CLEVELAND, Ohio – Stipe Miocic knows he’s made it as a mixed-martial arts fighter, and it has nothing to do with his rapid rise to No. 9 in the UFC heavyweight contender rankings.
He knows it when he walks into the lounge at the Oakwood Village or Valley View fire stations where he is a part-time firefighter-paramedic.
“They’ll be watching TV and one of them will say, ‘Hey, Stipe, check this out,’” Miocic said.
A firefighter will hit play on the DVR and up pops a replay of Miocic getting clobbered in a fight. Miocic knows the good-natured ribbing is a symbol of their support.
It’s also instructive to know there aren’t many clips of Miocic getting clobbered. He’s considered among the promising fighters in the heavyweight division, and it will be interesting to watch how UFC handles him in the coming months and next year.
Miocic has not fought since his June upset of Roy “Big Country” Nelson at UFC 166. That win re-established Miocic after he suffered his first loss in his previous fight, by technical knockout to Stefan Struve in September 2012.
Miocic eagerly awaits word of his next opponent from UFC matchmakers, and he does not argue with recent reports that it most likely will be former No. 1 contender Gabriel Gonzaga, who has two first-round knockouts in the last two months. The Brazilian had been briefly retired before making a comeback.
“I’m in the right direction, on the right path,” Miocic said.
While Miocic, 30, has risen quickly since being signed by UFC in June 2011, his path to this point was not a straight shot.
Growing up in Willowick and attending Eastlake North, he was among the most under-rated high school athletes the area has produced in the last 20 years, excelling in football, wrestling and baseball. He led Lake County in hitting as a junior third baseman (.512). As a senior, he rushed for 1,057 yards in football, and was named Lake County’s Defensive Player of the Year as a linebacker.
Wrestling – the sport that would figure most in his future – was the sport he appeared least-developed in high school. His inexperience sometimes showed against wrestlers who practiced year-round, and yet he was a Division I state runner-up at 215 pounds with a 39-3 record in 2000.
In each sport, he was at times so dominant his combination of talent, size and power were enough to forecast potential pro or Olympic careers. But before he had time to truly realize that potential, he was on to the next sport, which is both the blessing and the curse of a three-sport athlete.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world. I had fun doing it. I loved wrestling, baseball and football, too,” he said.
Miocic wrestled three years at Cleveland State and played baseball one year there and two years at two other schools. He eventually received a degree in marketing from CSU, and later trained to be a firefighter-paramedic.
Miocic credited his parents, Kathy and Bojan, for a relentless work ethic. He watched them work hard to support the family after emigrating from Croatia. Stipe, who was known as Steve in high school, was born in Cleveland.
“My parents were big influences,” he said. “My mother worked night shifts. She would stand in front of a hockey goal and I’d fire soccer balls at her all day. She was a pretty good goalie. Luckily, none of them got away and hit her in the head. Then she’d stand with me for hours outside and watch me throw baseballs into a box.”
Miocic is 10-1 in his mixed martial arts career, and 4-1 since making his UFC debut two years ago.
UFC fighter Jessica Eye of Parma, who trains with Miocic in Independence, called Miocic (6-4, 240) a new breed of athletic heavyweight.
“He’s not a brawler. He’s an actual fighter. The only person that will stop him from being a world champion is himself,” she said.
Eye (11-0) recently won her UFC debut, a split decision against former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman. She and Miocic have been making the rounds with local media and had appearances with the Browns and Cleveland Clinic last week.
“Winning a world championship means everything to me. I want to bring Cleveland a world championship. The city needs it. Heck, let’s get two,” Miocic said, nodding toward Eye during lunch at a Berea pub.
The spotlight comes natural to Eye, who goes by the nickname “Evil,” and Miocic said he’s working on his public persona. In private, he’s somewhat shy and modest. During lunch, he could not thank a waitress enough for her every trip to the table.
Eye said she is working hard to promote her sport locally, and wants to bring not just individual titles to Cleveland. She is urging UFC to hold a card here, especially a championship card.
“In Cleveland and all of Ohio, UFC is large,” Eye said. “It’s very important to bring a UFC here. I want Midwest fans to feel how they are impacting our sport.”