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How Stipe Miocic's only career loss made him a better fighter

MMA: UFC 161-Nelson vs Miocic
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Stipe Miocic lands a knee on Roy Nelson during their heavyweight fight at UFC 161. (USA Today)

The idea that a fighter can fall for his own press clippings and learn some hard lessons is as old as the fight game itself.

But owning up to it when it happens? Now that's something different.

Cleveland-area heavyweight Stipe Miocic took a 9-0 record with seven knockouts into his first UFC main event on Sept. 29, 2012, when he met Stefan Struve in London.

"I fell for my own hype," the 31-year-old from the Cleveland area told Yahoo Sports. "I had too many people saying I couldn't be beat, and I actually fell for it."

The results that night at the O2 Arena reflect Miocic's statement. Before the second round was out, Miocic found himself dazed on the mat, staring up at the arena lights, and wondering what hit him. A Fight of the Night bonus was only a small consolation for a major tail-kicking.

"It sucked," said Miocic (11-1), who meets Fabio Maldonado (21-6) in Brazil on Saturday. "I make no excuses. Stefan Struve was the man that night. He earned his win fair and square."

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Stipe Miocic beat Gabriel Gonzaga by decision at UFC on Fox 10. (USA Today)

Stipe Miocic beat Gabriel Gonzaga by decision at UFC on Fox 10. (USA Today)

Fighters live the cliche, "It's not how often you get knocked down, it's how often you get back up," more literally than most of us will ever know. The road to combat sports fame and glory is littered with previously undefeated knockout artists whose careers nosedived the first time they felt the sting of a devastating strike.

But that's not Miocic's story. A firefighter by trade, Miocic took a matter-of-fact approach to his first career loss. Miocic got rid of the hangers-on who were filling his head with flattery and got back to basics.

The renewed focus has paid off: 20 months and two victories later, Miocic finds himself once again in the headliner's position, as he meets Maldonado in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in Sao Paolo. It's the final bout of the UFC's first-ever doubleheader day, which kicks off with a card in Germany headlined by Gegard Mousasi vs. Mark Munoz.

"I needed to man up," said Miocic. "When something like that happens, you can dwell on it or you can face it and learn from it and became a better fighter and a better person. I have good people in my inner circle, I huddled up with my team and we went back to the drawing board."

What emerged from those battle plans was a pair of solid victories over tough veterans in Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga. While both fights went the distance, Miocic, who is both a former collegiate wrestler and a Golden Gloves amateur boxing champ, displayed a more mature and well-rounded game. Gone was the headhunting style of old.

"I mean, you can look at it and say I'm doing this better or that better, but the bottom line is, I just learned to be mentally tougher," Miocic said.

If that's the case, it's definitely a good thing for Miocic, because the MMA gods recently threw the heavyweight contender another curveball.

Saturday night was supposed to be Miocic's big proving-ground fight. He was slated to meet former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. A victory would have placed Miocic square on the short list of contender's for Cain Velasquez's heavyweight title.

But dos Santos had to pull out of the bout less than a month out because of a broken hand.

"That's just the way things go in the fight business, you know?" Miocic said. "If you don't learn to deal with these things, you're not going to make it. I'd still love to fight Junior some time, but right now my focus is all on Saturday night."

Oddly, Miocic has gone from the fighter who could make a name for himself in the bout to the guy someone else could use as a steppingstone. Maldonado, a 34-year-old Brazilian, has been a journeyman light heavyweight in the UFC, a solid name on Brazilian cards who is willing to take two good shots in order to land one and as such has won and lost his share of fights.

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Stipe Miocic reacts after defeating Gabriel Gonzaga. (USAT)

Stipe Miocic reacts after defeating Gabriel Gonzaga. (USAT)

By taking the bout with Miocic and stepping up to heavyweight, all of a sudden, Maldonado has placed Miocic into dos Santos' position as the guy with little to gain and much to lose.

Further upping the ante, Maldonado, clearly relishing his underdog role, is vowing to either pull off the upset or go out on his shield trying.

"I will try my best [for the knockout]," Maldanado recently told MMAFighting.com. "The only thing I promise the fans is that it's going to be a bloody, violent fight. I can't promise the win because anything can happen, but I will do my best."

For his part, Miocic is doing his best to handle his situation with a professional attitude.

"I can't pretend like this fight is going to push me way up in the standings," Miocic said. "And I can't make any promises that I'm going to knock him out or which way the fight is going to go. All you can do is the same as any other fight, whoever they put in front of you, you go in there and try to get the W."

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA.

 

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