After a month filled with high-quality MMA action, the UFC's next pay-per-view is almost upon us and with it comes the final fight of Daniel Cormier's career.
UFC 252 may not be stacked like their last PPV offering, but its main event is more than worthy of your attention even if its supporting cast isn't the strongest.
The preliminary portion of Saturday's event is hardly notable outside of UFC staple Jim Miller's bout against Vinc Pichel, which will once again put the longtime lightweight standout above Cowboy Cerrone for the most fights in UFC history.
The main card certainly wasn't helped earlier this week when it lost the Ion Cutelaba vs. Magomed Ankalaev rematch due to a positive Covid-19 test, with a much less intriguing fight between John Dodson and Merab Dvalishvili now kicking off the pay-per-view. The return of Herbert Burns, top welterweight contender Gilbert's younger brother, is a plus but really isn't a main card-worthy fight either (at least not yet in his career).
Getting closer to the top of the card, a heavyweight clash between Junior Dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik has gone almost completely under the radar.
Both men have of course been recently victimized by Francis Ngannou and are in need of a win to right their respective ships - Junior also lost his lone outing following his loss to Ngannou, getting smashed by Curtis Blaydes after repeatedly throwing a telegraphed uppercut for the umpteenth time.
Rozenstruik's high-profile knockout loss just months ago and Junior's downward trend have certainly hurt this fight's appeal with fans, but it's nonetheless an interesting matchup - Rozenstruik has shown himself to be an extremely powerful striker with great endurance and durability (one can't really hold getting knocked out by Ngannou against one's chin) while Junior is a very capable and mobile striker when he isn't dead-set on landing a specific strike on his opponent.
Moving on to the co-main event, one of the biggest young stars on the UFC's roster gets the stiffest test of his career in a fight that has fireworks written all over it.
"Sugar" Sean O'Malley finally got back into the bantamweight fray earlier this year after sitting out for nearly two years thanks to USADA and tainted supplements, and boy did the 25-year-old make up for lost time. While his quick finish of José Alberto Quiñónez in a tune-up fight was hardly a surprise, his brilliant and clean KO over longtime top-15 staple Eddie Wineland showed O'Malley is clearly ready for a step up in competition.
Standing opposite of the "Sugar Show" will be Marlon "Chito" Vera, an extremely versatile finisher in his own right who is riding a five-fight finishing streak in the bantamweight division. His most recent fight was an absolute barnburner with highly touted prospect Song Yadong in May at featherweight, a fight which many fans scored in his favour.
Vera is an extremely durable and technical fighter in every aspect of the sport, but he does tend to start slow and pick up his pace as time wears on; a slow start against O'Malley could spell disaster for Chito here, but if he can survive early he's the perfect opponent to test O'Malley's overall game and endurance.
If O'Malley can become the first man to put away Marlon Vera however, the UFC will have found another true contender in their stacked bantamweight division.
And then we arrive at the main event.
Capping off one of the biggest trilogies in the UFC's history, Stipe Miocic looks to defend his heavyweight crown against the man that upended his record-breaking title reign and beat him down for much of their rematch.
For Daniel Cormier, he looks to prove once and for all that he is the superior fighter and cement his claim at being the greatest heavyweight in MMA history in what he's promised will be the last fight of his storied career.
If you've been following any of the pre-fight promotion, you'd be well aware that both men are extremely motivated and in great shape for their tie-breaking duel, both heavyweight greats fully understanding just how dangerous their opponent is and what a single mistake can cost them in their fateful rubber match.
What makes the third meeting between the two greats especially enticing is that the two fighters are so well-matched and both have shown the ability to put the other away in emphatic fashion.
In their first clash in 2018, Cormier was expected to employ a wrestling-heavy gameplan to wear down his larger foe, with Miocic seemingly having the edge on the feet thanks to his crisp boxing; in the early going, Stipe appeared to be confirming that he would enjoy a slight edge in the stand-up department as he looked to be landing the more meaningful blows early.
Cormier however was doing a great job of avoiding too much damage and soon started scoring with his own shots, and more importantly getting himself into the clinch where his dirty boxing is regularly sublime.
Late in the first round Cormier showed just how devastating his clinch hitting could be - after securing a collar tie, DC quickly shifted his arm under Stipe's and threw a crafty right hand which dropped the longtime heavyweight champion. A few finishing touches later, Miocic was out cold and the UFC added another double champ to its history books.
Though most knew Cormier had a great chance of capturing the heavyweight crown, almost no one expected him to be able to knock out the durable Ohio native on the feet, especially not so early in the fight.
A rematch was eventually set for UFC 241 almost exactly a year ago and seemed to solidify that the right man had won their first matchup, at least for a while.
Cormier came out on fire, landing massive combinations on the feet before slamming Miocic onto the mat and proceeding to smash the former champion with disturbing ease. Not only did Cormier win the opening frame, but it was a clear 10-8 round and one in which Stipe looked rather helpless underneath the Olympian on the ground.
Instead of continuing his dominance on the mat however, Cormier opted to revert to his old mummy guard-aping, hand-grabbing battle-of-attrition style that had failed him so badly in his rematch against Jon Jones two years' prior.
