Stipe Miocic vs. Dos Santos 2 headlines the heavyweight fight we didn’t know we were all waiting for this May 13, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Single sentence summary
Phil: MMA's most white bread heavyweight champ defends his belt against the man who beat him last.
David: Heavyweight headlines more war than art in the Lone Star State.
Record: Stipe Miocic 16-2 Junior dos Santos 18-4
Odds: Stipe Miocic -130 Junior dos Santos +120
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: At some point, people will have to give Stipe his due... and perhaps that includes us. I feel like I've somewhat underplayed him. I didn't pick him to beat Werdum, and nor did I pick him to beat Overeem. The primary issue seems to be that Miocic is just... good at stuff. While not being any kind of Mighty Mouse-esque phase-shifting dervish, he is nonetheless pretty skilled at every area of MMA. This has the weird side-effect of making his opponent's look extra bad when he exploits their weaknesses, without making Miocic look any more impressive. It's strange. We've waited years for a well-rounded, technical heavyweight champ, and now that he's here, a lot of the buzz around him seems to be: meh.
David: I think at least some of this ‘who cares’ ectoplasm comes from his UFC debut. Miocic started his career the same way he has championed it: blue collar style. It’s cool and all. But it’s a little like those undersized white receivers in the NFL à la Wayne Chrebet - and possibly what explains the “I don’t like watching small fighters” phenomenon: we don’t pay and invest our time and money to see regular dudes accomplish impossible tasks. We pay to see gods. Not men. The faster the muscle twitch fibers, the more powerful the knuckles, the greater the promise is of pure unadulterated violence. Miocic doesn’t promise that even if that’s precisely what he’s done in recent fights (his last four wins are all by violent TKO). But again, I’m talking about promise. Not preponderance. On the latter, Miocic is the mountain king. He deserves it. But he’s not the god people expect to see plucking the wings off angels.
Phil: It does not seem very long ago that people were starting to talk about Junior Dos Santos' MMA career in the hushed terms reserved for terminal hospital patients. That it took exactly one fight -a one-sided domination of Ben Rothwell- to turn that perception around was odd. On one level, it indicated that the rumours of the demise of JDS as an elite fighter were exaggerated. On the other, however, it also perhaps ignored that Ben Rothwell was a rather easy style matchup for the Brazilian. Finally, one of the biggest reasons had been that people thought Dos Santos looked terrible against Miocic. In retrospect, of course, that was a dumb take. Looking back on the fight, it is something of a classic; one of the best heavyweight scraps ever. Once again, however, that strange ability of Miocic to suck the impressiveness out of a bout was in full effect.
David: It’s hard to believe there was a time when JDS was bordering Arlovski status, post Kharitonov knuckleapocalypse. Fighting takes its toll. We’re so used to seeing that decay reveal itself in obvious terms, years later when the fighter is complaining of headaches and slurs his speech. We forget, or are unaware, that decay is an olive branch. And so JDS is in a strange spot for fans and himself. He is not the same fighter. He has been through absolute warfare. But for a moment, he looked like his old happy go punchy self, taking out Ben Rothwell with relative ease. And now here we are back to square one. Heavyweight is a flat circle.
What’s at stake?
David: If we’re talking in terms of heavyweight canon, a little. We’re not gonna get the next Fedor from the current crop of heavyweights. Even Fedor’s greatness was kind of a perfect storm of Japanese eccentricities. We have rote traditions instead. Except you. A British expat.
Phil: JDS becomes the best UFC heavyweight ever, and cements his place behind Fedor as a clear-cut #2 all-time. Miocic confirms himself as a genuinely great champion, one who can re-configure his approach to overcome tough style matchups. Either man likely gets Fabricio Werdum or the remnants of Cain Velasquez.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Miocic can fight at a variety of styles, but like JDS, he functions best as a mid-range fencer. He works behind a hard jab to the head, and while he has a little less craft with it than Dos Santos, he's a more effective combination boxer, notably with his one-two. He's also a bit more of an effective counter puncher, with a particularly nice backstepping cross. Miocic is also an excellent wrestler, and can hit doubles, singles and chain them together effectively. However, unlike Dos Santos' rival Velasquez, he's often not much of a transitional striker. He can box and wrestle and blend the two, but he can be a little offensively inert when it comes to clinch striking.
Over time he's become more dynamic, starting to rack up the one punch KOs, and increasingly reveals himself to be a smart fighter, who comes out with cleverly tailored gameplans for each opponent.
David: Where do you get those wonderful (literary) toys? College? Football? Your role as current Bond techie? Fencing is a great device to describe Miocic’s style; with his stops and starts, he’s a technician of tactics rather than mechanics. His punches aren’t the quickest or hardest, but he knows where to place, when to outburst, and when to retreat. The mixture of tactical awareness and durability make him an unlikely champion, but efficiency is king in MMA, and it doesn’t always matter how you get there. It’s true he’s not a great transitional fighter. He’s not very fluid. In some ways he looks like proto-Edgar out there. But in their first fight he caught JDS a lot exiting the clinch, entering the clinch, and giving Cigano a false sense of proximity; reinforcing Miocic’s splendid spatial awareness. While Stipe has a sturdy wrestling base, it’s not his greatest asset. He succeeds on the strength of his timing more than anything. And his upright striking base conceals the normal tails that telegraph wrestling maneuvers.
