Stipe Miocic Stipe Miocic
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Stipe Miocic moves fast — way faster than someone his size should. 

The UFC fighter glides more than he sidesteps as one of his coaches, Arman Loktev, holds up two black punching bags that look like curved stereo speakers strapped to his forearms.

Miocic lets a three-punch combo fly that’s so quick, you never see the wind up. But the kick. Miocic’s right foot leaves the wrestling mat, his knee bends slightly, bunching up with power, and then explodes upward into the bags, which Loktev is now holding together to brace for impact.

Thwack! The vibration shakes the exposed rafters at Strong Style Mixed Martial Arts and Training Center in Independence where Miocic trains. It echoes like thunder in the no-frills business park gym.

About 20 feet away, a kid taking a karate class looks over.

“Again,” barks Loktev, a former MMA fighter who appears diminutive next to the 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound Miocic.

He responds by flashing a left-right-left combo and another kick that lands like a steel beam. 

Miocic, wearing fingerless MMA gloves, athletic shorts and a gray shirt that soaks with more sweat after each combination, is midway through the first of five five-minute rounds designed to simulate a full-length UFC bout. The combat sport mashes kickboxing, wrestling, jujutsu, karate, judo and more into a full-contact mixture of striking and grappling.

“Control my head,” Loktev barks again. 

Miocic grabs him with two hands behind the neck and drives one knee after the other up into the punching bags.

A buzzer rings to stop the first round. 

“It took me about two minutes to loosen up,” Miocic says to Loktev.

As Miocic stalks, head down, around the wrestling mat that stretches throughout the gym, Loktev drops the bags to give his arms a rest. 

“I feel like I’m jelly,” Loktev says. “He’s very powerful, but he moves like he’s 155 pounds. It’s crazy.”

Forged of the same steely disposition as the suburbs where he grew up, Miocic is aw-shucks nice in a sport splattered in blood. He’s the opposite of movie-star handsome: good-looking with a squared Croatian jaw, fighter’s nose and short, mussed hair. A former college baseball player and wrestler, Miocic turned to MMA 10 years ago as a way to feed his competitiveness. 

He became the UFC’s heavyweight champ May 14 after knocking out Fabricio Werdum. His next fight and first title defense happens Sept. 10 at Quicken Loans Arena against No. 1 contender Alistair Overeem, a powerful kickboxer who’s 28-11 in UFC matches. 

Miocic may be a badass cage fighter with an affinity for F-bombs, but his wide smile and goofy nature make him easy-going and approachable. He’s the champion the city needs, the unlikely favorite who doesn’t boast or gloat and worked his way up UFC’s ranks while still working two part-time fire fighter jobs. When LeBron James says, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned,” he’s talking about people like Miocic. 

But as Cleveland knows all too well, winning is as fragile as Lake Erie ice in April.

Defending UFC champs have taken a beating in the last year. Since January, seven UFC champions have lost their titles. 

Some of that’s due to the emerging sport’s volatility — one of its major selling points — where the slightest misstep can turn into a quick knockout or submission. As MMA grows, staying on top gets more difficult as more quality fighters join the ranks. And those paltry title defense figures can also be attributed to the increased demands on champions who are pushed to sell the sport and its pay-per-view model.

As UFC tries to climb the ranks of popular sports, the Land’s champ is a potential liability. Five years ago, MMA was niche. But as fighters such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor appear on TV, in movies and on the covers of ESPN the Magazine and Self, the sport’s mass-market appeal grows.

In addition to being winners, Rousey and McGregor, one of the biggest trash talkers in a combat sport since Muhammad Ali, are well-known characters the UFC can sell. The result is a hybrid between the entertaining storylines of big-time WWE wrestling and the real results of boxing.

“How good someone is isn’t good enough,” says ESPN sports business analyst Darren Rovell. “A guy like Stipe is less marketable than a guy who has been a champion before and is currently not a champion.”

None of that matters to Miocic. Fame doesn’t drive him.

