The heavyweight division clarifies itself for Stipe Miocic vs. Andrei Arlovski this January 2, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Single Sentence Summary
Phil: Staring into the Rorschach inkblot of upper-level heavyweight and trying to find meaning.
David: Unlocking the Rubik’s Cube of heavyweight ruckus, once inert Rizin-level fight in the UFC at a time.
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Man, for everyone calling for JDS’ retirement lately, how many were around back when Andrei Arlovski went on his run of losses back in the Strikeforce days? Seriously, we’re talking four straight fights where the former UFC champ got flatlined, just killed dead. His regional fights weren’t much better. Scraping past Travis Fulton at the very last second? It blows my mind that he’s got this far, even at heavyweight.
David: True. But it’s all in the eyes. When Arlovski was laying on the floor dead, there was still a twinkle in his eye; the consequence of getting caught with that one brutal punch. JDS will be walking around, and there is no twinkle because the punishment has been so sustained. AA’s soul was snatched. JDS’ soul was drained. You’ve got enough time to get back something that is taken away from you suddenly. Less so when something is taken away from you progressively. That’s why AA is still relevant.
Phil: If Arlovski has a rep as the lovable guy who struggled to put it together, then Miocic has had the perception (or non-perception) as a kind of diffuse, grey cloud of blue-collar blandness. It’s a little unfair – the guy has a Twitter game which reveals a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor which just doesn’t translate over to the overwrought world of Big Man Cage-Fighting.
David: I never thought much of Miocic and didn’t even entertain the notion of him being anything more than a warm body in the heavyweight division. He came in beating the absolute dregs of heavyweight (RIP Shane) and then lost to an equally flawed Stefan Struve. However, whatever magic elixir he discovered helped because he went from a plodding fighter to being quick on the draw. Now he’s somewhere in between, clocking in at 4-1 in his last 5, with a big win over Mark Hunt back in May.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Title shot for Arlovski, Stipe might conceivably have to go through Arlovski’s teammate, Overeem (the aforementioned anonymity being a persistent problem), particularly if the fight is bad, as it might well be.
David: What’s at stake? The same thing that Heavyweight always puts at stake; a title shot out of thin air, viewership comfort, and the presence or thundering lack of grace.
Where do they want it?
David: Arlovski’s success is as much a product of fighter growth as it is of division stagnation. When you look at the matchups he’s won lately compared to the matchups he lost in 2009 when we thought he might literally die in the cage, the difference is in degree, not kind. His opponents aren’t products of the new age. They’re products of the transition period – fossils who have yet to crystallize within the soil (Frank Mir), and neophytes whose survival in the new world is either unclear (Travis Browne), or already determined (Schaub).
However, if there’s one evolutionary trait that persists, regardless of era, it’s power. Arlovski still has that right hand that he blasted Marcio Cruz, from his back, on the ground with. He’s made a few subtle changes to his game, but nothing extraordinary. That flicker inside leg kick, the pawing of the left to open up that right hand is still the hallmark of his game.
Phil: The utter lack of organic growth in the division has left it as a kind of frozen picture, and those who have had success haven’t necessarily been doing it through reinvention (Werdum aside), but have been just moving the relevant petrified bits and pieces of games like a sliding puzzle. For Andrei, if anything his approach has pared down and reduced to its best singular element, which is that right hand. He had the reputation as being one of the first truly “well-rounded” heavyweights when he came onto the scene. The headkicks and submissions (and the flying knees for some reason) have mostly fallen by the wayside, and if he tries an Achilles lock on Miocic I’ll eat my keyboard.
David: For some reason? Oh you sly dog you. Miocic takes a ham-and-egger approach, and packages it inside a blue chip(ish) body. He seals his best weapons behind an active jab, chambering the straight right, and the odd kick to basically win with arithmetic. Heavyweight doesn’t care about taste; if the ingredients are there for the chicken pot pie, as long as something edible is created, you have yourself a successful heavyweight. That’s what Miocic is to me; a pugilism mixture of vegetables, chicken, and Bisquick.
His NCAA Division 1 wrestling experience typically serves him well as much offensively as defensively, but not in an overt way.
Phil: In a division like lightweight or welterweight, Miocic would likely be a middle-of-the-pack fighter. At heavyweight, the combination of decent boxing, decent wrestling and decent athleticism is relatively special. His main improvements from his earlier career has been in consistency of application- in his fight with Stefan Struve he blew his gas tank early in trying to finish the Dutchman, and then got finished himself. Since then he’s shown a steely determination to not go off-road. Circling out and jabbing against Big Country or exploiting Mark Hunt’s wrestling and cardio aren’t revolutionary strategies, but it’s his ability to stick to those gameplans and never get ahead of himself which made those fights one-sided blowouts.
Insight from past fights
David: Well, definitely not the Browne vs. Arlovski fight. I realize this doesn’t reflect well on my sanity, or well being but everything about that fight is hilarious to me. There’s just no way Rogan’s brain didn’t get some neural remodeling from all the OOOOOH!(S) and BIG RIGHT HAND!(S) in that bout.
This fight will probably closer resemble the bout with the “Big Brown”. A fight that turned out to be a big dud in so many painful, excruciating ways. That’s the thing with Arlovski; because he’s so one dimensional, anybody able to fight on his terms won’t open the game for him, nor will Arlovski force the issue.
Phil: Schaub’s wrestle-boxing is the best analogue for Stipe’s, and that fight sits alongside Lawler-Hendricks 2, GSP-Hendricks, Gadelha-Jedrzejczyk and (to an extent) Silva-Hunt I as one where consensus as to who won was almost universally with one fighter… but afterwards everyone waved it away because they like the fighter who won better. “It WAS very close” etc.
It was the start of the Arlovski rebirth, and illustrates just how fragile that rebirth has been: one round demolitions or close and awful decisions, and nothing in between.
David: None that I can think beyond the usual. Miocic was stuck in a snow storm so maybe he didn’t party as hard for New Year’s as Arlovski did, who is probably still making pee-pee jokes at Tim Sylvia’s expense.
Phil: While Jackson’s ability to gameplan for specific opponents has had mixed (and completely understandable, he’s a trainer not a wizard) results at the top level recently, it’s worth noting that Arlovski is a full-time professional fighter with an elite camp behind him, and Stipe Miocic is still a part-time firefighter. Heavyweights!
David: This could get ugly, real slow, real consistently. I just don’t see Arlovski having the mind to force Miocic into mistakes, or mistaken pressure. He’ll sit back, paw with that left hand, throw an uppercut or overhand every now and then, and then rinse and repeat. This should leave Miocic free to stay active enough to avoid losing on points, which is how this one should shake down when it all comes crashing down slowly to it. Stipe Miocic by Decision.
Phil: Arlovski’s more of a finishing threat, but he does not and never has worked at a high enough pace to consistently win decisions. He’s decent at stopping takedowns, but tends to sprawl and lock-up rather than pivoting off or actively attacking them, thus getting sucked into sludge fights by fighters that he athletically outclasses. He’s still one of the most potent hitters that the sport has ever seen, and a single shot can end the night, but Miocic can afford to not take many risks simply because Arlovski’s pace is so lackluster and his avenue of attack is so monotonous. Stipe Miocic by unanimous decision.
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