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19 MMA thoughts, including how Miocic’s persistence paid off in gold


It’s Monday — time for another edition of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the show as a podcast.


After nine consecutive weeks of events, the UFC is having a rare bye week.

But have no fear, MMA enthusiasts, because there is still plenty of action on tap. Of note, there’s Contender Series on Tuesday and Bellator 225 on Saturday night. The latter features the promotional debut of Nick Newell, who is finally getting another crack at the big show.

But before we get to that, here are some thoughts on the week that was in MMA:

The UFC’s return to China features a strawweight division championship fight, one that fans in Shenzhen have been anticipating for several months.
Zhang Weili, who is 19-1 and fights out of Beijing, will look to take the title from Jessica Andrade in the Aug. 31 main event.

UFC Fight Night: Andrade vs. Zhang
Aug. 31, Shenzhen, China
Prelims: ESPN, 3 a.m. ET
Main card: ESPN+, 6 a.m. ET

Subscribe to ESPN+ to get exclusive live UFC events, weigh-ins and more; Ariel and the Bad Guy; Dana White’s Contender Series; and more exclusive MMA content.

1. Saturday’s main event, in many ways, felt like a microcosm of the past 13 months in the life of Stipe Miocic. Remember last summer? Literally seconds after he lost his title to Daniel Cormier, there was Brock Lesnar in the cage, disrespecting him. He couldn’t have been forgotten about fast enough. It wasn’t right. As a result, in the following weeks, the usually quiet Miocic was out doing the media rounds demanding a rematch. He had a strong case, too. After all, he was the most decorated champion in UFC heavyweight history. But if we were being honest, a rematch felt like a long shot. A very long shot.

Not only was the allure of a Cormier-Lesnar fight very appealing to the UFC and Cormier, Miocic’s relationship with the UFC had deteriorated. There was a lot of friction between him and the brass, and when there’s friction, well, it’s hard to get title fights. Simple as that.

But Miocic and his manager Jim Walter remained patient and stuck to their guns. Even while the UFC repeatedly offered big fights and quick paydays, it was title shot or bust for Team Miocic. And when the Lesnar flirtation finally ended and he decided to go back to wrasslin’, there was Team Miocic ready to pounce. No one else made sense to fight Cormier next, and Miocic’s patience was rewarded.

On Saturday night, a similar scenario played out. The first round couldn’t have gone worse for Miocic. Cormier dominated him with his wrestling and boxing. In fact, I scored the first three rounds in favor of Cormier. Early on, it felt like Miocic couldn’t have been any further away from becoming champion again. It was like July 2018 all over again. But then Miocic, with the help of his longtime coach Marcus Marinelli, turned the tide in a very big way. What a massive adjustment they made. Early in the fourth, Miocic started to attack the right side of Cormier’s body. Repeatedly. He landed 14 body shots in that round, and that changed the entire fight.

And now Miocic is the heavyweight champion of the world again, dancing all the way back home to Ohio. An incredible way to cap off a roller-coaster year.

2. Speaking of Ohio, Miocic’s first title defense has to be in Cleveland. Has to be. That scene at UFC 203 was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

3. It’s going to be interesting to see the opponent for Miocic’s first title defense. Francis Ngannou has certainly earned that shot, however, a lot of people didn’t like their first fight (I did), and Ngannou’s relationship with the brass isn’t great, either. Jon Jones is out there, too. He doesn’t have an obvious next opponent, but I don’t think Jones is interested in moving up right now. There’s also a Cormier trilogy out there. Those seem to be the top three choices at the moment.

4. I first met Cormier in November 2009. I was in Chicago covering a Strikeforce event and he was there with his good friend Muhammed Lawal. Cormier was two months removed from a successful MMA debut. Wrestling fans knew him as the two-time Olympian, but to MMA fans, he was simply just another prospect. I’ve watched his career flourish, and Cormier and I have since spoken too many times for me to count.

While I was genuinely happy for Miocic and his team Saturday night, I was equally sad for Cormier. For the longest time, Cormier’s story was filled with heartbreak. He always fell short of the big one. And now, suddenly, at 40 years old, he was on top of the world and so close to going out on top. No one saw this fairy tale coming, including Cormier. And then he loses like that. After he looked so good early. He strayed from the game plan — from his bread-and-butter wrestling — and succumbed to a wonderful adjustment by Miocic. It was hard to see him go out like that.

When I was briefly banned by the UFC in June 2016 and tweeted about what happened, Cormier was one of the very first people to call me that night. This after his good friend Luke Rockhold just lost his title.

