Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier III debate: Who will retire? Who gets next title shot?

UFC president Dana White made some news Tuesday morning, and while much of the focus was on the cards he announced for the highly anticipated Fight Island, he threw in a nugget that arguably dwarfs any other fight mentioned. The trilogy bout between heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former two-division champ Daniel Cormier is set for Aug. 15.

For a while, it looked like the fight might not happen. Miocic had surgery on a torn retina that was taking a while to heal. The injury happened during his fourth-round stoppage of Cormier on Aug. 17, 2019. He also is a part-time EMT in a Cleveland suburb working full-time hours during the coronavirus pandemic. Cormier was getting itchy while waiting and said if the trilogy fight didn’t happen soon he might just retire without it. There was talk of stripping the title from Miocic, who argued that he wasn’t able to train with his gym closed.

But now Cormier has what he said will be his last bout before calling an end to a career that surely will put him in the UFC Hall of Fame. Of course, fighters are notorious for unretiring, as evidenced by a certain ex-champ from Ireland who is on retirement No. 3. But no reason to bring Conor McGregor into this discussion.

There’s also some speculation Miocic could call it quits after this one, so there’s a lot riding on this bout. ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim addresses the magnitude of this fight, and what it will do for Cormier’s legacy.

How do you see this fight unfolding?

Helwani: I think it goes a lot like the second one, meaning Cormier uses his wrestling early on and Miocic tries to keep the fight standing. I’m sure Miocic will try to go to the body again, so it will be interesting to see if Cormier learned his lesson from the second fight.

Okamoto: This is the biggest fight in the history of the UFC’s heavyweight division. Don’t @ me. Miocic is the only man to ever defend the title three consecutive times. Daniel Cormier has lost to two men in his entire career. Just two — Miocic and the greatest fighter of all time, Jon Jones. A belt is on the line in this one, but more important, the winner will be able to call himself the best heavyweight of his era. The stakes are massive.

Point is, I think they will both bring their A-game. There’s a history here, obviously. In addition to being very talented athletically, these two are also extremely smart. We’ll see adjustments. We’ll see things learned from the first two encounters. I believe we’ll see multiple momentum shifts and, just like the previous two, we’ll see a knockout finish.

Raimondi: Cormier took the first fight by first-round knockout. Miocic came back with a fourth-round TKO of his own at UFC 241 last August. In the most recent contest, Miocic was able to adjust late and attack Cormier’s body. Once he did that, it opened up the head and Miocic didn’t miss. This one will probably come down to Cormier’s wrestling. He took Miocic down in the first round of the second fight, but then got away from that as part of his strategy. Cormier admitted afterward that was a mistake. If Cormier, a former Olympian, can commit to his wrestling, it could give him an edge.

But the variables are many. There’s a pandemic. Miocic, in particular, has not had his gym open for months. He’s been working as a firefighter and EMT, while not training that much. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it plays out. It’ll be one of the best trilogy fights in UFC history.

Wagenheim: Each man has lived through the same two primal and formative experiences: stopping the other, and being stopped by him. They’ve also each forced the other to feel the annoyance of being made to wait for a rematch a little longer than preferred. It would be an exaggeration to say there’s bad blood, but what once could be described as an amicable rivalry has turned ornery. One guy can’t wait to get this final fight out of the way so he can walk out the door into his family’s arms, while the other is at the very least contemplating a swan song. Their lives, from home to the training gym, have borne the weight of the pandemic. It’s a mystery to me how this fight will play out, but given all of the above and the fact that neither man has competed since their meeting 10 months ago, I’m expecting a little rust and caution balanced by an urgency to seize the moment if a finish presents itself.

Do you think this will be the last fight for one, both or neither?

Helwani: Pretty fascinating question. Rarely would a question like this get asked heading into a title fight, but I think it’s a fair one to ask. If Cormier wins, I think he’ll walk away. If he loses, I think he’ll walk away, too. If Miocic wins, I think he sticks around. If he loses, especially badly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a break. Nothing would surprise me, though, including the UFC trying to persuade a victorious Cormier to stick around for a third Jon Jones fight.

