seal the deal.

Prediction: O’Malley via unanimous decision

265 lbs.: Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos (21-7) vs. Jairzinho “Bigi Boy” Rozenstruik (10-1)

As a Junior Dos Santos fan since I watched him crush Gilbert Yvel in my first-ever UFC pay-per-view, the last few years have been rough. His longtime faults, like his tendency to lead with unsafe uppercuts, overextend with his overhand right, and back straight into the fence when pressured have been mercilessly exploited over and over again for a series of worrying knockout defeats. Even the fights he’s won haven’t been heartening; Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis, both the sort of lumbering slugger that a prime “Cigano” would have turned into mincemeat, managed to repeatedly tag the Brazilian legend before ultimately succumbing to his power.

He cannot afford to be this lackadaisical with his defense against Rozenstruik, who despite his occasional lapses in fight IQ can deliver some horrifying blows. Now that Dos Santos’ chin can no longer keep him afloat in firefights, he’ll have to play matador with “Bigi Boy” despite failing to show an ability to do so in years.

The heartbreaking part of this writeup is that Dos Santos has the tools to win this fight comfortably. If he unleashed the wrestling he occasionally showed off in the past or the crushing leg kicks that, by Stipe Miocic’s own admission, had the latter partially compromised after just half a round, he’d have a real chance of scoring a career-saving upset.

Unfortunately, the Cigano that did those things is gone. The one we have willingly threw a right hand against Francis Ngannou so ugly it nearly spun him 180 degrees and left him wide open for the finish. Rozenstruik catches him in an exchange within five minutes.

Prediction: Rozenstruik via first-round knockout

145 lbs.: Herbert “The Blaze” Burns (11-2) vs. Daniel “The Pit” Pineda (26-12)

I wrote this fight up earlier this week and my thoughts have not changed in the last few days. From the first “Prelims” article:

Herbert Burns (11-2) — two fights removed from consecutive losses in ONE FC — dazzled on “Contender Series” with an impressive triangle finish of Darrick Minner, earning himself a contract in the process. He’s been equally impressive in the UFC, dispatching Nate Landwehr and Evan Dunham in 4:03 combined.

“The Blaze” will have two inches of height and four inches of reach on Daniel Pineda (26-13).

“The Pit” left UFC in 2014 in the midst of a 1-4 stretch, then went on to win eight of his next 10 bouts. His efforts earned him a spot in PFL’s 2019 season, which saw him knock out tournament favorite Movlid Khaybulaev and choke out UFC vet Jeremy Kennedy before a failed drug test erased his efforts.

All of his professional wins have come inside the distance, 18 of them by submission.

I sorely underestimated Burns against Dunham, assuming that the Brazilian’s historically average wrestling would prove insufficient against a grappler of that caliber. Instead, he took the back and wrapped up the submission without issue, and I expect him to do the same to Pineda. Though “The Pit” is always dangerous, he’s not the caliber of wrestler that’s troubled Burns in the past and isn’t quite lethal enough on the feet to make up for that.

Pineda’s best chances lie in either catching Burns on the feet or hurting him in transition as the Brazilian hunts for a takedown, and neither seems particularly likely against Brazilian jiu-jitsu of this caliber. Burns ensures Pineda’s UFC career picks up where it left off with another one-sided defeat.

Prediction: Burns via first-round submission

135 lbs.: John “The Magician” Dodson (21-11) vs. Merab “The Machine” Dvalishvili (11-4)

John Dodson is a prime example of what happens when an extremely gifted and hard-working fighter fails to ever evolve. It’s hard to name a single dimension he’s added to his game since his low-volume, one-handed offense proved insufficient to take out Demetrious Johnson. His lack of development has become even more prominent at Bantamweight, where that left hand struggles to serve as a panacea against bigger men; before flattening Nathaniel Wood last time out, Dodson hadn’t scored a finish since 2016, though he admittedly racked up a few knockdowns during that span.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, here’s why he’s still got a chance here.

Dodson’s recent difficulties have come against strikers able to outwork, out-reach, or out-technique him. The wrestling-savvy but brawl-happy Dvalishvili is unquestionably far more frantic than Dodson, but leaves himself open for a game-changing counter in the process. “The Machine” has yet to face someone with the power to decisively punish his wild, rampant aggression, and Dodson fits that bill perfectly.

While he’s waiting for one of those golden opportunities, however, he’ll be dealing with a nonstop frenzy of takedown attempts, and even his notoriously stout defensive wrestling and scrambling abilities aren’t up to the task of dissuading Dvalishvili from constantly getting in on his hips. Dodson simply can’t keep up with this sort of attack for 15 minutes; if he can’t find the knockout, he’s not winning the decision.

Were Dodson at the peak of his abilities, he’d have a very good shot at consistently scrambling out of trouble and landing a game-changer at some point. Now that he’s closing in on 36, I wouldn’t bank on it. Dvalishvili outlands and outwrestles him for a decision victory.

Prediction: Dvalishvili via unanimous decision

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 252 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online at 7 p.m. ET and continuing on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 252: “Miocic vs. Cormier 3” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here