From the moment Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3 was signed back in June, I've been calling it the biggest fight in UFC heavyweight history. Now that it's fight week, I suppose I should make sure I haven't been lying about that.
Admittedly, I did not meticulously revisit the history books before making my claim. But I'm happy to say that after finally doing so, there will be no backtracking. Saturday's UFC 252 main event in Las Vegas is as big as it gets.
Miocic (19-3, 13-3 in the UFC) is the only man to have defended the heavyweight title three consecutive times, but if he loses to the same opponent twice, he'll be remembered as only the second-greatest heavyweight of his era. That is still, obviously, one heck of an accomplishment.
But when it comes to history, there's a massive difference between No. 1 and No. 2.
Cormier (22-2, 1 NC; 11-2, 1 NC UFC) is looking at the same truth. He has only ever lost to Jon Jones and Miocic in his career, which he has said will come to an end on Saturday. He will safely go down as one of the best ever. But if he loses to Miocic, he will have been the No. 2 heavyweight of his era -- and the No. 2 light heavyweight of his era. And I don't think that is the legacy he wishes to leave.
What other heavyweight fights even come close to these stakes? In my opinion, only two:
Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir at UFC 100, July 2009. Lesnar had won the title in November 2018 by knocking out 45-year-old champion Randy Couture. Lesnar had proved himself in the sport -- but not completely. Mir was a loose end for Lesnar. Mir felt he still held ownership over the title -- he was a former champ who'd never lost the belt in the Octagon but only to injury -- and he had also beaten Lesnar previously. They met again in a fight Lesnar had to win to legitimize himself as the champ. And it headlined arguably the UFC's all-time landmark event. Enormous stakes, but still not quite the weight of Saturday.
Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos 1 at UFC on Fox, November 2011. Why cite the first fight and not the second or third of this trilogy? Well, that night in 2011 was the last night when it felt as if both Velasquez and dos Santos couldn't lose. Velasquez was the undefeated cardio king who had just knocked out Lesnar to win the title. And dos Santos was the most feared puncher in the sport, with a perfect record in the UFC. There was never a time after that in which both heavyweights felt completely invincible. And that first meeting headlined the UFC's birth on network television, drawing a reported record-breaking viewership of 8.8 million.
That's my short list of the biggest heavyweights fights of all time in the UFC. But really, that's being generous. My consideration for the biggest heavyweight fight of all time includes only one entry: the main event of UFC 252. Either Miocic or Cormier is the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, and this is where we get to find out.
By the numbers
3: Heavyweight trilogies in UFC history -- and each fight has been for the championship. Before Miocic vs. Cormier, the trilogies were Tim Sylvia vs. Andrei Arlovski in 2005-06, with Sylvia winning two of the fights, and Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos in 2011-13, with Velasquez winning twice.
938: Days it will have been, on fight night, since Miocic has been inside the Octagon with anyone other than Cormier. After defeating Francis Ngannou on Jan. 20, 2018, the champ has gone on to two matchups with DC, going on three.
2: Fighters who have won a UFC championship three or more times. Randy Couture had five title reigns, three at heavyweight and two at light heavy. Georges St-Pierre won the welterweight belt twice and later became middleweight champ. Cormier is seeking to join this elite company. He has been champ at heavyweight and at 205 pounds.
14: Body strikes landed by Miocic in Round 4 of last year's rematch with Cormier, after connecting with just 13 over the previous three rounds combined. The strategy shift turned around the fight and led to the KO that reinstated Miocic as champ.
58: Strikes by which Miocic was being outlanded at the time of the stoppage in his second Cormier fight. That made his win the second-largest statistical comeback in a UFC title fight that ended in a finish, behind Anderson Silva's fifth-round submission of Chael Sonnen in August 2010. Silva's negative strike differential that night: minus-60.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information research and UFC Stats
A look back ...
... And even further back
Five vs. five
Stipe Miocic's most recent results
Win: Daniel Cormier (TKO4, Aug. 17, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Daniel Cormier (KO1, July 7, 2018)
Win: Francis Ngannou (UD, Jan. 20, 2018)
Win: Junior Dos Santos (TKO1, May 13, 2017)
Win: Alistair Overeem (KO1, Sept. 10, 2016)
Daniel Cormier's most recent results
Loss: Stipe Miocic (TKO4, Aug. 17, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Derrick Lewis (SUB2, Nov. 3, 2018)
Win: Stipe Miocic (KO1, July 7, 2018)
Win: Volkan Oezdemir (TKO2, Jan. 20, 2018)
NC: Jon Jones (loss overturned, July 29, 2017)
Dom and Gil's film study
Dominick Cruz breaks down Miocic's body work:
Stipe Miocic's change in strategy paid off in rematch
On Unlocking Victory, Dominick Cruz displays how Stipe Miocic attacked Daniel Cormier's body in their rematch, helping him win back the UFC heavyweight title.