“Everything is going to be all right, my man,” he told me as I was getting emotional on the phone about the state of my career. “Trust me.” Cormier even later tweeted something about me in support, which could have gotten him in hot water.

That was a tough moment for me, and this time around, I’ll be the one to say Daniel, everything is going to be all right. I know Cormier is heartbroken right now. We all know he doesn’t handle defeat very well. But I hope when the dust settles a little bit, he’ll be able to take a step back and be proud of what he has accomplished in his MMA career. Saturday night’s result doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the all-time greats.

5. In case you missed it, Cormier didn’t retire last night. I personally think he has nothing left to prove. Plus, his body has been breaking down recently and he has a ton of great non-fighting opportunities waiting for him. I know the vast majority of his team wants him to retire, too. But I wonder if the competitor in him won’t let him go out like that. Remember, this is the same guy who said he’d only consider fighting Jones again if he could fight him at light heavyweight. I also wonder if losing the title actually increases the chances of the Jones trilogy fight happening, because he’s now not tied to the heavyweight division anymore. Despite the loss, I still believe that fight can be very lucrative, and I suspect the UFC will try to make it happen next year. For now, I am glad Cormier didn’t make a decision one way or the other last night. No need for that.

6. The MMA world is a much better place when the Diaz brothers are fighting and thriving, isn’t it? What a much-needed jolt of superstardom Nate Diaz was last week. From showing up to open workouts smoking a joint, to his performance against Anthony Pettis to calling out Jorge Masvidal afterward, Diaz came across as one of the biggest stars in the game again. Nate and his older brother Nick are two of the smartest self-promoters out there. They know exactly what they are doing, even though at times that may not seem to be the case. That was on full display, and Diaz’s return could not come at a better time for the UFC. It is in desperate need of — ahem — needle movers, and Diaz remains one of the biggest out there.

7. And guess what? Diaz knows this. And he knows a fight against Masvidal would do massive business. Masvidal knows this, too. I know the UFC likes to have title fights headline pay-per-views, but I honestly think you can headline a PPV with that fight and it would do massive business. Some fights are bigger than the belt, and this is one of them. Here’s hoping they get it done while both men have all this momentum. Dec. 14 in Las Vegas, anyone?

8. Nick wasn’t in his brother’s corner Saturday night, but he didn’t need to be. Just seeing the two pose for a photo posted before the fight was all longtime fans of the Diaz brothers needed to see. There had been rumblings recently that the brothers aren’t as close as they once were. I don’t know if that is true or not. I do know it was great to see them together before the fight. I also noticed that Nate mentioned his brother and his academy every chance he could all week long. Nick wasn’t in the building when the Pettis fight was happening, but I know he was watching somewhere. I know he has always had mixed feelings about the fight game and his brother being a part of it, but I hope wherever he was that he was proud of how his brother fought and what he’s become.

19 MMA thoughts, including how Miocic's persistence paid off in gold
The immense popularity of Nate Diaz, left, was apparent at UFC 241, with chants of “Diaz! Diaz!” ringing in the Honda Center throughout his fight with Anthony Pettis. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

9. By the way, credit to Dana White for finally admitting Nate Diaz was a needle mover.

10. Last week wasn’t a great one for Conor McGregor. First, video emerges of him allegedly punching an older man in an Irish bar from April, and then he watches Diaz and Masvidal, two potential future opponents, essentially say they were more interested in fighting each other than him. McGregor is still the biggest draw in the game by far, but his return can’t come soon enough for his brand and career. He needs to get back on track out of the gym, return, get a win and remind everyone who he is. Until then, it feels like the rest of the fighters — and a lot of the fans — are content with moving on without him.

11. “The fight game. The highest of highs and lowest of lows.” That’s what coach Duke Roufus told me when I asked how Pettis was feeling after the loss to Diaz. There really isn’t any better way of putting it. There is an immense amount of pressure and attention put on these fighters’ shoulders going into these fights, and they only have 15 to 25 minutes to make it all right. Either they leave the arena feeling on top of the world, or it’s all for naught. I can’t imagine going through that stress every few months. And it’s precisely why I have the utmost respect for these men and women. Pettis broke his right foot in the first round, per Roufus. It’s unclear at this time if he’ll require surgery.

12. Paulo Costa vs. Yoel Romero was everything we hoped it would be. Two behemoths throwing sledgehammers at each other and walking forward. Just an incredible display of athleticism, will and power. I thought it was a very hard fight to score and initially had it for Romero, but I would like to watch it again at some point. In the end, though, that was the result the UFC wanted. No doubt. Costa vs. the winner of Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya is a fresh title fight. Imagine the trash talk if it’s Adesanya vs. Costa? My goodness. As for Romero, I hope his next fight is at light heavyweight.

