Main Event: Heavyweight Championship
Stipe Miocic (15-2; 9-2 UFC) vs. Alistair Overeem (41-14, 1 N/C; 6-3 UFC)
Heavyweight champion Miocic makes the first defense of his belt in his native Cleveland against the Netherlands' Overeem.
The Dutchman has been an elite heavyweight for the better part of a decade, but many ups and downs have finally led him to the UFC title shot he was scheduled to receive back at UFC 146 in 2012. He has now won four straight over the cream of the division, including a knockout of Junior Dos Santos.
For his part, Miocic's road to the top hasn't been free of bumps. A blue-chip prospect when he signed with the promotion in 2012, he has put together several impressive winning streaks, but losses to Stefan Struve and Dos Santos halted his momentum. Wins over Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski put him back on track, and he capitalized by putting champion Fabricio Werdum to sleep in just under three minutes in May.
The 36-year-old Overeem has reinvented himself since moving to Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the Meccas of the sport. Formerly a tank of a kickboxer with a preference for forward pressure, heavy punches and walking himself into the clinch, Overeem now makes use of his still-prodigious speed and athleticism to play a stick-and-move game on the outside.
With decades of experience as a striker under his belt, Overeem has the understanding of range, timing and footwork to utilize that kind of approach to great effect. He prefers southpaw, which gives him a few extra inches of precious distance, and then fires off a steady diet of crushing round kicks at range before leaping in with heavy single punches or two-strike combinations.
This isn't the most exciting approach, and Overeem spends a great deal of time feinting and moving before committing to a strike. He doesn't throw much volume, but he's accurate and lands everything with great power.
Slowing the pace also protects Overeem's fragile chin, as it allows him to pick and choose his shots with care while avoiding prolonged exchanges in the pocket. He immediately moves his head, cuts an angle, and, if necessary, runs to get out of his opponent's range after he throws, and while it can lead to long stretches where not much happens, it's the most effective way of guaranteeing he eats few strikes.
Long range isn't Overeem's only option, though. Part of the reason he's happy to explode forward with combinations is his outstanding clinch game, which remains one of the best in the history of the sport. While he's less physically imposing than he was five years ago, Overeem's technical command of leverage and how to get serious force behind his knees is without peer in all of MMA.
Wrestling is another strength of Overeem's game. He's been taken down just once in his nine-fight UFC tenure, and his constant movement and preference for long range makes it hard to get a clean shot at his hips in the first place. Offensively, he has a lovely arsenal of trips and throws in the clinch.
From top position, Overeem is a monster. He packs fight-ending power in his ground strikes, controls with great skill and knows how to pass. His guillotine makes it dangerous to scramble with him as well.
Miocic is a meat-and-potatoes fighter with excellent speed, athleticism, power and, above all, cardio at his disposal. There's nothing particularly flashy about what he does, but his technical skill and physicality make that basic game function at a high level.
On the feet, Miocic is mostly a boxer. He fires a consistent, punishing jab to gauge and set the distance, and then follows with a sharp right cross. A steady diet of low kicks help to score and wear his opponent down.
The real meat of Miocic's striking game comes when his opponent throws. The Ohio native is an excellent counterpuncher with clean fundamentals in the pocket, including solid head movement, great timing and above all, precise footwork in tight spaces. Miocic excels at finding crisp, subtle angles from which to land, especially his backstepping right cross and check left hook as he pivots out.
This makes it difficult to pressure Miocic. Opponents who come in too recklessly, like Fabricio Werdum, risk running face-first into a crisp, technically sound counter, and Miocic's fine footwork means he excels at getting off the fence without exposing himself to danger.
With all that said, Miocic's striking game isn't foolproof. He's not a bad defensive fighter, but he's still hittable, especially to the body, and his pace ensures he's often in range for his opponent to land strikes.
Wrestling is a strong secondary component of Miocic's game. He has a strong preference for the single-leg and high-crotch takedowns and finishes them with slick technical acumen. His setups are likewise excellent, and his gift for counterpunching opens up opportunities for him to duck under in the pocket and quickly lock up a leg. While not bulletproof, he has strong takedown defense as well.
Miocic is mostly content to control from the top. He's not a grappling wizard, but maintains a strong base, especially in side control, and rains down a steady stream of hard strikes that wear his opponent down.
Miocic -135, Overeem +115
This is a razor-thin fight. Miocic has never much been into pressure, and he has a tendency of getting a bit too stationary in the middle of the cage, which should create opportunities for Overeem to stick and move around him, landing to the legs and body while picking his spots to land bigger shots.
Mark Hunt was able to do this quite effectively in the first round of their fight, before Miocic's takedowns and top control eventually took their toll. Overeem won't stick around in the pocket long enough for Miocic to get much done on the counter, either.
On the other hand, Miocic is an exceptional counterpuncher, and he should have some chances to land on Overeem as he blitzes forward. He's also a hard-enough puncher to make those shots count on the fragile Dutchman.
That's the most likely scenario here. It wouldn't be surprising if Overeem stuck and moved, piling up damage to Miocic's legs and body and even winning rounds, but if he does it enough times, the durable Miocic should find an opening to sneak in a knockout shot.
Miocic finishes with strikes in the third round.
All betting odds via Odds Shark.
Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.