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Meet the UFC heavyweight who might've been able to compete for boxing gold

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
MMA: UFC 161-Nelson vs Miocic
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Roy Nelson couldn't handle Stipe Miocic, and that's saying something. (USA Today)

On Saturday, at about the same time on different networks, two men with reasonable dreams of one day being heavyweight champion in their respective sport will compete with the hope of moving closer to the title.

Stipe Miocic is an incredible all-around athlete who starred in baseball, football and wrestling in high school and then was a standout wrestler and third baseman while at Cleveland State.

When Miocic began fighting in mixed martial arts, he opted to learn to box to make himself more well-rounded as a fighter. All he did was win the Cleveland Golden Gloves and then take his first two bouts in the 2009 nationals before being eliminated.

He'll meet the surging Gabriel Gonzaga on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago in the co-main event of a card televised by Fox. The match carries significant implications in the crowded UFC heavyweight division, with the winner likely improving his position near the top of the ratings.

Not long after he finishes his bout, though, Bryant Jennings, the man who eliminated Miocic from the 2009 National Golden Gloves finals in the third round, will make his HBO debut when he boxes Artur Szpilka at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Jennings is 17-0 with nine knockouts and is slowly positioning himself for a title shot either later this year or early next year. He's ranked fourth by both the WBA and WBC, 10th by the WBO and 11th by the IBF.

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Stipe Miocic knees Roy Nelson in the chest during their heavyweight bout. (USA Today)

Each has come a long way since that May 7, 2009, bout in the Golden Gloves national, which Jennings won by a unanimous decision.

Things didn't go that well in the bout for Miocic, who was a relative novice in boxing.

"How did it go?" Miocic asks, repeating a question while chuckling. "Wow. How can I say this? He did everything right and I did everything wrong. He was a very tough guy, a good boxer.

"That wasn't a good fight for me that night. I was trying to do what I wanted, but Bryant is quick and fast and is a very tough guy. He fought a great fight."

Jennings went on to lose to Lenroy Thompson, now known as Cam F. Awesome, in the finals that year. But he knew he was facing a threat in the third round when he met Miocic.

Miocic left an impression on him, Jennings said by telephone Wednesday from New York.

"I remember all of my fights from the Golden Gloves that year, but I really remember Stipe," Jennings said. "He was a very strong guy, very big and extremely athletic for a guy that size."

Miocic, who still works part-time as a fireman in Cleveland, left boxing soon after to pursue his mixed martial arts dreams.

He was 6-0 before signing with the UFC in 2011 and has gone 4-1 since. He's coming off a career-defining victory over Roy Nelson in Winnipeg in June that pushed his career to another level.

The veteran Nelson is a tough out, who has a rare combination of power, wrestling and jiu-jitsu for a big man. But Miocic dominated the fight, a sign that he was ready to compete with the UFC's best.

Miocic isn't much for self-promotion, but he concedes the win over Nelson was a milestone for him.

"Roy's been in there with so many great fighters and he's done so much in this sport that it was very big to [defeat him]," Miocic said.

On Saturday, he'll face a rejuvenated Gonzaga. Gonzaga has long been considered among the most talented big men in the UFC, but he hasn't always fought like his skills suggest he's capable.

Gonzaga was cut by the UFC in 2010 after losing back-to-back fights to Junior dos Santos and Brendan Schaub that dropped him to 3-5 in the promotion.

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Stipe Miocic rebounded from a loss to Stefan Struve by knocking out Roy Nelson. (USA Today)

But since his return at UFC 142 in 2012, he's been a changed fighter, going 4-1 with two submission wins and two knockouts.

A win over Gonzaga will mean something for Miocic, considering that Gonzaga finally seems to be fulfilling his vast potential.

Miocic, though, won't let himself look ahead. He's been around long enough to know that at this stage, every fight is critical for a fighter like him.

"The mistake I don't want to make is worrying about anything other than Gabriel Gonzaga," Miocic said. "That's more than enough for me to be concerned about now.

"If you guys [in the media] want to speculate, that's up to you. But this is the only fight I'm thinking about."

Now, if he had beaten Jennings in 2009, might he be the one fighting on HBO on Saturday?

No one will ever know, but Miocic said he's an MMA fighter through and through.

"I'd wrestled my whole life and we thought that taking this time off, about a year and a half or so, to go do boxing would be good for me," Miocic said. "And it's helped me, but I'm not a boxer. I'm an MMA fighter."

It's Jennings who's the boxer. And if both of them win their nationally televised bouts on Saturday, they will move that much closer to a fight for the belt in their respective sports.

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