“I don’t give a f--- about the camera,” he says, sitting on the edge of a boxing ring at Strong Style. “I like having something I can share with my family and friends.”

While life has moved at the pace of his lightning-strike punches — batting practice with the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Cavaliers playoff games, championship parades and a wedding to his girlfriend of four years, Ryan — he won’t let the whirlwind knock him out. Miocic started a two-session-a-day training camp for this title defense in late July. 

“I feel f--king awesome,” Miocic says. “I feel ahead of the game.”


A 6-foot-high metal UFC fence separates Miocic from his coach, friend and Strong Style owner, Marcus Marinelli. With every light in the house focused on Miocic’s opponent, Fabricio Werdum, both men are cloaked in darkness.

“Hey man,” Miocic says to Marinelli through the cage. “This is pretty f---ing awesome, huh?”

Around them, more than 45,000 Brazilian MMA fans scream for their countryman Werdum — the current UFC heavyweight champ — and wear cutout masks of the fighter’s face. 

All night, fans have been chanting, “Uh vai morrer” or “you will die,” to non-Brazilian fighters. It’s like a scene out of Gladiator — and Werdum is the tiger.

Marinelli looks at Miocic through the darkness and responds with a wry chuckle: “Yeah.”

Marinelli knows his fighter is ready.


Miocic’s parents, Kathy and Bojan Miocic, both Croatian immigrants, separated when he was less than a year old. Although the family stayed close, he lived with his mom in a Euclid duplex above his grandparents.

During summers, he’d spend all day outside with other kids in the neighborhood, playing baseball, football and basketball. 

“I swam. I bowled,” he says. “I was a jock.”

His grandmother would give him $5 as he left the house each morning. After meeting at a friend’s, they’d head to Bronko’s Drive-In Beverage on East 200th Street where he spent the money on jugs of Dairymens iced tea to sustain himself through a day of sports.

“That’s all we’d do,” Miocic says. “I’d come home at 10 at night. Mom would never get scared cause she knew where I was.”

Even after moving into a single-family home in Willowick with his mom, her partner Steve Bancsi and a new little brother Jonathan, a 12-year-old Miocic still spent summer days with his grandparents in Euclid. 

“It’s that old-school sense of respect and the way you treat your elders,” says Miocic’s wife, Ryan, about the impression those days had on him. “It’s a different upbringing.”

Those early single-parent-only-child years also created a strong bond between Miocic and his mom. She encouraged his love of sports by signing him up for little league teams and fostered a hard-working attitude by setting an example, working for more than 20 years at Penske Logistics. When she was laid off as the result of outsourcing in 2003, she trained to be a paralegal and got a job at Elk & Elk Co. law firm.

The familiar Cleveland firm now sponsors Miocic’s fighting career. An Elk & Elk banner even hangs on a wall at Strong Style.

“My mom says, ‘You work hard, you get your opportunity,’ ” Miocic recalls. “She ingrained it in my head.”

At North High School, Miocic was a three-sport letter winner. His wrestling coach Pat Kwiatkowski — who was also one of Miocic’s football coaches — fondly remembers his dedication. Kwiatkowski picked the youngster up from home at 6 a.m. during wrestling season so he could get in extra workout time.

“He was always there ready to go,” Kwiatkowski says. “He knew what he needed to do to be successful. That drives him.”

Miocic’s half brother, who is 11 years younger, grew up admiring Miocic’s athletic abilities. Then again, he didn’t have much of a choice since he got dragged along to every baseball game or wrestling match. 

When Miocic watched his little brother, it’d often lead to roughhousing.

“He’d show me a new wrestling move that he learned,” says Jonathan. “And then we’d keep fighting.”

At first, Miocic thought he might want to be a kindergarten teacher. Taking care of Jonathan led him to really enjoy kids.

But instead he majored in marketing and communications at Cleveland State University, where he played third base on the baseball team and wrestled.

As much as he loved the individual competition and strategy of wrestling, Miocic struggled to make weight and decided to focus on baseball.