Gilbert Melendez explains Cormier's grappling edge:
Daniel Cormier's grappling can create KO chances
Gilbert Melendez explains how Daniel Cormier used his grappling advantage to create a knockout opportunity vs. Stipe Miocic in their first fight.
And the winner is ...
I really, really do not want to pick a winner in this fight. You ever feel like whatever side you pick, you're bound to be wrong? That's me right now. This is such a close fight, stylistically. Cormier has blamed "getting away from the game plan" for the 2019 loss, but if you rewatch, the style of that fight favored him -- and Miocic still won. But on the other hand, Cormier has consistently gotten the upper hand in this matchup. He has outlanded Miocic in every round of their two fights, except the fourth round of the rematch, when Miocic knocked him out. Ugh, I still have to make a pick, don't I? Cormier via TKO, Round 3.
Saturday's fight card
PPV (via ESPN+), 10 p.m. ET
Stipe Miocic (c) vs. Daniel Cormier | Heavyweight
Sean O'Malley vs. Marlon Vera | Men's bantamweight
Junior Dos Santos vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik | Heavyweight
Herbert Burns vs. Daniel Pineda | Men's featherweight
John Dodson vs. Merab Dvalishvili | Men's bantamweight
ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Jim Miller vs. Vinc Pichel | Lightweight
Felice Herrig vs. Virna Jandiroba | Strawweight
TJ Brown vs. Danny Chavez | Men's featherweight
Ashley Yoder vs. Livinha Souza | Strawweight
Chris Daukaus vs. Parker Porter | Heavyweight
Kai Kamaka vs. Tony Kelley | Lightweight
(c) = defending champion
What else to look for ... beyond the main event
Ready for Sugar Show, Part 3 of 2020?
It's getting to the point where Sean O'Malley can no longer be considered a prospect. If the 25-year-old defeats Marlon Vera in the co-main event for his third victory of the year, "Sugar Sean" can call himself a contender.
It might not be easy, as Vera (15-6-1, 9-5 in the UFC) is on a five-fight winning streak at bantamweight. He did lose his most recent bout, falling to Song Yadong in May, but that was at featherweight. Now the man known as "Chito" is back at his natural weight class, where Vera has seven finishes in the UFC, tying him for second most in division history, one behind ex-champ TJ Dillashaw.
But O'Malley (12-0, 4-0 UFC) is the biggest betting favorite (-310) on the card for a reason. He has nine finishes among his dozen victories, eight of them knockouts and eight coming in the first round. Here's Dominick Cruz breaking down how O'Malley gets things done:
What makes Sean O'Malley's kicking so effective?
Dominick Cruz breaks down Sean O'Malley's kicking approach on Unlocking Victory ahead of O'Malley's bout vs. Marlon Vera at UFC 252.
Heavy stakes for heavyweights
But it's not been all bad news for these heavyweights. Both have had big moments.
Dos Santos, of course, is a former UFC champion, and 15 of his 21 career wins have come by knockout. As for Rozenstruik, nine of his 10 victories have been KOs, including four straight to start his UFC career.
A notable about each man:
Rozenstruik: He is one of just two fighters in UFC history with finishes in both the first 10 seconds and the last 10 seconds of a fight. He knocked out Allen Crowder in 9 seconds in June 2019. Six months later, he KO'd Alistair Overeem with 4 seconds remaining on the clock in Round 5.
Five more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information research):
1. Veteran lightweight Jim Miller faces Vinc Pichel in the headlining prelim. This is Miller's third fight of 2020 and his 36th UFC bout overall, breaking a tie with Donald Cerrone for most all time. A win by Miller, 36, would put him in second place, tied with Demian Maia, on the all-time UFC wins list at 22, one behind "Cowboy" Cerrone. Miller could also become the second fighter in UFC history to win 20 fights in a single division. Jon Jones has won 20 at light heavyweight.
2. Merab Dvalishvili takes a four-fight winning streak into his bantamweight bout with former title challenger John Dodson. Dvalishvili has landed at least 10 takedowns in a fight three times, tying Demetrious Johnson's UFC record. Dvalishvili has 52 career takedowns in six UFC fights, the most through six fights in UFC history -- also more than any other fighters have had in their first 10 UFC fights.
3. John Dodson won his most recent fight by third-round knockout over Nathaniel Wood in February. Dodson has not won consecutive fights since 2015.
4. Herbert Burns returns to the Octagon for the third time this year, putting his five-fight win streak on the line against Daniel Pineda in a featherweight bout. Burns is looking to join Johnny Walker as the only Brazilians in the modern era to start their UFC careers 3-0 with three first-round finishes.
5. Virna Jandiroba is just 1-1 in the UFC yet is a -300 favorite against Felice Herrig. Jandiroba has 12 finishes in 15 wins, with all of them coming by submission. Herrig has two UFC wins by submission at strawweight, one shy of the division record.
Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight card preview.