Stipe Miocic (Gleidson Venga/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 252 Preview and Predictions

It is nearly impossible for a fight to have higher stakes than the third contest between heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former two-division titleholder Daniel Cormier. Not only is the heavyweight belt on the line, along with the title of baddest man on the planet, but the outcome of this fight will define the legacy of each man and unofficially crown the winner as the greatest heavyweight in UFC history. The two men headline UFC 252 this weekend inside the 25-foot cage at the UFC Apex.

The pair split their first two contests. Cormier won the first encounter, while Miocic regained his belt in the rematch. The final bout will be just two days less than a year after the rematch at UFC 241, where Miocic suffered retinal damage and needed time off to recover. This will be the final fight in Cormier’s career, as he looks to get the better of his rivalry with the man who has defended the heavyweight title more times than any other fighter since the UFC’s inception.

A pair of rising stars in the bantamweight division clash in the co-headlining affair when “Sugar” Sean O’Malley meets Marlon “Chito” Vera. O’Malley brought his “Sugar Show” to the forefront of UFC fans’ minds in his last outing when he defeated Eddie Wineland by first-round knockout. The 25-year-old O’Malley has shown flashes of brilliance inside the cage beyond his years, but Vera is a veteran who has come into his own recently by mounting a 5-1 record over his last six fights. At 27 years old, Vera is on the verge of entering his athletic prime.


Two heavyweight titans will also meet on the main card. Both Junior dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik look to bounce back from knockout losses in their last outings. Dos Santos fell to Curtis Blaydes in the second round of their January affair, while Rozenstruik dropped the first fight of his professional career at UFC 249 to Francis Ngannou just 20 seconds into the first round. Both men want to add a statement victory to their resumes as they try to cement their place as contenders for the belt.

In the first bantamweight fight of the main card, former flyweight contender John Dodson meets the Serra-Longo trained Merab Dvalishvili. Dodson has had mixed results since returning to the bantamweight division, where he’s amassed just a 4-4 record. Dvalishvili has notched four consecutive wins since starting his tenure with the UFC on a rough note with two controversial losses. Dodson is easily the biggest name on Dvalishvili’s resume, but if Dodson is able to hold off the Georgian fighter it will show fans and executives alike that he is still able to compete at the highest level.

The main card opens with a rematch of a fight that had a horrible stoppage. Referee Kevin MacDonald believed Ion Cutelaba was out on his feet and called a halt 38 seconds into the fight, though it was clear that Cutelaba, while maybe less than a hundred percent, was to a large degree playing possum. Now, Cutelaba gets a chance to avenge the controversial loss when he once again meets fellow light heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev.

UFC 252 takes place in Las Vegas at the UFC Apex. The event begins with the early prelims at 6:15 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+. The action continues with the remaining prelims at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by the main card at 10 p.m. ET available through ESPN+. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.

The trilogy fight between heavyweights Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier takes center stage at UFC 252. Cormier has already stated that he plans to retire after this fight, and Miocic has also hinted that he might hang up the gloves. How does this fight play out, and will this be the last we see of both heavyweight greats?

Sumian: On Saturday, every true MMA fan will be glued to the TV to watch the highly anticipated trilogy match between two of the greatest UFC combatants to ever grace the Octagon. This is one of those fights where we will not have a loser, regardless of the outcome. Both men have accomplished so much throughout their storied careers, and the UFC and its fans will undoubtedly miss and treasure the greatest heavyweight rivalry of UFC history once it comes to a close.

In their first bout, Cormier was able to bait Miocic into a close-range boxing shootout in the first round that resulted in a devastating short right hand sending Miocic to the canvas to make DC a champ-champ.

The second bout was an entirely different affair. Miocic was getting hit frequently, but he was far more measured, calm and composed in his approach to exchanging with Cormier. DC was clearly winning the bout going into the fourth round, but then something happened that shows just how adaptive Miocic’s style and approach to fighting can be. Miocic entered the fourth round and began pummeling Cormier with hard left hooks to the body. He landed 10 of these shots before it started to visibly take a toll on Cormier. The 11th one came with roughly a minute left in the fight and staggered DC to the point where he entirely dropped his guard as he stumbled in pain. Miocic darted forward and landed a powerful straight right hand that rocked Cormier. The former champ then landed a barrage of punches to finish his rival.

The third bout between these two has every ingredient for another great fight. These guys have two of the strongest chins in the division. They have taken serious shots from the likes of Francis Ngannou, Alistair Overeem, Jon Jones and, of course, each other. The difference in this fight is extremely simple: Who will be able to repeat what led them to victory in their past win over the other man?

For Cormier, the answer is easy. He needs to bait Miocic into a slugfest and land another devastating shot to hurt the champion and finish him with strikes. DC is the only one who can finish this fight early. He certainly has the one-shot knockout advantage. As much as he says he “fell in love” with the knockout and probably should have used more wrestling, it won’t happen. We all know what kind of man Cormier is, and the former champ will once again stand and bang with Miocic to prove that the second bout was a fluke.

