As far as main and co-main events go, UFC 241 Saturday night in Anaheim has to be considered the strongest card of the year so far.
Here he is, heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier (22-1). Still defending his title in August, despite so much talk last year of plans to retire on his 40th birthday in March. Cormier will face Stipe Miocic (18-3), the only man to ever defend the heavyweight championship three consecutive times, in a rematch of their July 2018 fight at UFC 226.
In the co-main, Nate Diaz (19-11) returns for the first time in almost exactly three years to settle a five-year beef with Anthony Pettis (22-8). A beef that, unless one of them is able to finally say otherwise, seems to stem from a mutual understanding they were gonna fight at some point. The matchup is so good, it was probably always inevitable.
UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier’s second job as a high school coach keeps him connected to his first love, wrestling.
The storylines going into UFC 241 are endless, and they might double after the event. Is this Cormier’s last fight? What will Miocic’s legacy be after Saturday — the dominant champ who came back and avenged his only title loss, or Cormier’s second fiddle? What postfight callout does Diaz have in mind, if he wins? Will Pettis be looked at as a legitimate title contender at welterweight with a victory, or is he more hunting superfights (Conor McGregor, perhaps)?
Cormier is staring at the end of his athletic career. Miocic has a chip on his shoulder, after waiting one year for a rematch he felt he deserved right away. Diaz is puffing CBD joints in public settings. Pettis has that swagger of “Old Showtime” back. This should be good.
By the numbers
0: UFC heavyweight title fights in Anaheim in which the champ has not been knocked out in the first round. In 2006, Andrei Arlovski fell to challenger Tim Sylvia. In 2010, Brock Lesnar was KO’d by Cain Velasquez. And the next year, Velasquez was flattened by Junior Dos Santos in 64 seconds.
3: Heavyweight champions who have lost the belt, then regained it. The first was Sylvia, who was stripped of his title in 2003 following his first defense, then became champ again in 2006. Velasquez lost his strap in 2011 and got it back the next year. And Randy Couture is actually a three-time heavyweight champ, with reigns in 1997-98, 2000-02 and 2007-08.
1: Heavyweight champs who have successfully defended their title more than twice. Yes, there’s only one, and his name is Miocic. After winning the belt in 2016, he rolled through three defenses before being stopped 13 months ago by Cormier.
4: Fighters who have held two UFC titles simultaneously. Cormier is one, his win over Miocic coming before he vacated the light heavyweight championship. Two are current double champs — Amanda Nunes (women’s featherweight and bantamweight) and Henry Cejudo (men’s bantamweight and flyweight) — and the other is Conor McGregor (lightweight and men’s featherweight), who was the first champ-champ.
406: Days it will have been, on fight night, since Miocic last competed — in his title-losing defeat at the hands of Cormier last summer.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
“I feel like he acted a little bit like a brat. Like, ‘I should get a rematch!’ I just thought he should have fought again. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but you know what? It worked. And now he gets a chance to fight for the title again.” — Cormier, speaking to ESPN about Miocic waiting it out
“I hate losing. I don’t care what it is. Tying a shoe? I’m going to beat you at tying my shoe, the dumbest things, but I’m very competitive. I hate losing. It kills me.” — Miocic, speaking to ESPN about what drives him in the rematch
Dom & Tyron’s film study
Tyron Woodley and Dominick Cruz display how the clinch game could play a big role in Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic 2. Order UFC 241 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Brett Okamoto’s pick
The intangibles point to Miocic for me. He’s younger, and he’s arguably never been more motivated. On paper, he always matched up well with Cormier. Cormier’s speed scares me, though. It was a quick, short shot that got Miocic in the first fight, and the speed is what caught Miocic off guard. My head says Miocic here, but end of the day, the only times you would have been right picking against Cormier is when he fought the greatest fighter of all time in Jon Jones. How can I go against that? Cormier TKO, third round.
Waiting in the wings
Jon Jones, obviously, because if Cormier wins, that trilogy fight is going to be the blockbuster that consumes all of the air in the room. It’ll be breathtaking or suffocating, depending on how drawn in you are by melodrama. Also in the wings: Francis Ngannou, who should be next for the heavyweight champ and probably will be if Miocic wins, plus a trio of 205-pounders — Jan Blachowicz, Corey Anderson and Dominick Reyes — all resigned to possibly having their title aspirations put on hold.