He loved the sport’s minutiae — how a half-inch difference on the swing of bat can turn a pop-up into a 450-foot home run. 

“The great, artistic way a pitcher just gets into the groove,” Miocic says, mimicking with his hands a baseball meeting a catcher’s mitt, “the feeling when the bat hits the ball, it’s just so fun.” 

In fall 2004, he transferred to Trevecca Nazarene University, a Division II liberal arts school in Nashville, Tennessee, to play his senior season for a program with a history of winning. “I wanted to be part of their amazing baseball program,” Miocic says.

The following spring, he batted .344 and swatted 7 home runs, helping the team win the TranSouth Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles.

Scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres watched him play that year, but no offers came in. 

“I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” he says. “A bunch of my buddies are firemen and I like to help people, so I did that.”

He worked at Elite Fitness in Bainbridge for extra money while taking paramedic classes at Cuyahoga Community College. 

One of the gym’s owners recruited Miocic to train with former UFC fighter Dan Bobish. “He knew I wrestled and asked for my help,” Miocic says. “I thought, Oh, why not?”

He trained with Bobish as a part of the Strong Style fighting team. It’s where former martial artist Marinelli first saw Miocic’s raw athleticism, speed and strength and thought he had the potential to be an MMA fighter.

“I was like, holy shit,” Marinelli says. “I was with Dan a long time, so I knew.”

To improve his striking — punching and kicking — Marinelli suggested Miocic take up amateur boxing for a year.

Miocic made it all the way to a national Golden Gloves tournament in 2009.

“Stipe had been boxing for six or seven months and he was beating guys with like 150 or 200 amateur fights,” Marinelli recalls. 

In his first professional MMA fight for Ohio-based promoter North American Allied Fight Series — sort of like the minor leagues of MMA — Miocic knocked his opponent out with a punch in 17 seconds. 

He won his next five lower-level matches, and in the summer of 2011, Miocic signed a multi-fight deal with the UFC. 

Since then, Miocic has notched six knockouts, four of them in the first round, on his way to a 9-2 UFC record. Loyal to his city, friends and the people who’ve helped along the way, Miocic has never considered training anywhere other than Strong Style as he gains notoriety.

“To be honest, man, I never thought I’d be able to do any of this,” Miocic says letting out a laugh. “Who wants to get punched in the f--king face for a living?”


The first minute-and-a-half of Miocic’s fight with Werdum looks and sounds like a soccer match. The fighters dance around the octagon, measuring each other with kicks and feints — mock punches to try and force an opponent to flinch.

The crowd grows restless and starts their chant. 

“Uh vai morrer.” 

“Uh vai morrer.”

A stone-faced Miocic shimmies his shoulders like he’s brushing off the taunt.

“He’s so relaxed in there,” says fight commentator Brian Stann.

Two minutes and 38 seconds into the fight, as if he too was bored with simply trading blocked punches and kicks, Werdum runs at Miocic. 

In the weeks leading up to the bout, Miocic prepared for most tactics. He and his coaches planned for single-leg takedowns Werdum would use to get Miocic onto the mat and push kicks, a move that looks like a plucky cartoon kangaroo. 

But the champ coming at him like a big cat out of the jungle was not expected.

Miocic avoids the first left jab, but a second right fist connects.

On his heels now, Miocic bobs away from another right fist and in the same motion counters with a right of his own. When Miocic’s padded knuckles land on Werdum’s left cheekbone, the blow actually changes his trajectory. 

But while he’s retreating, Miocic’s left foot lands right where the cage’s wall meets the mat, and he loses his footing. 

Werdum runs at him again — this time more erratic and desperate, like someone trying to reach for something that’s just not there.

He leans in with a left, right, left, left, but a backpedaling Miocic swats them away as Werdum winds up for a right-handed haymaker.

The punch grazes Miocic’s nose, but at the same time, the Clevelander’s own right fist squares with Werdum’s jaw. His entire face jerks right, and the Brazilian collapses head first to the mat. Miocic wins in a knockout.

