"Winning the title is the plan, but I’m worried about one fight at a time right now." - Stipe Miocic
It has been 50 years since a team from the blue-collar city on the shores of Lake Erie won a major professional sports championship. That last victory came courtesy of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns in 1964.
Since then, the Browns have endured two playoff disasters known simply as “The Drive” and “the Fumble,” been surreptitiously moved to Baltimore by former owner Art Modell, and gone 77-166 with just two winning seasons since returning to the league as an expansion franchise in 1999, including six consecutive seasons with 11-plus losses.
A World Series hasn’t found its way to “The Forest City” since 1948, when the Indians defeated the Boston Braves. There were some good times during the Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton years, including a pair of World Series appearances, but they haven’t been back since 1997 and currently sit in last place in the American League Central Division standings.
On the hardwood, things have been disastrous since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.
In the last four seasons combined, the Cavaliers have failed to win 100 games, sporting a 97-215 mark now that “King James” sits on a throne in Miami. Despite two first-overall selections and an additional two top four picks in the last three NBA drafts, Cleveland’s NBA representatives have continued to scuffle, culminating in this season’s 33-49 record and fourth straight season missing the playoffs.
In spite of it all, the loyal and passionate fans have remained faithful to their sports teams and that’s something proud Cleveland native Stipe Miocic loves about his city.
“I love Cleveland - it’s awesome,” says the 31-year-old Miocic, who returns to the Octagon Saturday night in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “The fans support you no matter how good or bad you are because you’re from Cleveland. They don’t care (whether you win or lose). That’s the best thing about Cleveland.”
With the professional team struggling, could the 11-1 UFC heavyweight be the city’s best hope for a championship victory?
“I don’t know about that,” he laughs. “That’d be great - winning the title is the plan, but I’m worried about one fight at a time right now.”
That next fight was supposed to be a matchup with former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos.
Initially scheduled as the co-main event of this year’s annual Memorial Day weekend Pay-Per-View, the contest was pushed back a week and installed as the main event on this weekend’s Ultimate Fighter Brazil Season 3 Finale.
Regardless of when and where it was taking place, the matchup with Dos Santos was the type of high profile pairing that - should he win - would have carried the Strong Style Fight Team member into title contention.
Unfortunately, “Cigano” suffered a hand injury while preparing for the bout, briefly leaving Miocic in limbo. A few days later, Brazilian veteran Fabio Maldonado, a natural light heavyweight, volunteered to step up in weight and step in for his injured countryman, ensuring that the show would in fact go on.
“I’m used to it - I’ve been through it before,” says Miocic of the 11th hour change in opponents. He’s also been very successful in these situations as well.
In the wake of major changes to the original lineup, Miocic was added to the all-heavyweight main card against Shane Del Rosario a month prior to UFC 146 and ended up earning a second-round technical knockout win to push his record to 9-0 at the time.
When an injury to proposed headliner Renan Barao forced the Brazilian off the UFC 161 fight card, Miocic was pulled from his pairing with Soa Palelei and thrust into a matchup with veteran Roy “Big Country” Nelson instead. That night in Winnipeg, the former NCAA wrestler showed off his Golden Gloves boxing pedigree, picking apart the former Ultimate Fighter winner en route to a unanimous decision win.
A little less than a year later, he’s in the same position and, once again, he’s not at all concerned with changing opponents and having to make some minor adjustments on the fly.
“I was in training camp and they’re both stand-up guys, which helps the situation a lot,” admits Miocic, who added a decision win over Gabriel Gonzaga following his victory over Nelson to push his record to 11-1 heading into Saturday’s contest. “There have been a few tweaks in the game plan, but overall, not much changed.”
Many pundits questioned the decision to match the surging heavyweight with the hard-hitting Maldonado on short notice, suggesting this main event opportunity is a lose-lose scenario for Miocic.
But that’s not the way he sees it.
“I think the more fights you get, the more experience you get,” explains Miocic, whose lone career setback came in a Fight of the Night performance opposite Stefan Struve in September 2012.
“It’s still a fight,” he adds in response to the talk that there is very little for him to gain from facing Maldonado. “Fabio’s a tough guy - he was ready to fight May 31st and it’s going to be a good fight. I’m excited for it. He’s coming to fight and he’s coming to win, but so am I, so it’s going to be a helluva fight.”
While many would be tempted to start looking ahead and plotting a course for the second half of the year heading into a bout where they’re a prohibitive favorite, Miocic says there is only one thing on his mind right now and that’s getting a victory over Maldonado by any means necessary.
“After we’re done, I’ll sit back and take a look at it, (but) I just worry about May 31st - that’s all I have to worry about right now. I don’t really care how it happens - I’m going to get that win no matter what. Whether it’s in the first round or by decision, I don’t care. I’m going to win.”