Daniel Cormier returned to the site where he experienced arguably his lowest moment inside the UFC cage Saturday night hoping for a different result.
It was Honda Center in Anaheim where Cormier was bested by his lone conqueror, Jon Jones, in a 2017 rematch. He broke down and cried in an emotional interview after suffering a stoppage, his second loss to Jones. The result later was overturned to a no-contest after Jones tested positive for a banned substance, but the stain remained.
Cormier came to Southern California for UFC 241 a renewed man, on the heels of a historical run highlighted by holding two belts, at heavyweight and light-heavyweight, at the same time.
On Saturday, he met the man he masterfully knocked out last year for a rematch. Stipe Miocic promised he would win back the heavyweight belt that was taken from him.
Boy, did he ever.
Miocic (19-3) scored a stunning come-from-behind win with a technical knockout of Cormier (22-2) in the fourth round.
With the round coming to a close, Miocic’s digging left hook met the ribs of Cormier, hurting him. Miocic followed with a right to the jaw and a flurry as Cormier crumbled, and referee Herb Dean stepped in to call the fight.
Miocic rejoiced with a “Riverdance” jig and climbed the cage to celebrate in front of a sold-out crowd of 17,304.
“[Cormier] is a tough guy, I’ve got to give it to him. I saw some weakness in that third round and then in that fourth round I caught him with that right hand, thank God, because he’s tough,” said Miocic, who secured a performance-of-the-night bonus.
“It’s a fight; anything can happen. I felt like that hook to the body was hurting him, his hands were dropping, so I came over the top more. My coach told me to use that right hand. I knew I was hurting him, I just had to keep working, keep working until something opened up.”
It was a fast-moving fight, which is somewhat of an anomaly for heavyweights. For the first 19 minutes, Miocic’s chances of winning looked bleak, as Cormier was putting on a masterclass performance.
Cormier kicked off the first round by successfully working his legs for inside kicks. Lunging lefts were followed by a successful single-leg takedown that led to an exciting moment.
Cormier, a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team, then pulled a page straight out of WWE.
Cormier picked up Miocic, plopped him on his back like a bag of cement mix, stood for several seconds and looked to the heavens, then slammed Miocic on his back.
Cormier went into the mount position and peppered Miocic with punches. At the end of the round, Cormier clobbered Miocic with a series of unanswered shots, as the horn likely saved Miocic from an early shower.
Miocic had better moments in the second round, catching Cormier with straight rights and lefts. Still, a mouse developed under the marked-up Miocic’s left eye. His face reddened. His jaw dropped from fatigue.
The pace slowed in round three as the fans rallied for Cormier by chanting “DC.” Then, it picked up in a hurry.
Miocic took down Cormier twice but didn’t do much. After the second occurrence, Cormier stood and landed the hardest shot of the night to that point with a left-right combination. It drew blood from Miocic, who in short order returned the favor as Cormier walked to his corner with a crimson mask of his own.
However, by this point, Cormier had a 153-65 advantage in total strikes landed.
It didn’t matter in the end.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Cormier, 40, who has a decision to make on whether he fights again. “He’s a fantastic fighter. I have to speak to my wife to make an educated decision” about retirement.
Cormier has been teasing hanging up the gloves for most of the last year. This was his first fight in 2019 after three last year.
If he chooses to retire, it will be one of the most remarkable rides any MMA fighter has enjoyed. He just won’t be able to avenge his loss to arch-nemesis Jones.
The passing of the torch to Miocic, however, who has the most successful consecutive heavyweight title defenses in UFC history, would be a proper one.
A boisterous Nate Diaz brazenly lit a blunt as he hyped his return to the UFC this week. The notoriously crusty Diaz spent the last three years away from mixed martial arts stuck in consternation, smoking copious amounts of cannabis and constantly clashing with UFC boss Dana White.
The 34-year-old Stockton native returned to the cage Saturday for the first time since concluding a thrilling doubleheader against Conor McGregor in 2016, and promptly lit up Anthony Pettis in a crowd-pleasing co-main event. Diaz scored a unanimous decision victory, with scores of 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28 on the judges’ scorecards.
“I wasn’t sure if there would be some rust or not so I just treated it like there might be and just went, you know?” Diaz said. “I didn’t want to sit around and think about it; just ignore it and go.”
Diaz (20-11) dominated much of the fight, but Pettis (22-9) had flashes of brilliance too.
Diaz slipped past a strong choke hold midway in the first round and then mounted Pettis to pound him with clubbing fists. Diaz then took Pettis’ back and tried to pull off a pair of chokes while punching him in between. Pettis, a former UFC lightweight champion, pulled himself out of deep water to survive the round.
The two came flying at each other at the beginning of round two, but the pace simmered in the first minute as they both tried to find their ground.
During the final two minutes, however, it picked up intensely, as they threw shots at each other that landed from several angles and levels, turning it into a phone-booth fight. Diaz was cut across his right eyebrow, but got the better of the round, highlighted by a powerful knee to the face.
Diaz dominated the third round from stern to stem much to the delight of the crowd that came to witness his return. Referee Mike Beltran briefly took a close look at stopping the fight at the two-minute mark as Diaz was having his way with every hand he let go, including his trademark Stockton Slap.
Pettis survived that sequence too, and pocketed the moral victory of not being knocked out.
Diaz now officially re-enters the packed welterweight picture. After the fight, he immediately called out contender Jorge Masvidal, who was in attendance.
“I want to go home first and talk to my team and then we can figure out the Masvidal thing,” Diaz said. “My team helped me out a ton, shout out to them ... we’re the best team out there, we can take anyone.”
In a brutal, beastly battle between top two middleweights with championship aspirations, Paulo Costa catapulted himself to a favorable position for a title shot by punching past Yoel Romero in a unanimous decision victory.
Costa (13-0) was bloodied but not beaten in the back-and-forth faceoff with Romero (13-4), as all three judges scored the bout 29-28. It was an entertaining, 15-minute affair featuring flying fists from both sides, and it surely will be considered as a fight of the year candidate once the calendar year comes to a close.
“Romero is a beast, the toughest guy in the division, after me now,” Costa said. “I trained for every part of the fight: ground, cage, stand up, clinch and I showed everyone that I can beat anyone. Romero is a beast, a true martial artist, very tough. I almost knocked him out in the first round, but he’s got a very strong chin.”
Sodiq Yusuff (11-1) cut Gabriel Benitez (21-8) over the left eye and then shook him with a spectacular right hand shortly after, finishing the fight with hammer fists on the mat to score a first-round technical knockout.
Middleweight Derek Brunson (20-7) defeated Ian Heinisch (13-2) via unanimous decision.
White said UFC 241 had the highest gate for an MMA event ($3,237,032) in California history.