The main event of UFC 252 is considered one of the most critical fights in the promotion’s history, with heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic defending against former two-division champ Daniel Cormier on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Cormier ended Miocic’s record run of three straight heavyweight title defenses in their first meeting in 2018, and Miocic regained the title from Cormier last year.
UFC president Dana White said this fight will determine the greatest heavyweight in UFC history. Some believe the winner is the greatest heavyweight in MMA history.
This is also expected to be the last fight for the 41-year-old Cormier. But as with any retirement in combat sports, there’s a certain degree of skepticism. Is it realistic to believe Cormier will actually call it quits?
ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim take a look at what’s real and what’s not heading into the momentous main event.
Real or not: Saturday will be Daniel Cormier’s last fight.
Helwani: It depends on what happens Saturday. If Cormier loses, I have full confidence that this will be his last fight. He’s 41. He always said he wanted to be done by 40, but he stuck around an extra year because he wanted to end on a win. I don’t think he’ll chase that again if he loses two straight fights. He’ll be heartbroken, and it will bug him for life, but I think he’ll be finished. He has so much going on these days outside of fighting — commentating, hosting, coaching. Life is good for Cormier, with or without the UFC heavyweight title.
Now, if he wins, I’m fairly confident that this will be it for him, too. How confident? I’d say 95 percent or so. The 5 percent is reserved solely for Jon Jones.
Cormier has repeatedly told me that he is 100 percent finished after this fight. I’ve asked about Jones. Cormier maintains that he’s finished with him and has no desire to run that one back. I believe him.
Truth be told, if you had asked me in January whether this Miocic trilogy fight would be Cormier’s last, I would’ve said it was 50/50. I also would have said that he should consider the Jones fight. But over the past months, I’ve gotten a strong sense that this is it for Cormier, win or lose. He wants to go out with a victory, and everyone around him feels strongly that he should not continue after this fight. I feel the same way. There’s nothing else for Cormier to prove.
Will the UFC try to convince him otherwise? Will they throw a ton of money his way? They might. That might be the lone X-factor here. It will be tempting, and I think Cormier will consider it, but in the end, I think, if he wins, he’ll be at peace retiring as the heavyweight champion and focusing on all his other endeavors. It would be one of the greatest storybook endings in all of sports.
Real or not: The winner of Saturday’s main event will be the MMA heavyweight GOAT.
Okamoto: Saturday’s winner will be the best heavyweight in UFC history — no doubt. The all-time heavyweight GOAT? That’s a tougher one. The great Fedor Emelianenko has held that title seemingly since it existed. He has been the gold standard of that weight class forever. He was undefeated for a run of 28 fights over 10 years. In many ways, it’s hard to compare him to the other two. You get that in other sports all the time. The game changes over time, so comparing two greats is apples to oranges. It seems like we should call Miocic the greatest if he wins. The level of difficulty in what he will have done in the division would be so high. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned, but I still say Emelianenko is the GOAT.
Real or not: The smaller cage will help Cormier.
Raimondi: Very real, especially when you consider the messaging coming out of both camps. Cormier has been adamant that he didn’t follow the game plan in his second fight with Miocic. He chose to slug it out with Miocic after the first round, rather than use his Olympic-level wrestling. His coaches were not happy with him about that.
Meanwhile, Miocic has admitted to trying to get the UFC to switch to a bigger cage at the UFC Apex for UFC 252. There’s no doubt that the smaller cage is an advantage for wrestlers. Miocic is a tremendous striker and needs some distance for that. Meanwhile, Cormier is not only great at takedowns against the fence and in space but also an extremely talented striker in the clinch.
Cormier is the shorter man with less reach. He needs to get inside on Miocic to do his best work. With a smaller cage, there’s less room for Miocic to evade and angle. This doesn’t mean that Cormier is a lock to win, but there’s no doubt that the smaller cage will help him.
Real or not: Francis Ngannou is next for the winner of the UFC 252 main event.
Wagenheim: Is the sky blue, the ocean salty, the Earth round? OK, I know some want to debate that last one, but you’d have to be even more foolish to dispute Ngannou’s claim on the next heavyweight title shot. He has won his past four fights, all by knockout, with the longest of those bouts lasting 71 seconds. If the belt remains with the champ on Saturday, we’re going to get Miocic-Ngannou 2. That’s a no-brainer.
Now, if Cormier gets his hand raised, then leaves his gloves at the center of the Octagon and walks off into the sunset, we still should get a rematch — but one with significantly less allure. After all, Ngannou has already flattened Curtis Blaydes twice. But since being KO’d by Ngannou in 45 seconds less than two years ago, Blaydes has won four straight and earned his way into an opportunity to become champion. Ngannou vs. Blaydes 3 would be the right fight to fill the vacancy.
One possible curveball: Dana White was critical of Blaydes’ grind-out-a-decision win over Alexander Volkov in June, and the UFC president had to be salivating over Derrick Lewis‘ knockout victory on Saturday. Perhaps we’ll get that rematch if there’s a vacancy at the peak of Mt. Heavyweight. Lewis’ 2018 decision win over Ngannou was the biggest yawner in the division’s history, so a do-over might be just what we need to forget that one. The UFC does love its KO artists. But I’m into respecting the hierarchy within a weight class, and Blaydes has earned his place in line.