Okamoto: Something tells me both will retire. I’ve been saying that for awhile now, and I’m sticking to it. For the record, I have no inside info on this one. No one has told me Miocic has any plans to retire, and he certainly appears to have plenty left in the tank. But he’s 37, and while that’s not old in the fight game by any means, it’s not exactly young either. Miocic strikes me as a guy who would want to go out on top. In fact, I think it’s probably more likely he retires if he wins than if he loses. And Cormier, I do believe him when he says this is it. I haven’t believed him when he’s said it in the past, but we’re halfway through 2020 now. He’s 41. I believe this is it.

Raimondi: I don’t think it’ll be the last fight for either man. I know Cormier has said many times that he wants Miocic one more time and that’ll be it. I’m not entirely convinced. I do think Cormier believes what he is saying to be true at this moment. But let’s say Cormier beats Miocic and becomes heavyweight champion for a second time. You’re telling me he’d turn down a huge blockbuster fight against Francis Ngannou? You know Cormier has been watching Ngannou closely and feels he can put the huge knockout artist on his back with his excellent wrestling. I think Cormier and Miocic will both fight on after this.

Wagenheim: For Cormier, this is it, win or lose. He’s said so. I know, there’s no such thing as a final word when fighters talk retirement, but as the curtain closes on fight night, DC either will be a world champion or will have been knocked down a few slippery rungs on the heavyweight ladder. Both scenarios point him toward an exit sign. As for Miocic, if he wins, I suspect he’ll stick around for at least one megafight. Maybe he’ll serve as the heavyweight welcoming committee for Jones, champion vs. champion. Or perhaps it’ll be another go with Ngannou, to dispel any irking suggestions that his 2018 disarming of those thunderous fists was a fluke or something. Now, if Miocic loses to DC, or if he wins but reinjures the eye that sustained retinal damage in the last fight, it could be a two-retirement night. Conor McGregor would be jealous.

If DC wins and retires, what’s the fight for the vacant belt?

Helwani: Ngannou vs. Miocic 2. It would be the only fight to make, in my opinion. Contrary to what most people think, I actually enjoyed their first fight back in January 2018. I even awarded their first round my 2018 round of the year. It was great theater. I wouldn’t mind seeing them go toe-to-toe again. Now, if Miocic retires, it gets a little tricky. Maybe Ngannou vs. the winner of Alexander Volkov vs. Curtis Blaydes, though Ngannou is 2-0 versus Blaydes. Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis 2? That would be kind of funny. Basically, it has to include Ngannou. That much I know for sure.

Okamoto: You know that Jones vs. Ngannou fight? The one Jones has been going back and forth, publicly, with Dana White over? That’s the one. And look, according to Jones, the UFC isn’t interested in significantly increasing his pay for that fight … right now. Maybe that’s, in part, because the promotion already has a world-class, trilogy, championship bout on its hands in that division. If Cormier wins and rides off into the sunset, and the UFC has a vacant title on its hands, there’s a lot more pressure on the company to book a Jones vs. Ngannou fight for the title, because it would be such an obvious choice.

Raimondi: Ngannou taking on Blaydes for a third time maybe? Or you can throw Miocic right back in and have him fight Ngannou for a second time. Ngannou has already finished Blaydes twice, and Blaydes still has to get by Volkov next week to cement his spot in the heavyweight hierarchy. But I do believe Blaydes has improved since those losses to Ngannou. He’s just 28 years old, which is incredibly young for a heavyweight, a division where fighters usually don’t peak until their mid-30s. Miocic vs. Ngannou would probably be the direction the UFC goes, but at some point Blaydes has to get a nod.

Wagenheim: Sorry, Dana, it’s gotta be Jones vs. Ngannou. Open the bank vault and pay the men.

If Stipe wins, is his next opponent Francis Ngannou or Jon Jones?

Helwani: Ngannou. It will be hard to skip Ngannou after all he’s done. Plus, who knows how this Jones situation turns out? He’s going all-in on criticism of the UFC right now, and the promotion’s brass tends to not forget this sort of thing.

Okamoto: Like I said earlier, I think it’s neither. If Miocic wins, I’m predicting he retires and goes out on top. In the event he does not retire, however, I actually think it would be Jones. I could see Miocic saying something to the effect of, “I’ve already beaten Ngannou. I know he’s back on a tear, but for my legacy, I want the GOAT. I want Jon Jones.” That would be nothing short of tragic for Ngannou, who absolutely, 100 percent deserves a UFC title shot. But as good and deserving as Ngannou has looked, if the UFC and Jones were to come to terms on him moving up, I think Miocic would probably prefer that and Ngannou could be on the outside looking in.