Rather than utilizing his speed and wrestling, Cormier instead went into something akin to "autopilot", trying to trap Miocic's hands and land potshots while plodding forward and generally just making the fight as gritty as possible.
Now this wouldn't be a bad strategy if, say, he was losing the striking battle and having his wrestling nullified, but it was quite the opposite. Cormier simply stopped even attempting to wrestle or get into the clinch, effectively letting Stipe back into the fight and allowing himself to take damage in return when it was wholly unnecessary.
The shift in gameplans was still largely successful as he proceeded to clearly outstrike Miocic for the next two rounds, but forcing oneself into a battle of attrition at 40-years-old against a bigger man when there were much smarter options available was destined to backfire.
And then, after nearly twenty minutes in the cage against Daniel Cormier, Stipe Miocic finally realized he could throw punches to Cormier's belly.
There's a large contingent of MMA fans that still tout Miocic's shift to attacking the body in round four of their rematch as a display of brilliant fight IQ; the reality is, the utter lack of any body shots against a fighter who has never responded well to body shots before that point was a display of piss-poor fight IQ.
Now Stipe has been known to be extremely disciplined in following a gameplan and generally has strong instincts, but the fact it took twenty minutes in the cage against Cormier across two fights before he threw anything to DC's torso is simply not indicative of intelligence. Combine it with the fact that Stipe's coaches have since claimed Stipe thought of going to Cormier's body all on his own without their instruction, and one has to wonder about the competence of Miocic's corner.
Cormier's poor responses to body shots have been well documented throughout his career, from his UFC debut against Frank Mir to his late-notice fight with Anderson Silva after Silva had just come back from surgery and had no training camp. His fiercest rival Jon Jones had utilized kicks to the body to set up a head kick finish. Add in his high-profile past kidney problems from his Olympic days and it's a no-brainer for his opponents to target the body anytime they can.
In round four of their rematch, Stipe finally clued in and to his credit, he ruthlessly exploited Cormier's weakness even if it took him a while to clue in. Beautiful left hooks and uppercuts to Cormier's gut soon had Cormier grimacing and flinching in every exchange, a particularly nasty liver shot hurting DC before a one-two put the champion on wobbly legs.
From there, Miocic teed off on his rival and left Cormier slumped against the fence, completing his monumental comeback and earning himself his championship belt back in emphatic fashion.
As definitive as the finish may have been, it simply raised more questions from fans. Cormier had been dominant for much of the fight in spite of forgetting all about his wrestling after the opening stanza; while Stipe certainly deserves credit for surviving and turning things around, it's almost as if Cormier had beaten himself as much as anything.
His performance leaves a lot of questions for Cormier to answer in their final meeting. Though he's certainly noted the mistakes he made in the last fight, is it something that he can fix at his age, or is it a mental block that will rear its head once again, just as it has in his rematches with both Jones and Miocic?
Even if he sticks to the proper gameplan, will the 41-year-old be able to keep it up over five rounds against Stipe, who looks to be in better shape than ever heading into UFC 252?
It's an extremely tough fight to call and it's no wonder the betting odds for this fight are dead even.
For Stipe, he's going to need to avoid the clinch and grappling at all costs, and if he does get taken down, he's going to need to show improvement at getting back to his feet or at least in being able to make Cormier work to keep the position.
Returning to the body shots that scored him his redemption will of course be important, and a strong body jab would work a treat for him - not only would it keep DC at range, but it also makes it much easier to defend takedowns when throwing it, which would make it an invaluable tool against the Olympian. It also pairs perfectly with an overhand right (as Junior Dos Santos has demonstrated repeatedly over the years) and given Cormier's overreaction to body shots, working on those two particular strikes could bear fruit for the champion.
For Cormier, mixing everything together is paramount - while some are suggesting he should just wrestle Miocic for five rounds, mixing in his takedowns and clinch work with the striking is going to be essential in order not only to get a great wrestler like Miocic down consistently, but to actually punish him so that Stipe can't simply bide his time and try to take over late after DC is tired.
Cormier's striking is certainly effective and his combinations are very sharp; just like any wrestler however, they are made that much more effective when the threat of takedowns are mixed in. It's a concept as old as MMA itself and Cormier's striking in the clinch (as we saw in the first fight of course) could easily make the difference even if Miocic manages to stuff every single takedown Cormier attempts.
If he can put everything together and stick to his gameplan, Cormier has all the tools to recapture gold and retire on top, but if he goes back on autopilot, Stipe will be sending Cormier home empty handed.
It may not be the best fight card from top to bottom, but UFC 252 features one of the biggest trilogy fights in UFC history and seeing what will happen when the two greats lock horns once again should have every MMA fan excited.
Daniel Cormier over Stipe Miocic by 3rd round (T)KO
Sean O'Malley over Marlon Vera by 1st round (T)KO
Jairzinho Rozenstruik over Junior Dos Santos by 1st round (T)KO
Herbert Burns over Daniel Pineda by 1st round submission
Merab Dvalishvili over John Dodson by decision