Miocic will need a very different game plan if he hopes to achieve victory. He holds the fundamental boxing advantage and has far superior cardio. It was this that ultimately led to a tired and battered DC in the second bout and an eventual knockout victory for Miocic. He will have to drag DC into the later rounds yet again, pummeling him with body shots and long strikes until he sees an opening to flurry and end the fight as abruptly as he did in their second outing.

Miocic will be able to successfully implement a similar game plan to the last go-around and secure either a late-round stoppage or the unanimous decision. It’s hard to imagine DC going down in this one, and he can certainly land a big blow that will end this early. However, Miocic’s superior cardio, ability to adapt, and clean boxing will allow him to successfully defend his belt and cement himself as the greatest heavyweight in UFC history.

Petela: I don’t know if Cormier truly has one-punch power. Sure, the first fight ended with one brutal right hand, but that was just a few short months after Miocic took some of the heaviest hands the sport has ever seen from the aforementioned Ngannou. In the rematch, Cormier’s punches still had some pop, but Miocic was able to withstand them without plummeting to the canvas. With the time off since his last fight, Miocic will have the durability he has shown in seemingly every other bout aside from the pair’s first meeting.

The other key factor here is simply the matter of age. Cormier, who started his MMA career late at the age of 30, previously spent a lifetime wrestling at the highest level. That is a ton of wear and tear on his body. Now, at age 41, he is yet another year older than he was from the second match-up where his endurance may have been the reason why he couldn’t block or get out of the way of those vicious Miocic body shots.

Miocic, 37, is no spring chicken himself, but he’s still a far cry from 41. Those four years will make all the difference. This fight will be a full swing of the pendulum from the first encounter, where Cormier dominated. Miocic will have a distinct advantage from the opening bell and end this fight — and the trilogy — definitively.

Sean O’Malley’s bantamweight showdown with Marlon Vera takes the co-headliner spot on the card. Will O’Malley dominate against Vera?

Petela: This will be O’Malley’s toughest test to date. After disposing of former WEC champion Eddie Wineland in less than a round at UFC 250, he was calling for a showdown with Cody Garbrand, who got back to his winning ways that very same night. While the UFC pumped the brakes on that fight, the company certainly took notice that “Sugar” thinks he is ready for the big time.

A win over Vera would go even further than the Wineland victory to announce O’Malley’s arrival as one of the bantamweight division’s top prospects-turned-contenders. Vera has somewhat quietly amassed a 9-5 record inside the UFC. In his most recent outing, the 27-year-old, who made his organizational debut at UFC 180, suffered a unanimous-decision loss to Song Yadong at featherweight in a contest that earned “Fight of the Night” honors. Prior to that loss, Vera had amassed a five-fight winning streak. His performance against Yadong did not do much to slow his momentum. If he is able to get past O’Malley, then he would add even more wind to his sails on the way toward the top of division.

Ultimately, it will be the experience and versatility of Vera that allows him to upset O’Malley and gives the Montana-born fighter his first professional loss. Despite being just two years older than his foe, “Chito” has 10 more professional fights than O’Malley and two more fights inside the UFC than O’Malley has in total. There is no doubt that “Sugar” is talented and has some of the division’s most exciting striking, but the grappling of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Vera will be too much for the up-and-coming star. O’Malley’s first pro defeat will come inside the distance by submission.

Sumian: Yes, Vera has all the tools to beat the surging bantamweight contender. He is definitely the more experienced fighter of the two as well. However, some picks don’t need a logical explanation to be made. Just think back to when Conor McGregor was storming his way through the featherweight division and people would constantly pick against him. They would argue that this next opponent was just too experienced for him. Well, we saw how that worked out.

When you have the “it” factor, you just seem destined to win. O’Malley is slated to be the next big star in the UFC, and Vera won’t be able to derail the train. Vera has certainly compiled a nice record since joining the UFC, but take a look at the names on his resume. It changes the story. His wins over Andre Ewell, Frankie Saenz and Guido Cannetti aren’t very convincing in suggesting that Vera’s experience is something O’Malley cannot handle.

O’Malley will use his superior striking, movement, and underrated ground game to withstand anything Vera throws at him. He’ll secure another decisive victory on Saturday night.

Chris Daukaus, Parker Porter and Danny Chavez — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Porter and Daukaus are a pair of heavyweights making their UFC debuts against each other. Out of the two, Daukaus is the somewhat more interesting fighter, since seven of his eight wins have come by way of knockout. As badly as the heavyweight division is in need of consistent new blood, these two men aren’t going to make a splash.

