Wide-eyed with excitement, adrenaline pumping through his system, Stipe Miocic scaled the Octagon wall into the waiting arms of his coaches in his corner.
“I’m the World Champ! I’m the World Champ!” he shouted, moments after planting a clean right hand on the chin of Fabricio Werdum to bring the main event of UFC 198 to an abrupt halt and make him the 19th man to stand as the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion.
His performance in Curitiba was not only a culmination of years of hard work and continued development, but also brought to an end the painful championship drought that hung over the city of Cleveland for more than 50 years. Even before he was within range of fighting for the title, the proud Ohioan talked about bringing championship gold back to “The Land” and giving the passionate, long-suffering sports fans in the region something to cheer about, and in just 2:47 on May 14, 2016, Miocic made good on his promise.
“I think it still hasn’t sunk in yet,” the heavyweight champion admits, a little less than three months removed from his victory over Werdum. “I think it’s sinking in little by little every day, I guess, but it’s just surreal and I’m happy.”
While the mainstream media have heralded LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for breaking the city’s championship curse with their NBA Finals win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Miocic beat “King James & Co.” by a little over a month. He was there inside the Quicken Loans Arena – commonly referred to simply as “The Q” – as the Cavaliers marched to a second straight Finals appearance and rode through the streets of Cleveland, his snapback on backwards as always, UFC gold over his shoulder, during the team’s championship parade.
So did he take a minute to remind LeBron, Kyrie and Coach Lue that he broke the curse first?
“Naw,” he laughs. “I’m just happy this city has a bunch of championships to celebrate; that’s all I care about.”
Reaching the top of any division in the UFC is a difficult task and holding on to championship gold is always a challenge, but for whatever reason, retaining the heavyweight title has proven exceptionally hard over the years, as no one has been able to successfully defend the title more than twice before watching the belt get wrapped around the waist of another man.
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Saturday night, in front of what is sure to be a raucous, partisan crowd at “The Q,” Miocic looks to successfully defend the heavyweight strap for the first time when he takes on resurgent heavyweight striker Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC 203.
While he’s sure to get a hero’s welcome when his music hits and he starts to make the walk to the Octagon to wrap up this weekend’s Pay-Per-View event, the recently married 34-year-old isn’t thinking about the crowd and the perks of defending the belt on his home turf. All he’s focused on is beating the decorated kickboxer he’ll face Saturday night and keeping the belt at home in Cleveland for a long, long time.
“I’m not just going to be a guy that has it for one fight (and then loses it); I want to keep it for a long time,” Miocic says on the phone from Bristol, Connecticut while making the rounds at ESPN. “(Fighting at home) will be great, but I’m not going to worry about that. I’m worried about Overeem; that’s all I care about.
“It’s great to be at home because I don’t have to travel, which is always a good thing – but I am traveling today, which is funny. It’s going to be great fighting in my hometown, but listen: I have one job to do and that’s beat Overeem.”
The 36-year-old challenger is one of the most accomplished combat sports athletes of the last decade. The former Dream and Strikeforce heavyweight champion and the 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix champion, the UFC heavyweight strap stands as the lone major championship that has thus far escaped Overeem’s clutches since he began competing at heavyweight.
After a rocky start to his time in the UFC, shifting his training camp to Albuquerque, New Mexico to work with the team at the Jackson-Wink MMA Academy has paid serious dividends for “The Reem,” who enters Saturday’s main event on a four-fight winning streak and coming off back-to-back second-round stoppage victories over a pair of former heavyweight champions, Junior Dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski.
“He’s a big strong guy,” Miocic offers, beginning his assessment of the man that will try to take the title from him this weekend. “Great standup, killer kickboxer; he’s real savvy and a veteran, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before and I know he hasn’t seen anything like me yet.
“I’m going to win,” he adds flatly, as confident in this weekend’s outcome as he was when he faced Werdum on his home court back in May. “It’s going to be “And Still” and I’m going to walk out with the belt around my waist. Come Saturday, you’ll see.
“One more thing,” says Miocic, eliciting an automatic, “Yep” in response.
The line goes silent.
My cell phone buzzes.