Pre-Fight Thoughts: Daniel Cormier -vs- Volkan Oezdemir
The co-main event of UFC 220 is a very interesting fight in a much less interesting division. The light heavyweight roster has taken some hits, with the UFC opting to allow talents like Phil Davis and Ryan Bader to seek opportunities in Bellator MMA, and an overall dearth of new prospects. Champion Daniel Cormier holds his title under lamentable circumstances — because Jon Jones, who defeated him via brutal KO at UFC 214, failed an anti-doping test — being awarded the belt by default. All of these issues created a perfect set of conditions for a newcomer like Volkan Oezdemir to quickly advance through the rankings and challenge for the 205-pound title.
Just shy of 1 year ago, the ink was still drying on Volkan Oezdemir's UFC contract. After winning a split decision over Ovince St-Preux in his UFC debut, Oezdemir quickly rattled off 2 violent KO victories in a row — both of which took a combined total of 1 minute and 10 seconds. As much as I would like to critique the wins on Oezdemir's resumé, but the reality is that the division is incredibly thin and the impressive nature of his last 2 wins, given the current landscape of 205, does make him a legitimate title contender. This may actually work to Volkan's detriment, as his total cage time in the UFC is minimal considering he is challenging arguably the best light heavyweight champion in UFC history. (Depending on how Jon Jones failing two PED tests colours your perception of his achievements, that is.)
What Oezdemir lacks in UFC experience, he makes up in confidence, punching power and career momentum. Daniel Cormier is a very skilled MMA fighter, but — despite currently holding the light heavyweight championship — is coming into this fight off of a loss. Now, Cormier's fight with Jones wasn't a complete steam-rolling, but it's still a difficult situation to be in; Cormier has to rally back from a hard loss and deal with the pressure of defending a title he technically should not have right now. The pressure is squarely on Cormier's shoulders, whereas Volkan Oezdemir, while not exactly stress-free, has already exceeded expectations just by getting to the fight; winning would be ideal, obviously, but unless Oezdemir is completely embarrassed and outclassed, he doesn't lose much in defeat.
The fight itself looks very much like a throwback to the old days: a striker versus grappler match-up. That being said, in 2018 those types of rock-paper-scissors fights don't really happen anymore, and especially not in the UFC. The reality is, even fighters billed just as "strikers" have basic grappling and wrestling skills that are well beyond the one-note warriors of yesteryear. While specialisation is very much a thing, everyone is well-rounded and just happens to have personal preferences when it comes to techniques and strategies. Daniel Cormier has very good boxing, even though his primary weapon is his Olympic-calibre wrestling. Oezdemir is going to be looking for a knockout punch almost exclusively — with 1 submission, 3 decisions and 11 T/KOs on his record — but isn't a complete novice on the ground.
As much as I have enjoyed seeing Oezdemir quickly work his way up the ranks, Daniel Cormier is such a skilled fighter that I need more than just "he hits really hard" to justify picking against him. Thus far, Jon Jones is the only fighter I've considered capable of beating Cormier, and that has been a winning formula without fail. If Jon Jones did not exist, there would be zero argument that Daniel Cormier is the best light heavyweight fighter in MMA history. Oezdemir seems like he is similar to Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, a big, devastating striker, only he has not exhibited any of the mental fragility in his fights. I give Oezdemir a little bit more than just "a puncher's chance," but it's still not much; Daniel Cormier has all the skills to protect himself when the fight is on the feet, and take the challenger down and submit him.
I can't write Oezdemir off entirely, I just haven't seen enough from him to be sure the hype has some basis in reality. Win or lose, I expect to see Volkan Oezdemir remain near the top of the light heavyweight division. Then again, I guess that's a given as long as he remains under contract — the UFC barely has more than 10 light heavyweights these days. I have to go with my gut here, and pick Daniel Cormier to retain his title by either decision or submission — unless a really choice opportunity presents itself, I don't see Cormier wanting to play with fire on the feet. I won't be entirely shocked if Oezdemir wins, but I absolutely do not expect it.
Published: January 20th, 2018.