13. Look, hindsight is 20/20, but I thought the UFC made a mistake booking Devonte Smith vs. Khama Worthy. Smith is someone the UFC is very high on and desperately wanted to keep on this card after his original opponent, John Makdessi, pulled out. So why book him against a guy he’s trained with for years and is friends with, too? That gave Worthy a leg up, and you saw what happened.

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14. Cory Sandhagen, who defeated veteran Raphael Assuncao convincingly at UFC 241, should be considered a top contender at 135 pounds. However, with champion Henry Cejudo rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder, a legend like Urijah Faber returning, a former champion in Dominick Cruz returning, Frankie Edgar moving down, not to mention Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan in the mix, it feels like he is unfairly far away from a title shot. I am supremely impressed with his skills and very curious what they will do with him next. How does Marlon Moraes sound?

15. Other performances of note Saturday night: Sodiq Yusuff, who continues to impress, Sabina Mazo, Casey Kenney and Drakkar Klose.

16. The UFC has booked Amanda Nunes vs. Germaine de Randamie 2 for the women’s bantamweight title on Dec. 14. With Cris Cyborg out of the picture, this was the only fight to make. Good call. I’m glad GDR is getting another crack at being champion after she vacated the title in 2017 in what was one of the more bizarre stories in UFC history. Hopefully this gives her a chance to move on, though it will force her to answer many questions about that situation for the next four months.

19 MMA thoughts, including how Miocic's persistence paid off in gold

The best insider in the sport, Ariel Helwani, and best personality in the sport, Chael Sonnen, break down the MMA weekend and look ahead to the biggest cards.
Watch on ESPN+

17. The most shocking result of the weekend didn’t happen in Anaheim, but rather at Rizin 18 in Nagoya, Japan. That’s where relatively unknown Kai Asakura knocked out Bellator and Rizin champion Kyoji Horiguchi in just 68 seconds. It was a non-title fight, but still, the damage has been done. Horiguchi’s 13-fight winning streak is over.

18. What a surprising end to Cat Zingano’s UFC run last week. Hopefully we can soon get more clarity as to why she was abruptly released. Whoever signs Cyborg should like to sign her, too.

19. By the way, how long before someone produces a “baddest m—–f—– on the planet” belt, per Diaz’s request? If he doesn’t have that in his hands by Friday at the latest, I will be very disappointed.


Monday’s Helwani Show lineup:

19 MMA thoughts, including how Miocic's persistence paid off in gold
Cory Sandhagen proved that he’s a legitimate contender at bantamweight with his win over Raphael Assuncao this past Saturday night. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

1 p.m. ET: Weekend recap

1:05 p.m.: Cory Sandhagen

Sandhagen will discuss moving to 5-0 in the UFC after his win on Saturday and what might be next for him in a talent-filled bantamweight division.

1:20 p.m.: Stipe Miocic

Miocic will talk about regaining the UFC heavyweight crown and whom his first title defense may come against.

1:35 p.m.: Nick Newell

Newell will be in studio discussing his Bellator debut this weekend.

2:05 p.m.: Eddie Alvarez

Alvarez will talk about his first ONE Championship win after defeating Eduard Folayang on Aug. 2.

19 MMA thoughts, including how Miocic's persistence paid off in gold
Does the near future for Francis Ngannou include a UFC heavyweight title rematch with Stipe Miocic? Tim Gruber for ESPN

2:20 p.m.: Francis Ngannou

Ngannou will discuss his future, including a potential rematch with Miocic, and being added to the cast of “Fast & Furious 9.”

2:35 p.m.: Holly Holm

“The Preacher’s Daughter” will talk about what’s next for her in MMA.

2:50 p.m.: Mike Perry

Perry will give an update on the broken nose he suffered at UFC Uruguay.

3:10 p.m.: Kurt Angle

The WWE Hall of Famer and MMA fan will share his thoughts on the sport as well as his current role with the pro wrestling company.

3:30 p.m.: Jorge Masvidal

“Gamebred” will discuss his thoughts on a potential fight with Nate Diaz, who called him out at UFC 241.

3:50 p.m.: Stefan Struve

Struve will discuss his fight in December versus Ben Rothwell and contemplating retirement earlier in the year.

4:05 p.m.: Paulo Costa

Costa will discuss his victory over Yoel Romero and thoughts on potentially being in line for a UFC middleweight title fight.





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