One of the heavyweight division's fastest rising stars collides with one of its most established veterans at UFC 166 in the Daniel Cormier vs. Roy Nelson match up. The bout is nestled in the penultimate spot as a lead-in to the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos headliner, and one of five on the pay-per-view card.
In addition to their circular-shaped physiques, Daniel Cormier (12-0) and Roy Nelson (19-8) are also two of the most talented and technical grapplers in the heavyweight landscape -- yet their proficiencies lie in contrasting areas and their handiwork on the feet deserves just as much emphasis, if not more.
Despite boasting the pristine accolades of an Olympic wrestler, Cormier has been a virtual wrecking ball with his vicious boxing. "Big Country" fits the same mold -- he's one of the most technically adept submission grapplers in the game but handles the bulk of his business with a fear-inspiring right hand, which has garnered the 37-year-old vet 12 victories by KO/TKO in 19 turns.
Even before Nelson deemed his preparation for this fight as "the crappiest camp I've ever had," the general consensus is that Cormier would be a nightmare match up. And for good reason: in literally every one of Nelson's four UFC defeats, the common ingredients were opponents who could resist his takedowns, anticipate and address his smoldering haymakers and whittle him down on the feet. Furthermore, when contrasting those opponents -- Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir, Fabricio Werdum and Stipe Miocic -- Cormier's striking is arguably better than each one save dos Santos, and it's safe to assume his takedown defense is on entirely different level than all of them due to his prestige as an Olympic wrestler.
Now, of course, if Nelson plants his feet, winds up and connects square with one of his signature loopers, anything with a pulse on the receiving end will not enjoy it. His power can be definitively fight-changing, rendering the recipient to a condition anywhere between dazed and confused to slumbering in a tranquil state of unconsciousness. One could say that the cliche "puncher's chance" applies to any and every party in hand-to-hand combat, but Nelson is amongst the rare few who are not only more capable than average, but admirably adept at landing that one big meatball.
To say that Cormier has a strong sense of balance and a low center of gravity is an understatement. In the past, foes have not only been dramatically unsuccessful when trying to take him down or impose their will, but they've bounced off the burly Goliath as if they were shot out of a cannon while Cormier barely bats an eye. That, in itself, is unique in MMA. Typically, fighters who are damn-near immovable suffer from a mobility standpoint, i.e. they never get tossed around but they're also not very agile. Which leads to the second reason why Cormier is atypical -- he's like a Sherman Tank with a supercharger. He's extremely fleet afoot for any heavyweight, and it's rare to combine such robust strength with such deft movement. And the final tribute as to why Cormier is truly a special fighter is that he's been able to compete and even dominate with striking after spending most of his life on the wrestling mats.
That, my friends, is a one-of-a-kind athlete, and a depressing opponent to gameplan for.
But let's not sell "Big Country" short: he'll be the most durable opponent Cormier's ever faced and he's just as altogether rugged and tough as Josh Barnett, which is saying quite a bit. He also hits substantially harder than any of Cormier's past opponents, and I have the feeling he'll be coming in with the mentality of having nothing to lose. Even though Barnett and Nelson are comparable in terms of experience and overall toughness and savvy, Cormier really hasn't had anybody come at him as hard, as often and as relentlessly as Nelson will. In plain terms, Nelson will look to make this a dogfight, and Cormier's resilience to that type of malicious adversary is untested and, against this caliber of puncher, his chin is somewhat untested as well.
There's no question that the different pathways to victory favor Cormier, and by a large margin. Nelson's chances seem to boil down to landing the home-run blow. If this fight does happen to hit the ground -- whether Nelson can take Cormier down, knock him down or gets taken down -- the submission grappling comparison is all Nelson. However, the bread and butter of Nelson's ground game is a stifling command of position with phenomenal guard passing -- he's not known for an electric guard in MMA, and it doesn't seem likely that he'll end up on top.
My Prediction: Daniel Cormier by dominant decision.