Stipe Miocic wasn’t a mixed martial artist when he first walked into the Strong Style Gym in Independence, Ohio. But as soon as he got on the mat to wrestle with UFC and PRIDE veteran Dan Bobish, coach Marcus Marinelli saw something in him.
“A mutual friend of ours brought Stipe in,” Marinelli recalls. “Bobish was a D-3 national champion and was big and strong, and it was a very good and competitive wrestling session. I was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you throw a couple punches here and try it out.’ I saw something there immediately.”
Twelve years after that first meeting, Miocic is the UFC heavyweight champion and Marinelli has been with him every step of the way. It’s the rarest of combat sports stories: fighter and coach together from the start to the big time, with loyalty never being an issue as the lights get brighter. But as Marinelli points out, more important to him than Miocic’s ability as a fighter is the friendship the two have.
“To me, the journey’s been amazing and I think the reason it’s been amazing is not just because of the success,” he said. “Because of the person Stipe is, it makes it very enjoyable to train him and it also made us very, very close friends. We have the same principle-based values, and I think that helps. We kind of know what each other is thinking, and we’re blessed to have the friendship and the working relationship we have, and that’s what helps me coach him, because I know him so well. It’s a little tougher when you don’t know the person as well. You don’t have this deep trust in each other.”
Suffice to say that Miocic will walk through fire for his coach, and Marinelli will do the same for his fighter. And nothing has changed as the two prepare for Miocic’s May 14 title defense against Junior Dos Santos in the main event of UFC 211 in Dallas.
“Camp’s going real good,” Marinelli said. “We’re getting ready to back off in a few, but it’s been a very good camp. There are a lot of different things we touched on and worked on and we’re excited for the fight.”
No one is excited more than Miocic, who lost a close decision to Dos Santos in December 2014 that was crushing at the time, even though it kicked off his run to the heavyweight crown that culminated in a 2016 knockout of Fabricio Werdum. Now, fresh off a finish of Alistair Overeem in his first title defense in September, he gets a shot at some payback.
“Stipe’s a very competitive individual,” Marinelli said. “It was close as it was, but I think there were some adjustments we could have made in that fight that could have steered it in our favor. Right after the fight, after the emotional part of it, we talked and he said, ‘Man, I could win tomorrow.’ I knew that, but it served a huge purpose for us too. You don’t win everything you do in life, but you can come out of the loss and let it change things for you for the better.”
It’s that mix of expertise and experience that has made Marinelli one of the top coaches in the sport, as well as one of the most underrated. But that’s just fine with him. He’s not chasing headlines, just wins.
“I wouldn’t know how to coach any other way,” he said. “Almost everybody we’ve had, it’s been from scratch. We develop a good working relationship with them, we’re very close as a team, and we have such unbelievable coaches – very underrated if you ask me. None of us are there for the popularity; we’re there just to win and we’re there for our team. In my opinion, the coach is behind the fighter; he’s in the background and I like that position.”
Yet if Miocic wins on May 14, he will tie the record for most successful heavyweight title defenses in UFC history with two. Another win in defense of the crown and that record will be all his. Then Marinelli won’t be able to stay in the background much longer. But that’s really no concern of his. He’s got beating Junior Dos Santos on his mind, and he’s making sure his fighter does too.
“We talk about all the goods and bads,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, I’m gonna beat this dude up this way.’ He’s got to realize that it could go the other way if you fall asleep at the wheel. So we have these conversations about where we feel the real danger is. And let’s not forget that he was in there with him for five rounds, so he’s felt it and he knows what he’s up against. And yes, we want the victory back because we believe we could have won it that night, but we’re more prepared to win it now. Everything happens for a reason at the right time.”
Which fight on #UFC211 are YOU most looking forward to? pic.twitter.com/cevkRTSVTU
— UFC (@ufc) April 25, 2017