Stipe Miocic avenged his 2018 loss to Daniel Cormier and regained the UFC heavyweight championship. Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero had a middleweight exchange on the feet for the ages. Three years removed from his last fight, against Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz made an instant splash.
Our panel is here to break down the biggest moments of UFC 241.
Is Stipe Miocic the greatest heavyweight in the history of the UFC?
Ariel Helwani: These questions are always hard to answer on fight night. However, I lean toward yes for two reasons: He has the most title defenses in UFC history, and he just beat who I considered to be the best heavyweight ever. Also, in case you didn't know, Cormier was a perfect 15-0 as a heavyweight going into Saturday. In other words, that win was really big for Miocic. It was, in my opinion, his biggest to date.
Brett Okamoto: Yes, Stipe is the greatest heavyweight of all time, as of Saturday night. His goal was always to be the greatest of his era, and there would have been no coming back had he lost to Daniel Cormier. That goal would have been dead. But he delivered a performance for the ages against one of the greatest fighters of all time. Unless there is a trilogy -- a scenario that seems very unclear to me right now -- I would say Stipe is the greatest heavyweight.
Jeff Wagenheim: If you had asked me this question early in the evening of July 7, 2018, I would have said yes. Miocic had defended the belt more times than anyone else, most recently dominating Francis Ngannou, the scariest KO artist this side of prime Mike Tyson. Prior to that, he had KO'd a former champion (Andrei Arlovski), the reigning champ (Fabricio Werdum) and his first two challengers (ex-belt holders Alistair Overeem and Junior Dos Santos) -- all in the first round. But then, on that ill-fated night last summer, Miocic went out and got KO'd in the first round, and we had to slow our roll on GOAT talk.
On Saturday, though, he righted that wrong, and he did it in a way seldom seen from heavyweights. When the big guys are being beaten to the punch in the early going, it usually turns into an early night. But Stipe persevered through the best that Daniel Cormier could dish out, turned the tide in Round 3 and came out for the fourth with a whole new plan of attack, which he implemented with poise and precision. That's high-level stuff, the kind of fighting you see from only the greats.
Or, in this case, the greatest.
Marc Raimondi: I don't think there's any way around that now. Miocic came in already holding the UFC record for consecutive heavyweight title defenses at three. Now, he's a two-time champion with a TKO win over Daniel Cormier, one of the best fighters ever, on his résumé. If Miocic isn't the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, then who is? Cormier? Cain Velasquez? Miocic has the edge over both, especially now. At 36 years old, Miocic is still going strong too.
If this was it for Daniel Cormier, what is his legacy in the UFC?
Helwani: One of the greatest ever. Top five. A living legend. A fighting champion. A man who got knocked down repeatedly and found a way to overcome it all toward the end of his career. I have the utmost respect for Cormier. He never took a shortcut and represented the sport with dignity and class. He has nothing left to prove to anyone. The Hall of Fame awaits.
Okamoto: Cormier's legacy is as one of the greatest fighters of all time. There should always be a footnote attached to his career that he got in late. Had Cormier started training in MMA and transitioned into MMA earlier than he did, I think there is a very strong chance that we would call him the best of all time. And he still had a tremendous career. Fifty years from now, we'll still be talking about the greatness of Daniel Cormier. This loss has no effect on that.
Wagenheim: Cormier is one of the greatest figures in the sport. As a fighter, he has beaten everyone he has faced other than Jon Jones, and there's shame in that only if you can find shame in beating everyone in one-on-one hoops except Michael Jordan. Speaking of greats, among Cormier's conquests is the finest heavyweight ever to walk the earth (even though Miocic evened the score on Saturday).
Beyond fighting, DC's legacy is still building. He's the most fun among the cageside analysts ("Thug Rose! Thug Rose!"), and consider this: The three figures who break down athletes on the Detail show are Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning and Cormier. DC is no interloper in that elite company.