Raimondi: It all depends on the UFC ponying up more money for Jones, right? The longtime UFC light heavyweight champion has been extremely vocal on Twitter about believing he is not being paid fairly and has not been for nearly a decade. That’s not going to be an easy negotiation for the UFC. For Jones to fight Miocic in a true superfight, he’s going to expect — and would deserve — big bucks. Ngannou might be a bit easier to persuade. He’s been dying for a title shot and a rematch with Miocic ever since Miocic beat him at UFC 220 in January 2018. If I had to guess, I’d say Ngannou would be more likely.

Wagenheim: Ngannou has earned the next title shot, but that means nothing in today’s UFC. Just ask Conor McGregor, Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo or Yoel Romero, all of whom have cut the line by virtue of their high profiles. And Jones is among the highest-profile figures in MMA, the GOAT in many people’s eyes. He would add a second championship belt to the promotional poster, along with bold capital letters reading “SUPERFIGHT.” That is a lot for Ngannou to offset, as scary as he is. Also working against him: We’ve already seen Miocic vs. Ngannou. I’d be thrilled with either matchup, and I know which one would happen if life were fair. But if forced to choose one, I have to go with the superfight. It’s a rarity. It’s history. (Please don’t tell Francis I said this.)

If this is really DC’s last fight, what’s his legacy win or lose?

Helwani: One of the greatest of all time. Period. A double-champ. The only one to hold the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles at the same time, and he probably could have been heavyweight champ earlier had he not gone down to 205 pounds to avoid fighting his friend Cain Velasquez. He fought them all, never gave the UFC any trouble along the way, either. Severely underrated and underappreciated during his title reigns, too. We’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Okamoto: Yes, this is DC’s last fight. Unless something wild happens, like Brock Lesnar somehow enters the picture again. Or The Rock calls for Cormier in the Octagon (I’m kidding … I think). Barring something really unforeseen, this is it for Cormier. And, see, you can’t ask me what his legacy is, win or lose. Because like I said in answering the first question, if he wins, he can call himself the greatest heavyweight of his era. That’s what I’ll call him, at least. But if he loses a trilogy to Miocic, I can’t call him that. I’ll say he was the second-best heavyweight of his era. And the second-best light heavyweight of his era. So, Cormier’s legacy is secure from the standpoint of, he’ll be remembered as one of the best to ever do it. But the difference between the greatest heavyweight of his era and the second-greatest heavyweight of his era is rather big. You could say Cormier’s legacy will be defined in this one, final fight. And that’s one of the reasons I think this is the biggest title fight in UFC heavyweight history.

Raimondi: One of the five best fighters in MMA history. He’s one of only four fighters ever to hold titles in two weight classes at the same time. Win or lose, he will have only lost to fellow future Hall of Famers Jones and Miocic in his career. To go one step further, the argument could be made that Jones and Miocic are the two best fighters in the history of the UFC’s light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, respectively. So, DC will have gone down only losing to a pair of GOATs. Jones is in that top-five class. So is Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. Demetrious Johnson and Jose Aldo are in the discussion. And Cormier is right there with them. What he’s done as an ambassador for the sport — which will continue on long after he retires from the cage — also cannot be overstated.

Wagenheim: Cormier will always be remembered for seizing his second championship belt with a knockout that dethroned the longest-reigning heavyweight champ. But he actually made his mark in MMA years earlier, bursting on the scene as a late-replacement entry in the Strikeforce World Grand Prix. Facing heavyweights whose résumés showed far more fights than his seven as a pro, DC was stunningly dominant in winning the belt. His light heavyweight run had its glories too, but he won the title when it was vacant, so he never got to live that essential “to be the man, you have to beat the man” moment. And he went 0-2 against Jon Jones; technically not, but both fights concluded with Cormier watching his sworn enemy having his hand raised.

But Cormier’s legacy will live on, just on the other side of the cage. As a TV analyst, he introduces an unforced charisma new to MMA broadcasts. For years, there have been astute, well-spoken fighters and ex-fighters at cageside microphones, but Cormier is in a class of his own. He is the closest thing UFC pay-per-views have to what John Madden brought to NFL telecasts. DC is less beholden to schtick, and you sometimes get the idea that Cormier, like “Dandy” Don Meredith (look him up, kids), could go off the rails at any moment. It all seems so natural for DC. He is as likable as they come, and here’s hoping Cormier will be an honored guest in living rooms for years to come.