Stipe Miocic isn’t one to wax poetic. The UFC fighter doesn’t get nostalgic about defending his title three times in a row, the most ever by a heavyweight, or being one of three Cleveland sports entities in 2016 to bring home the first championships in 52 years. The Eastlake native’s thoughts don’t grow wistful when discussing losing his belt to Daniel Cormier in a first-round knockout last summer. Maybe it’s the Croatian or the Clevelander in him. Maybe it’s how things are done at the Valley View and Oakwood Fire Department where he works part-time as a firefighter. But Miocic focuses on the task at hand. Right now, that’s defeating Cormier, who tops two weight classes and ranks No. 1 pound-for-pound in the UFC, in an Aug. 17 rematch at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. More than regaining his title belt, winning the bout might just solidify Miocic as the greatest heavyweight in the sport’s history — and a Cleveland sports legend on the same plane as LeBron, Kosar and Thome. “When I beat him, I’ll take that throne,” says Miocic, after a training session at Independence’s Strong Style Gym in June. “[It’ll prove] I’m the baddest man on the planet.” We talked to the toughest Clevelander since Johnny Kilbane about his upcoming pay-per-view fight, when he’ll retire and his legacy.
Even before your fight with Cormier, you’ve already solidified yourself as a UFC great and CLE great. Which one is more important to you?
Oh, it’s all about being a CLE great, dude. It’s something people don’t understand until they come here or live here, and they see what it’s all about. We’re like our own nation, I swear to god. That’s what I love about Cleveland. I just want the city to be happy about something again, you know?
How does your identity as a Clevelander compare to your Croatian identity?
When I go back to Croatia to visit my dad or hang out, it’s just like being in Cleveland. It’s crazy how similar they are. [Clevelanders and Croatians] both just have this personality of loyalty between their team and their people. They mesh so well.
Speaking of Croatia, you trained with the great Croatian UFC heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop. What was that experience like?
The experience with Mirko was amazing. He’s a good guy. Some of the hardest sparring training I’ve ever had. Dude’s an animal, a legend. I learned so much from him, and definitely got my confidence up because of him.
You haven’t stepped into the octagon in a year. What have you been up to, and how have you worked to avoid ring rust?
It’s not like I haven’t been training, but it hasn’t been balls to the walls like it usually is. It’s getting kicked up now. But honestly having the whole year off to let my mind and body rest and just enjoy my daughter has been awesome. She’s a year old now, and I’ve loved every second of watching her mature and become a person and develop a personality. But now it’s time to get back to work.
Why is the fight with Cormier going to end differently this time around?
I think the break is definitely part of it. It was just what the doctor ordered. But honestly I know I can beat him. That’s why I needed my shot to get my belt back. I know I’m a better fighter than him. I felt like I was winning that fight, the grappling situations and the striking. He was running from me. But he just caught me with a shot, and he hit me harder than I thought. So kudos to him, but it ain’t gonna happen again.
You and Cormier are both great fighters because you were great wrestlers. How important was your exposure to that sport?
It’s the hardest sport. The grind, the cutting weight. If you can make it through wrestling, you can make it through anything. Some mornings I’d wake up and it was terrible, but I loved it because I felt like I was doing something every day, I was accomplishing something every day. It just teaches you responsibility. It brings the character out of you. It makes you a better person, and it’s just hard. After you go through that, everything else is not that hard.
Are you trying to double down on a certain aspect of the game in order to have a better outcome this time around?
No, I’m looking to improve in every aspect of the game. But just not being dumb. I put myself in a bad spot. I wasn’t in a bad spot before but he just caught me. It happens. That’s life.
When you win, it could solidify you as the sport’s greatest heavyweight. You turn 37 two days after the fight. With all you’ve accomplished, why keep fighting after this?
We’ll see man. I’ve still got some tread on the tire. I just don’t want to keep fighting to where I’m injured to a point where I can’t play with my daughter or I’m not functioning right. I don’t want to be, like, where I can’t physically pick her up. Otherwise, I’d fight until 90 if I could. We’re in a sport that doesn’t let you do that, which sucks, but I just want to be there for my daughter and make sure she’s good.
What do you love so much about fighting?
Fighting sucks, just to fight. But I love the competition and the team aspect. I know that make doesn’t make any sense. I know it’s an individual sport, but coming in every day to do the things we have to do, training with the guys, it’s like a family. Having a coach, having a team, it’s like wrestling or playing baseball or football. Even though it’s individual, we’re all training together, we’re all cutting together. That’s the best thing about this gym. It’s so family-oriented. We’re all there for each other.
In addition to you, fighters such as Jessica Eye are making a lot of national noise out of Cleveland. Do you feel like Strong Style has helped put Cleveland on the MMA map? Who are some of the fighters we should look out for?
Yeah, we’re just getting started. We have a lot of good fighters coming up, Ben Willeford and Chad Kuhn. Aleksa Camur, who is 4-0 in the Contender Series, is a savage. He’s a freak. Jeff Hughes is in the UFC, too. And a lot of us are home grown. Like we started off here when we were young. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for those guys, and they wouldn’t be where they’re at. We work so well together. We don’t try to kill each other — well we do in a good way.
Will you stick around Strong Style when you stop fighting?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. When I retire I’ll obviously still come here and train and help out. That’s the least I could do, coaching the guys. I don’t know about training them for a fight, but helping out. I’m here to help.
The disagreements between you and UFC President Dana White have been well-documented. (Editor’s Note: After beating Francis Ngannou, Miocic took the championship belt out of White’s hands so his coach, Marcus Marinelli, could wrap it around him, a UFC tradition.) How do you how do you feel about the UFC as an organization?
Well [the positives are] definitely having a nice house, taking care of my family, my daughter my wife, but I mean that’s business. There’s good and there’s bad. That’s as far as I’ll go. I’m happy. I get a good paycheck. I have money invested away, and I make sure I’ll have money when I retire. That’s all I’ll say.
You’ve been accused of not having a brand, but as a firefighter and a nice guy from the Midwest, you do have a brand. It’s just not as a Conor McGregor-style villain. Do you think it’s a shame that that’s not enough?
I’m making my own brand. I’m doing a lot of things outside the UFC to make my brand bigger. So listen, I’ll figure it out. I’m a likable guy. I’m funny. That’s how I got my wife, my sense of humor, so all I care about at the end of the day is that I’m happy and my daughter is taken care of.
Could you ever imagine 15 years ago you’d be in the situations that you’re in?
Hell no, I hate fighting. In fact, my mom has never watched a fight. She’s a big supporter, but she’s never watched a fight. I remember when UFC 2 came out my cousin came over and we watched it on VHS. My mom saw, and I don’t mean to swear, but she was like, “Take that s*** back to the f****** store right now.” Now look at what I do for a living.
What is the best opportunity that fighting in the UFC has brought you?
Just meeting people and getting to travel. Me and my wife got to travel the world. We got it out of our system before we had a baby. I got to hit batting practice after I won the title, and hit a home run out of Progressive Field, which was cool. I meet a lot of cool people. But the main thing is bringing something to the city that people can be proud of, that’s all I really care about because I love this city.
Read our 2016 longform profile of Stipe Moicic, "King of the Cage."