Raimondi: He's one of the top three MMA fighters who has ever lived. As it stands now, I put Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre above him, but that's all. Cormier is a former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion. He has lost to only two men, Jones and Miocic. There is no doubting his résumé. Just as important is how great of an ambassador he is for the sport. Cormier is an exceptional analyst on ESPN and is a credit to MMA in every position the UFC puts him in outside the cage. The best part is the latter doesn't have to end even if he does hang up the gloves.
Diaz beats Pettis in UFC return
Nate Diaz makes a victorious return to the UFC by defeating Anthony Pettis by decision.
After three years away, was that the Nate Diaz you expected to see?
Raimondi: Honestly? Absolutely not. In my mind, Diaz was a huge question after three years away. The last time he had fought was 2016. Ronda Rousey had fought more recently than Diaz. Of course, we know what Diaz has always brought to the table, but it was impossible to see a dominating win over Pettis in the cards. Pettis is such a talented striker and did have success at distance, to be fair. Diaz was able to grind him out against the cage, though, and showed off some diversified techniques in that position. If you told me we would see one of Diaz's best career performances here, I probably would not have believed it.
Okamoto: I think Nate's proper weight is welterweight. I thought it was always going to be very, very difficult for him to return to lightweight. I think in this fight you saw Nate as a real comfortable welterweight. He added strength, but it looked like he was still lean. I thought he fought smart. He neutralized a very dangerous fighter in Anthony Pettis.
Nate's offense is always the first thing to come to mind because that's what steals the show -- the "Stockton Slaps," the strikes and all of that. But he forced the type of fight that just smothered a guy such as Pettis, who has about a billion ways to knock you out. He just smothered him. It was extremely impressive. I don't know where Nate will go. I don't know how high his ceiling is at welterweight, but he legitimized himself as at least a threat in that division right now.
Helwani: For the most part, yes. I thought Pettis was a good matchup for Diaz, and I expected him to be in shape and motivated for this fight. I was a tad surprised he got tired toward the end of the fight, but that fight was fought at an incredible pace, and both guys got tired. I thought, overall, he fought an amazing fight and looked really good. The fight game is always more exciting and interesting when the Diaz brothers are thriving in it, so on behalf of pretty much everyone: Welcome back, Nathan Diaz.
Wagenheim: To (partially) quote a famous orator, I'm not surprised. The Diaz game is not a slave to timing as much as it is to toughness and cardio and smarts -- and he didn't lose any of those things during his layoff. Early on, Nate was getting clipped repeatedly by Anthony Pettis as the fight was contested at distance, so he showed his fight IQ by closing the distance and making it his kind of fight. That sounds simple, but it takes toughness. You're going to be hit coming in, and it takes energy to keep up the relentlessness necessary to drain your opponent of a fighting chance.
The best move of the night came after the fight, when Diaz called out Jorge Masvidal. What better way to prevent another three-year absence than to book Nate in a fight that interests him (and interests Masvidal, the fans and the UFC bean-counters)?
Costa vs. Romero: Discuss.
Okamoto: It was a great fight, of course, and I scored it 29-28 for Paulo Costa. It was one of those fights that could have gone either way. I've always wondered what would happen if Costa were unable to just march forward, taking shots while delivering bigger ones. I wondered what would happen when somebody ruined that game plan for him.
Even a fighter as tremendous as Yoel Romero couldn't do it. Costa put him up against the fence and hurt him with shots, and while Romero was successfully able to throw back and back Costa off occasionally, this was still Costa 101. This was his game plan that he succeeded with against inferior fighters. This time he did it against one of the best middleweights we've seen in years, and it still worked. Costa is a legitimate No. 1 title contender.
Wagenheim: Suddenly, I'm a huge fan of fouls. Who would have guessed? Costa's groin shot on Romero necessitated a pause in the first round, giving each man a short break right in the middle of a high-energy five minutes. Romero's eye poke on Costa in the third gave the sagging fighters another breather. It was good for the athletes and especially good for us, the fans. When the action resumed, the two middleweights sculpted out of granite went at it like the masterpieces they are.
