The most under-appreciated champion on the roster, Stipe Miocic, will rematch with fearsome power puncher, Francis Ngannou, this Saturday (March 27, 2021) at UFC 260 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Despite a dominant victory over “The Predator,” Miocic enters this rematch as a slight underdog — a great example of the general disrespect Miocic endures (though fortunately seems unbothered by). He’s a record-setting champion who wins by knockout more often than not, yet for years, it seems as though both UFC and fans are waiting for someone to knock him off his perch.
It happened vs. Daniel Cormier, but Miocic righted that ship twice over. Now, he’ll look to once more prove himself the better man to the division’s scariest puncher. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Miocic has skills, conditioning, toughness, size and power. His game relies heavily on the fundamentals, but when given all those attributes, it works consistently at a very high level.
Miocic does excellent work with the jab. Unlike many fighters, Miocic recognizes that while a jab can do damage, it doesn’t have to every time. 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 best demonstration of Miocic’s jab remains his bout with Mark Hunt, who at the time was 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. 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.
Against Ngannou, Miocic showed great strategy and technique when faced with a giant man chasing him and winging power shots. Early on, Miocic was willing to focus largely on defense, circling away from “The Predator” and letting most shots come up short. When trapped along the fence, Miocic used takedown attempts to gain better position or rolled his way to safety.
Later on, Ngannou tired and realized he should probably do something other than sprint and throw power shots. He began to jab, but unlike the champion, did not set up his jabs with feints or noncommittal jabs. The result was some of Miocic’s best right-handed counters, as he slipped outside to load up the right or slipped inside for the cross counter.
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.
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 (.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).
Opposite Alistair Overeem, however, 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 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.
While backing up Junior dos Santos in the rematch, Miocic showed his crafty aggression. 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. Miocic did the same in his trilogy bout with Cormier, nearly knockout out the decorated wrestler (.GIF).
Speaking of, what is there to learn from that Cormier trilogy? More than any technical notes, the trilogy demonstrated Miocic’s intelligence and fight IQ. In the first bout, he got caught, but it’s Heavyweight, and that happens! In the second bout, Miocic demonstrated his ability to improvise, developing his strategy of hitting the body somewhere near the end of the second round. Once he started finding success with body shots, Miocic stuck to that script, and the results were definitive (.GIF).
The third match really showcased Miocic’s improved game plan. In the first two bouts, Miocic was often pursuing Cormier or standing directly in range. As a result, he was always there to be hit, and win or lose, Cormier’s quicker punches found their target. Though his overall choice of weapons — jabs, crosses, some body work, and kicks — remained the same, Miocic really focused on moving his feet. As a result, Cormier had to close an extra step of distance, meaning his punches seemed slower than in previous fights, and he often left himself open to do so.
Miocic landed and avoided at a much better rate, simply by being a bit more evasive.
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. At any point, Miocic can actually reach out and really grab onto the lead leg for a snatch single, which he tends to finish by running the pipe.
Admittedly, it’s been some time since we’ve seen this type of half shot/half feint from Miocic.
More recently, Miocic returned to the style of wrestling that worked opposite Junior dos Santos in the first 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 fence and work from there.
Miocic was forced to use driving double legs and clinch work against Ngannou as well, as you cannot really snatch single a man charging straight into you. It may not be Miocic’s preferred style, but he did a great job of running his legs underneath the shot to off-balance Ngannou and plant him on the mat (GIF). Against Cormier as well, Miocic landed a couple takedowns simply by grabbing double underhooks and overpowering his foe.
The Ngannou bout also showcased Miocic’s brand of top control. Historically, Miocic likes to stay in half guard, sitting on one of his foe’s legs to pin him to the mat. From there, Miocic will also look to trap one of his opponent’s arms, allowing him to tee off with the free hand and generally make his opponent’s life miserable.
The Ohio native did plenty of that opposite the Frenchman, but he also worked from turtle quite a bit. As Ngannou tried to turn away and stand, Miocic would control the far wrist and weigh down on his opponent’s neck. He was never truly able to release his ground strikes from that position — due to both fatigue and fear of letting Ngannou escape — but he did control his foe.
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. 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.
Defensively, Miocic showed an interesting tactic opposite Cormier. When “DC” did take him down, Miocic was frequently looking to reach between his opponent’s legs and pull the near side leg over his head. Known as a funk roll, this technique is somewhat common among smaller men, but it will create a scramble at any weight class.
Without a submission win to his name and few attempts in his entire career — even in 15 minutes against a very tired Ngannou, Miocic didn’t really try much — it’s fairly safe to say that Miocic isn’t a major submission threat. For what it’s worth, Miocic has survived some dangerous guards in his time as a professional, and he’s never been put in any major danger. Overeem’s guillotine attempt is the only exception that comes to mind, but Miocic freed his neck quickly.
Miocic’s game is built off fundamentals, which is perhaps why some viewers don’t fully appreciate the legendary Heavyweight. Still, if he can hand Ngannou a second loss and end his vicious streak again, it would be even more foolish to deny his greatness.
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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.