Miocic started his championship tour of good cheer three days after the May fight. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers invited the champ to appear on the court and hype the crowd during its Eastern Conference Finals game against the Toronto Raptors.

But first, he swung by Progressive Field to take batting practice with his friend Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes.

After putting a couple balls onto the warning track, the former third baseman deposited the last pitch he saw into the left field bleachers to the cheers of Gomes and former Tribe pitcher Joba Chamberlain. 

But even then, the Clevelander in him wouldn’t let him take credit. 

“I got lucky,” Miocic says of the home run. “It’s amazing I get to do stuff like that.”

But not every stop on his tour was so high profile. The humble fighter followed his roots back to his first tastes of athletic success when Miocic’s high school coaches invited him back to North High School to say hello. 

“The reason I’m here is those guys too,” Miocic says. “They were part of my life.”

He met with Kwiatkowski and other coaches in the school’s wrestling room, showing off the black leather and gold plated UFC championship belt and talking about old times. Miocic wanted to hit the hallways, but Kwiatkowski knew better. 

“We gotta be careful because we have 1,500 kids here and things spread around real fast,” says Kwiatkowski.

And news did spread. By the end of the day, hundreds of kids showed up in the school’s main office to get autographs and talk to the champ. 

“He was patient and just was wonderful with the kids here,” Kwiatkowski says. “He didn’t have to do that.”

But after the initial wave of appearances, life went back to seminormal: 12-hour part-time shifts at the Oakwood Village and Valley View fire departments while Ryan was working full time as a hospice case manager and putting the finishing touches on the couple’s June 18 wedding.

“It was a crazy chaotic month,” she says.

A mutual friend tried for years to set Miocic and Ryan up, but the two finally met after spotting each other at an Easter pancake breakfast at the Oakwood Village fire department in 2012. 

After getting Ryan’s phone number, Miocic texted her: “What’s up? This is your stalker.”

“I’m like, Oh, you’re a creep,” Ryan laughs. “But he was funny right off the bat. He asked me out and I said, ‘Yes.’ ”

The two were married at the Divine Word Catholic Church in Kirtland in front of more than 400 people.

“I got lucky with her,” he says. “She works hard. She’s beautiful. I went above my pay grade.”

The couple’s busy life didn’t stop after the wedding — not even long enough for a honeymoon. With friends and family still in town the next day, the newlyweds took a group of about 20 to FWD Day & Nightclub, one of Miocic’s favorite spots, to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals. 

Three days later, Miocic sat in the back of a gray Porsche, his UFC belt over his shoulder, during the Cavs victory parade. The Lake Erie Monsters, champions of the American Hockey League, rode on a flatbed. Shirtless J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving, the glimmering Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy and LeBron James each had a place of honor. Around them — from every street corner, rooftop and signpost — was the city, his city.

“Damn right we broke the curse,” Miocic says. “We all did — me, the Monsters and the Cavs. It was badass, and the city needed it.”


Miocic sprints across the octagon in three seconds. His feet barely touch the mat. And then they leave the mat as he scales the 6-foot cage wall, swinging his body over with all the enthusiasm of a little kid who just climbed to the top of a jungle gym. 

“I’m the world champ!” he screams surrounded by his coaches. “I’m the world champ!”

A deflated crowd is stunned into silence. They can only watch as ringside announcer Bruce Buffer makes it official.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Buffer says while Miocic grins wide and pumps his fist. “Referee Dan Miragliotta’s called a stop to this contest at 2 minutes, 47 seconds of the very first round, declaring the winner by knockout and new undisputed UFC heavyweight champion of the world: Stipe Miocic.”

Before Buffer finishes, Miocic looks down in disbelief at the shiny, golden belt around his waist, puts both hands on it and turns to Marinelli and hugs him.

“All I care about is these guys who put so much time and effort into me,” Miocic says two months later sitting at Strong Style. “We are a family here. That’s why I jumped on that cage — because we did it. We worked our way up. We didn’t run our mouth. We beat everybody that was good in this division. We got it.”