Phil: Dos Santos is probably the more footslow and the less well-rounded of the two fighters. What makes this fight competitive, then? His jab. JDS increasingly fights out of a low, almost crouching stance, and lances his jab towards the opponent. Unlike many MMA fighters, JDS has decided that he's going to make life a lot easier for himself by actually using the body jab, and has one of the most effective ones in the game. Essentially his left hand alone functions as a triple threat with the jab to the solar plexus and head, and the left hook around the opponent's guard.
Junior's right hand is comparatively ugly: a looping, tolling strike which comes from around his waist, but this often serves to catch his opponent off guard: he lulls the opponent into a technical fight, then throws the big-ass KO strike from his waist with weird timing, and it catches them off guard surprisingly often. Other than that, Dos Santos is a fantastic natural athlete: durable, fast and well-conditioned. While lacking in clinch offense, his takedown defense is excellent. His problem in almost all his fights has been his footwork: he simply cannot pivot or move quickly enough to stop aggressive fighters from forcing him to the fence, nor can he chase determined outfighters effectively.
David: The book on dos Santos is the same as ever was: death from afar, war up close. You’ve already articulated everything about Cigano that makes his left hand dangerous, and somewhat all-encompassing. So I’ll talk about the right. It’s true. JDS throws his right in binary terms- winging and whipping those metacarpals like a burning torch. But I think his brilliance is a little more subtle. Well, an uppercut isn’t subtle but his ability to lead with it or slip it underneath from range has made one of MMA’s premiere strikers. What hurts his efficiency is, as you mentioned, his movement. He treats punch defense like a limp leg sprawl; assuming he can retreat at range by just slipping away. Except he’s slow and doesn’t move his head.
This was his issue against Miocic in Phoenix. Stipe would initiate clinches and takedowns, and every time JDS exited the pocket, Miocic would lash him with left hooks and lunging right hands. Miocic pieced him up good too. JDS’ durability (and left hand) just kind of took over when a left hook changed the momentum of the fight. Can JDS replicate that performance? I’m skeptical.
Insight from past fights
Phil: The obvious one is the first match between these two, but I think Miocic was wrong to try and duplicate the Velasquez pressure gameplan. I think Overeem proved that Dos Santos' weakness is not so much when he's pressured, as when he is forced to pressure. Essentially, the less time JDS spends at midrange, the weaker he is. Thus, I think Miocic's best template was actually in the Werdum fight, where he stayed light on his feet and disrupted Werdum's initial step-ins with inside low kicks. He started to clinically break Werdum down, and when Werdum tried to change the fight by bum-rushing him, Miocic put him out instantly with the backstep cross. It was a fight which I remember as being much less impressive than it actually was. Dammit, Stipe.
David: I don’t like referring to the Werdum fight. It was a tactical blunder of Washington Capitals proportion. It was this, but in real life:
Maybe that’s not a great analogy since Statham and Diesel should have both been radiator fluid but you get the idea. Werdum is ridiculous in that fight, and I hope we never have to see something like that again.
I think the first JDS vs. Miocic fight is good for one thing: Miocic landed big punches, and blooded Cigano up early on. Does JDS have the durability to withstand that kind of attack again? I don’t think so.
Phil: I've said it before, but I really just struggle to nail down how good Stipe actually is. The Werdum fight was very impressive, but the Overeem fight was conversely absolutely dreadful (and did not improve on rewatch, unlike the Overeem bout), and Miocic was almost knocked out with the first punch which landed. This doesn't seem like much of an X-Factor, but is honestly one of the most interesting things about this fight to me. What are the changes he can make? Because if he fights this fight like he did the last one, I think he loses it.
David: Agreed. Miocic isn’t in any sort of decline, but if he’s knocked out in the first minute, would it really shock anyone? One of the things we haven’t really addressed is Miocic’s defense. I honestly think it’s kind of mediocre. One of the reasons their first fight turned out the way it did is that neither guy had head movement. They just bounced off each other like Bandura’s bobo dolls.
Phil: I've gone back and forth and back and forth on this one. I think Miocic can definitely win the outfighting portion of the fight early on, and I think that Dos Santos' improvements are perhaps slightly overplayed. However, I'm not sure that I trust Miocic not to get sucked into a boxing match; I don't trust his defensive footwork not to fall away as he starts to enjoy just throwing hands. He's also historically been a little vulnerable to lefts, which remain Dos Santos' best tool. This should be a great fight. I'm going to change this pick tomorrow again. Stipe Miocic by unanimous decision.
David: JDS’ best chances are to jab, and seek with a lead uppercut. If he follows his previous gameplan, I think Miocic’s output becomes too much for JDS to recover from. It’s a tough matchup for both guys. They exploit each other’s weaknesses in a lot of ways. But I see Miocic landing early and often. Stipe Miocic by TKO, round 4.