What to watch for … beyond the main event
He’s back. Finally. (You’re not surprised?)
Just in case you forgot …
Before he takes on Anthony Pettis, check out highlights from the long and memorable career of Nate Diaz. Order UFC 241 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Why has he been away for so long? Hear it from the man himself.
Nate Diaz discusses his 3-year absence from the Octagon, Conor McGregor, his battles with the UFC and his willingness to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov. Buy the fight at UFC 241 here on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Diaz takes on former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in a welterweight co-main event. You probably haven’t forgotten about “Showtime,” because he fought as recently as March, when he KO’d Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson with a Superman punch. But that stunner was not Pettis’ flashiest career highlight. Check these out — especially the first:
So, yeah, this one is going to be a treat. With these two guys, it just has to be, especially since, aside from their special skills and their duende for days, there’s a backstory:
Learn about the rivalry between Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis, going back to when Diaz wanted to fight “the Wheaties box dude.” Order UFC 241 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
Soak in some numbers on Diaz vs. Pettis (from ESPN Stats & Information):
4: Consecutive fights in which Pettis has earned a bonus (two for fight of the night, two for performance of the night).
6: Consecutive fights in which Diaz has been the betting underdog. He’s 3-2 in the previous five.
3: UFC fighters who have won at featherweight, lightweight and welterweight (Pettis, Conor McGregor and Kenny Florian).
1,926: Total strikes landed by Diaz in his UFC career, which according to UFC Stats is the eighth most in promotion history.
1: Fighters who have lit up a joint at UFC open workouts and shared it with the crowd.
This bout is way too highly anticipated to be just a co-main. How will it play out once the carnival lead-up ends and these two fighter’s fighters step inside the Octagon? Here are a couple of ex-champions, Tyron Woodley and Dominick Cruz, breaking it down:
Dominick Cruz breaks down how Nate Diaz parries on his feet to avoid punches and counter effectively. Order UFC 241 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
You might see this fight on SportsCenter (or a bodybuilding show)
Romero (13-3) has 11 victories by KO/TKO and is No. 2 in the ESPN middleweight rankings. The 42-year-old Cuban is one of MMA’s most decorated wrestlers, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics and a multiple-time medalist at the world championships, including gold in ’99. He has not fought since losing a split decision to champion Robert Whittaker in June 2018. (It was a nontitle bout because Romero missed weight.)
Seventh-ranked Costa (12-0) has won every one of his fights by stoppage (11 KO/TKOs, one submission). According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Brazilian, 28, is one of just six fighters to start a UFC career with four straight KO/TKO wins. It makes sense that he’s known as “The Eraser.”
A duel at the crossroads
MMA sure has its classic matchups. Striker vs. grappler is one — although that primal pairing could soon be extinct, as young fighters grow up well-rounded. And then there’s the clash that will never go out of style: perennial contender vs. rising star.
Saturday’s prelims feature a bantamweight duel at the crossroads, pitting Raphael Assuncao against Cory Sandhagen. It’s not exactly a collision of fighters going in different directions — Assuncao (27-6) was on a four-fight win streak and had had his hand raised in 11 of 12 before he ran into Marlon Moraes and a first-round guillotine choke back in February. But at age 37 and a decade into his UFC/WEC run, the Brazilian is at a different stage of his career than Sandhagen (11-1), 27, who joined the UFC just last year.
Assuncao, No. 5 in the ESPN rankings at 135 pounds, has 11 UFC wins in that weight class, tied for the second most in the promotion’s history. Among his conquests: ex-champ TJ Dillashaw, contender Aljamain Sterling and Moraes (in their first fight).
Sandhagen, ranked ninth, has won six straight bouts, five by finish. He is 4-0 in the UFC, coming off a win over heavy-handed John Lineker in April.
And consider this striking contrast: Assuncao has the third-best significant strike defense in bantamweight history, at 71%, whereas Sandhagen lands 8.49 significant strikes per minute, which would be second in UFC history if he had enough bouts to qualify.
It all comes down to a physics conundrum: Can the irresistible force get to the untouchable object?