Ryan Miocic is searching all over Strong Style for her husband. 

She saw him five minutes ago and told him there was a Subway sandwich with his name on it.

He shouldn’t be this hard to find since he towers over most of the 200 or more fans gathered to watch the hometown-kid-done-good do some light training and get his

But he never sits still.

She finds him on the side of a boxing ring in the back with his coaches and gym pals. Before long, he’s got his gloves and a rubber sparring helmet on. 

He’s ready to throw down. 

His opponents today are elementary school kids taking MMA classes offered at the facility. He roughhouses with them like he used to do with his younger brother and the kids are giving the champ their best shot. One climbs on his back and pummels his head while Miocic pretends to grunt in pain. 

In a quasi-nod to his fight in Brazil, Miocic tries to flee the kids by hopping over a cage wall that spans one side of the gym’s room-sized wrestling mat. 

“These little kids got so much better,” Miocic says after his beating. “They had no idea what they were doing at first, and they were trying to kill me out there.”

It’s hard to picture UFC superstars Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey or Brock Lesnar letting their guards down with fans. But for Miocic, it’s natural, especially when it comes to local fans.

“There’s a genuine thing about everything he does,” says ESPN MMA analyst Brett Okamoto. “Which is kind of endearing, but it doesn’t get you on SportsCenter.”

While McGregor gains in popularity every time he gets into scuffles at prefight weigh-ins, Okamoto says, Miocic isn’t a fight hyper.

“He doesn’t play the game,” he says. “He’s just this goofy guy who enjoys competition.”

WWE CEO Vince McMahon once flirted with buying the UFC long before this year’s $4 billion sale to talent agency WME-IMG. But according to ESPN’s Rovell, McMahon didn’t go through with it because he couldn’t control the outcome.

“You might think that’s a joke,” Rovell says. “But it’s not.”

A fighter like Miocic is what McMahon was afraid of, especially in a sport where fighters only have three or so matches a year.

“Characters drive stories,” says Rovell. “You get a guy like Stipe, and it’s not the greatest thing, but you have to figure out how to navigate these things.”

But Ryan defends her husband against critics — especially against those who would like him to be more like WWE star Brock Lesnar, who fought in UFC 200 in July.

“It’s insulting to me that people like that are treated differently or paid more because of the presence they bring,” she says. “[Stipe] might not be that character like Brock was, but Brock got popped for drugs right after his [last UFC] fight.”

Lesnar, who has since been dropped off UFC’s rankings after a positive doping test in July, earned $2.5 million for his last fight. His opponent, Mark Hunt, made $700,000. And the fight wasn’t even the main event. 

Miocic hasn’t crossed $1 million for his career, according to MMA Manifesto, which tracks fighter pay, and his Sept. 10 fight is the sixth time he’ll be part of a UFC main event. 

The fight is the first ever UFC event in Cleveland, and the first one in Ohio in more than seven years. 

“I’m just glad that we can have it here and that I get to fight for the home crowd,” Miocic says. “It sold out in less than three days. That’s a pretty big thing.”

It won’t be easy to keep the belt. Overeem has more UFC experience and has beaten Junior dos Santos and Stefan Struve — the only two fighters to defeat Miocic. Overeem’s ability to switch from a right-handed orthodox stance to left-handed southpaw can flummox opponents. In early August, Overeem initiated a little trash talk, saying he was hungrier than Miocic, who he says has been partying since winning.

“He’s good at everything,” Miocic says. “That’s why he’s fighting for the title.”

Win or lose, Ryan knows how happy her husband is to bring the UFC to the city and do his part to break the title curse.

“Not that he doesn’t want to win,” she says. “He wants it. But I tell him, ‘People love you in this city because you’re you, and you truly want to represent them from your heart. So win, lose, whatever, just enjoy the moment. Go out there and do your thing.’ ”

That’s how he got the title in the first place.

“All I care about is my city,” Miocic says. “I brought it home to them. That was my goal. I did what I said I was going to do.” 

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