A month before the Cleveland Cavaliers were heralded as conquering heroes for bringing their city an NBA championship, proud Ohio product Stipe Miocic shocked the world of MMA by claiming the UFC’s heavyweight title with a knockout victory over Fabricio Werdum that technically provided the city with the championship needed to finally reverse its so-called curse.
But barely four months later, if you were to ask casual sports fans hailing from the Land Of LeBron about the conclusion of Cleveland’s championship curse, some would still say that the Cavs were the only cause.
Fortunately, in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 203, Miocic will have a chance to change that when he attempts to defend his heavyweight title for the very first time against veteran contender Alistair Overeem in front of his hometown crowd at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. And if Miocic’s last performance was any indication of what’s to come, the heavyweight belt isn’t going anywhere.
Despite earning his first crack at MMA’s top heavyweight crown with a pair of convincing knockout victories over feared strikers Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski, Miocic entered his matchup against the hottest heavyweight in the business as a relatively unknown underdog to casual Octagon addicts, while many of the sport’s more seasoned supporters saw him as someone who had little hope of leaving Brazil with the belt.
But thanks to Werdum’s inexplicably careless approach, Miocic needed less than one full round to finish the favorite in front of his fellow countrymen at UFC 198. Although he’s denied it since, it was clear that Werdum had overlooked the heavy-handed wrestler, and ultimately, Miocic delivered the most significant knockout blow of his career while off-balance and backpedalling.
Still learning the ropes of life as a UFC champion, Miocic isn’t the type to waste time taunting an opponent. You’ll never see him preaching at a press conference. And if you’re looking for someone to re-energize the heavyweight division with Conor McGregor-like confidence and non-stop showmanship outside of the Octagon, keep looking.
Raised less than 20 miles outside of LeBron-land, Miocic first locked on to his love for combat sports in a high school wrestling room and later as a bleach blonde 230-pounder at Cleveland State University. And as you may have read in a recent ESPN article, he was also all business on the baseball diamond as a star-slugger for Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene University.
But since making his professional debut at Caged Fury 9 in Cleveland’s dingy Gray’s Armory in 2010, Miocic has dreamed of squaring off with the best heavyweights on the planet, and now that he’s doing exactly that, he’s painfully aware of how quickly some fighters go from superstars to sideshows.
”It’s the heavyweight division, there are some big boys,” Miocic told ESPN. ”We wear small gloves, and anything can happen. But I plan to hold onto this thing for a while.”
As cliche as it sounds, Miocic truly is a walking tribute to old school UFC legends like Randy Couture. And when it comes to starring in the first UFC event that his beloved city has ever seen, and attempting to defend his title against an opponent who’s worn several heavyweight crowns, Miocic prefers to keep things somewhat simple.
”It’s going to be amazing to have my fans and my family all out there to support me,” said Miocic via ESPN. ”But it’s a fight. That’s all I care about. It’s just going to be me and him.”
However, the UFC’s recent rash of conquered champions makes Miocic’s meeting with Overeem anything but simple. Since Ronda Rousey’s first career loss last November, Werdum, Jose Aldo, Chris Weidman, T.J. Dillashaw, Robbie Lawler, Holly Holm, Miesha Tate, Luke Rockhold and Rafael dos Anjos have all lost their UFC titles.
Thus far, a knockout loss to Stefan Struve in September 2012 and a unanimous decision loss to Junior dos Santos in December 2014 represent the only blemishes on Miocic’s 11-fight UFC resume. Yet, regardless of his record, there are reasons beyond the promotion’s recent wave of fallen champions to question Miocic’s future as the UFC’s heavyweight king.
For the last six years, the heavyweight division has been dominated by Dos Santos, Werdum, Overeem and Cain Velasquez. Obviously, Werdum didn’t work his way into the picture until the beginning of 2012, and Overeem has only been part of the title discussion for the past two years. But Miocic has already lost to Dos Santos, and has yet to even face either Velasquez or Overeem.
Until he’s in the trenches with seasoned warriors such as Velasquez and Overeem, a dark cloud of doubt will hang over the head of the current heavyweight king, and Saturday’s headliner offers Miocic an opportunity to erase some of that doubt.
If disaster strikes and the hometown hero can’t defend his belt on Saturday, a rare opportunity to instantly earn a place alongside Cleveland legends will be lost, and Miocic will be remembered as just another of this year’s one-hit wonders.
But if Miocic brings ”Believeland” to its feet by solidifying his status as the UFC’s reigning heavyweight champion with a victory over an unbelievably accomplished opponent, every household in Ohio will know his name before the Browns begin their season on Sunday.