The UFC has never had a truly great heavyweight champion.
Oh, Randy Couture held the belt three times, and he remains one of the greatest fighters in the sport’s brief history. Couture, though, was really a light heavyweight who succeeded at heavyweight because of his intellect, his conditioning and his terrific wrestling.
But there has been no MMA equivalent of Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano, no Muhammad Ali or George Foreman who lorded over the UFC’s heavyweight division.
That guy may finally have arrived, and in no shortage of time. While the UFC has thrived without a dominant heavyweight champion for much of its 23-plus years of existence, having elite heavyweights could be just as important as it is in boxing.
There is an old boxing adage that applies in some ways to MMA: As the heavyweights go, so goes boxing.
Stipe Miocic may be the guy who changes that, and makes the heavyweights chic in the UFC.
Remarkably, he’s still a full-time firefighter and as down-to-earth of a man as one could possibly hope for in a pro athlete. He’s a major Cleveland sports fan who cheered the Cavaliers on to the NBA title, rooted the Indians to the American League championship and remains a diehard Cleveland Browns fan despite it now being the biggest laughingstock franchise in American professional sports.
He’s as good of an athlete as he is a guy too, a former star third baseman and wrestler at Cleveland State who is so gifted, he hit a batting practice home run prior to an Indians game last year that left the players in awe.
He’ll defend his title against ex-champion Junior dos Santos on Saturday in the main event of UFC 211 in Dallas. He’s bidding to become the first heavyweight in UFC history to successfully defend the belt three times, and he’ll have that opportunity if he can beat dos Santos.
No one has ever made more than two successful defenses, and no one is quite sure why.
Part of it is the nature of heavyweight fighting – one punch lands and changes the course of history, as dos Santos proved in his first bout with Cain Velasquez in 2011 – but part of it has been that there hasn’t been that guy out there who could do it.
Miocic, though, gives every indication he could be the guy to change that, despite being champion of perhaps the best heavyweight division the UFC has ever had.
If he gets past dos Santos, and that’s no easy task, as dos Santos proved when he beat Miocic in a non-title bout in Phoenix in 2014, he has the likes of Francis Ngannou, Derrick Lewis, Fabricio Werdum, Velasquez and others awaiting their crack at him.
The division is deep and diverse and will fully test the depth of Miocic’s skills.
He’s undeterred, though, and isn’t going to be content simply to win on Saturday and be able to tell his grandkids he once set a record.
“Honestly, me, I don’t really care about how many defenses I have,” Miocic said. “All I care about is winning. I love what I do. I want to keep winning. I have trained way too hard and sacrificed way too much to give it up and I’m just different, man. I’ve gotten better every fight. I’m not declining. I’m inclining every fight and nothing is going to change.”
Smaller athletes are still drawn to the fighting sports, because there isn’t a place for a 135-pounder in football or for a 5-foot-3 guy in the NBA.
But the bigger athletes, those over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, tend to become basketball players or wide receivers or linebackers or slugging right fielders.
Getting kicked and punched in the face and kneed in the midsection, though, isn’t most people’s idea of fun, and until recently, the compensation wasn’t there to lure the big, fast, quick and strong athletes away from those other sports.
That’s beginning to change to a small degree, and it’s going to make for some amazing heavyweight fights down the road.
Those are the fights that Miocic wants to be part of, those which will sell out within minutes of tickets going on sale and which bring fans and major media from around the world to see them.
He’s already defeated Overeem, Werdrum, Andrei Arlovski and Mark Hunt, among others, and won’t lack for credible challengers as long as he keeps winning.
For all his ability, though, he also has the sharp mind that should help keep him on top. It’s what made Couture special, and Miocic shows many of those same traits.
It’s as much of a reason why Miocic is about a 7-5 favorite to gain revenge on dos Santos and keep the title as any.
“The lesson I learned — not really a lesson, it’s more just knowing that I belong, that I can hang with anyone, that I went five rounds with a former champ, a guy who has been a knockout fighter,” Miocic said. “I went five rounds with him. I know that I’m not going anywhere and there is no going back now.”
This may be the start of a golden age for UFC heavyweights.
And it just as well may become known as the era of the guy with the funny name from Cleveland.