Chavez could be a different story. He has compiled a 10-3 record as a featherweight and is making his debut against a very dangerous and experienced T.J. Brown, who has over 20 professional bouts under his name. Chavez will be able to win a fairly clear unanimous decision and add his name to the list of UFC featherweights to watch going forward.

Petela: Daukaus is a name that should be well known to fans of the Cage Fury Fighting Championships organization. If it’s just the last name that looks familiar, it’s because his brother, Kyle, recently made his promotional debut in a thrilling back-and-forth fight with Brendan Allen. The Philadelphia heavyweight sports an 8-3 record and makes his Octagon debut at age 30. While this might seem a little late for a UFC debut in most weight classes, it has long been known that heavyweights typically hit their prime later and can fight at a high level well into their thirties or early forties, as the main event proves. Daukaus should dispatch Porter, who won’t remain inside the promotion for long.

Chavez, 33, brings a solid record with him into the Octagon. However, he has fought somewhat sporadically over his career and not in any of the best-known feeder programs to the UFC. I don’t share my colleague’s optimism regarding his future with the organization.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 252?

Petela: Stipe Miocic. With a win over Daniel Cormier in the final chapter of their trilogy, Miocic will undoubtedly hold the title of greatest heavyweight in UFC history and further bolster the argument that he is the greatest heavyweight fighter the sport has ever seen, regardless of promotion. There have been rumors regarding his retirement that Miocic has largely ignored, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him ride off into the sunset, taking quite a legacy with him back to Cleveland and his firehouse.

Sumian: Miocic, Cormier, and the fans. This will close the books on the most incredible rivalry in UFC heavyweight history. Both men will be regarded as among the greatest to ever compete and will be forever loved and missed once they finally hang them up. The fans will have been treated to three amazing fights after all is said and done. We can only hope to get a rivalry in the coming years that will come close to what DC and Miocic have given the sport.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 252?

Sumian: The UFC heavyweight division. Daniel Cormier is likely retiring regardless of the outcome of the fight on Saturday. Miocic is not too far behind. This will leave a gaping hole in the UFC heavyweight division that frankly cannot be filled by the likes of Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes and company. The excitement surrounding the division will steadily decline as we wait for the shoes to be filled in the coming years.

Petela: Ion Cutelaba, who takes on Magomed Ankalaev again. Despite the bad stoppage, it looked like Ankalaev was going to have Cutelaba’s number that night. For as bold and intense as Cutelaba is, a loss in this rematch will be devastating to his ego and pride.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Ashley Yoder. The “Spider Monkey” started off with three straight losses inside the UFC before seemingly getting things on the right track and notching back-to-back wins. However, her good fortune came to an end in Singapore in October when she lost a split decision to Randa Markos in a strange-but-entertaining fight where both women sought to implement their grappling attack and curiously avoided being anywhere near the center of the Octagon. If the strawweight fighter comes up short against Livinha Souza at UFC 252, then the writing is on the wall that the Dan Henderson disciple could be ousted from the organization.

Sumian: Felice Herrig. The former The Ultimate Fighter standout has lost two in a row and has only one finish throughout her UFC career. A loss over Virna Jandiroba will put her at three losses in a row and in all likelihood out the door.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba. The pair’s first encounter was an all-out brawl, and it only lasted 38 seconds due to a controversial stoppage. These two men will pick up right where they left off and bang it out until someone goes down.

Petela: Jim Miller and Vinc Pichel. There isn’t a time when Miller steps into the cage and doesn’t put on a thrilling performance. It is always fun to see what types of grappling tricks Miller has up his sleeves. He takes on Pichel, a man with eight of his 12 wins coming by knockout, so he should have a willing dance partner.

Pair this card with…

Petela: A paper bag. There’s no doubt fans will be gasping for air leading up to and during the main event with so much at stake. The paper bag will help you with some deep breaths to avoid hyperventilating.

Sumian: Appreciation. This is hands down the biggest fight of 2020. It cements one of the greatest rivalries in combat sports and celebrates the accomplishments of both fighters. Sit back, enjoy and do not hesitate to raid the top shelf to celebrate.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier Miocic Miocic
BW: Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera O’Malley Vera
HW: Junior dos Santos vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik dos Santos Rozenstruik
BW: John Dodson vs. Merab Dvalishvili Dvalishvili Dvalishvili
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba Ankalaev Ankalaev
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
LW: Jim Miller vs. Vinc Pichel Miller Miller
Women’s StrawW: Ashley Yoder vs. Livinha Souza Souza Souza
HW: Chris Daukaus vs. Parker Porter Daukaus Daukaus
Women’s StrawW: Felice Herrig vs. Virna Jandiroba Jandiroba Herrig
Preliminary Card (ESPN and ESPN+, 6:15 p.m. ET)
FW: Herbert Burns vs. Daniel Pineda Burns Burns
FW: T.J. Brown vs. Danny Chavez Chavez Brown