Costa needed a test like this. Sure, he came in at 12-0 with the scary distinction of having scored stoppages in every one of his fights. But a hard-fought decision victory over Romero, No. 2 in ESPN's 185-pound rankings, is way more impressive than putting out the lights on Uriah Hall or a faded Johny Hendricks. This win vaults the 28-year-old Brazilian toward the top of the mountain.
Helwani: Great fight. The wait was worth it. It was a hard fight to score. I thought Romero won 29-28, but it was darn close. Both guys took some really hard shots and kept on coming. That was probably the result the UFC brass wanted deep down because now it sets up Costa versus the winner of Whittaker vs. Adesanya. A fresh contender is waiting in the wings.
Raimondi: Wow. I mean, what can you say about this fight? If Jim Ross had been calling it, he would have described it as a slobberknocker. What's crazy about it is that we've seen Costa and Romero fight others and put them to sleep with some of the shots they were landing Saturday. Costa had never been to a decision before in his career. He had finished everyone, but he couldn't finish Romero. I actually had Romero winning 29-28, but I can't be too torn up over a close fight that was incredibly memorable. What a show these men put on, trading shots, trading taunts. It was everything you want to see in an MMA scrap.
Besides the top three fights, who do you think took the biggest step forward at UFC 241?
Wagenheim: Cory Sandhagen might have generated more buzz if he had scored a spectacular finish. But what he did was even better than buzz: He showed that he belongs among the bantamweight contenders. For 15 minutes, he calmly picked apart Raphael Assuncao, who is No. 5 in ESPN's bantamweight rankings. Sandhagen looked like he was the veteran in the Octagon when, in fact, he has been in the UFC only since last year. It was telling when, in the middle of a fight he was controlling, his coach was asked on the broadcast whether Cory was looking for the finish. The answer? "He's never looking for the finish. He's looking for what the fight brings."
That is the type of coaching, and fighting, that will make Sandhangen's run sustainable. He's 12-1 and a winner of seven straight, but his biggest moments are still ahead.
Honorable mention for big splash of the night has to go to the winner of the fight right after Sandhagen-Assuncao. Lightweight Khama Worthy made his UFC debut on four days' notice, as a +650 underdog, and TKO'd former training partner Devonte Smith for the biggest UFC upset this year. Love those kind of moments.
Helwani: Sodiq Yusuff. He was put in a big spot on the main card for a reason. He has won five fights in a row, including three in a row in the UFC. He's a rising star and another fighter from Nigeria doing well these days. I continue to be impressed by "Super" Sodiq.
Raimondi: Cory Sandhagen is a real problem at bantamweight. Raphael Assuncao is rarely dominated the way he was Saturday. Sandhagen is a supremely talented striker with the innate ability to switch stances, move in and out and land precisely. He's almost an updated version of Dominick Cruz. The Colorado native doesn't have a ton of power, but Sandhagen is difficult to hit and is solid in every other area, including wrestling and grappling.
There are big fights ahead for him at 135 pounds. And if you don't believe my assessment, go look at what his UFC peers were saying about him on Twitter during the Assuncao. He was extremely impressive at UFC 241.
Okamoto: The two options come down to Sandhagen and Yusuff. I thought both were outstanding. I'm going with Sandhagen as well because of whom he fought. Raphael Assuncao is always criminally underrated. He never gets the credit he deserves. It's extremely difficult to look good against him, which Sandhagen said before the fight.
It was a concern of his that Assuncao is damn near impossible to look good against. And especially in that first round, he looked good. He's a fun fighter to watch, but more importantly, his approach and style are so different that he's going to be a hard matchup for anyone in that division. I think he should be facing someone who is highly ranked after this fight. I believe we will see Cory Sandhagen fight for a UFC championship in 2020.