Situations can change rapidly in mixed martial arts, but Stipe Miocic hasn't allowed a series of twists and turns to break his focus.
The heavy-handed Ohio native was originally slated to face former champion Junior dos Santos in the co-main event for UFC 173, but circumstances arose, and the matchup was pushed back one week to headline The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 Finale. While change of date and venue are relatively small wrinkles for a fighter to deal with, "Cigano" was knocked out of the bout with a hand injury, and Miocic was left to wait for his new opponent to be named.
With limited time to find a replacement, the UFC tapped light heavyweight brawler Fabio Maldonado to come up to heavyweight, and the two men will square off when the Octagon returns to Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 31. While the scheduled tilt with Dos Santos would have been the biggest of Miocic's career, and carried the potential to catapult the 31-year-old into title contention, the bout with Maldonado will carry none of the benefits and stack heavy in the risk department.
One of the most difficult tasks for a fighter in mixed martial arts is to graduate from prospect status and carve out a place in the upper tier of his division, and Miocic has already broken through into the next level of the heavyweight ranks. He stepped up on short notice to defeat Top 10 staple Roy Nelson last June at UFC 161 in Winnipeg and then followed up that performance with a lopsided unanimous-decision victory over Gabriel Gonzaga this January at UFC on Fox 10 in Chicago.
His wins over Nelson and Gonzaga put him in a position to draw one of the biggest names in the division, and the bout against JDS would have been a tremendous opportunity. Yet, that status will be on the line when he steps in against Maldonado, and any pressure in this particular situation will fall squarely on the Cleveland-based fighter's shoulders.
That said, Miocic understands how quickly things can shift in the fight game and knows he still has business to handle against Maldonado. Defeating the Brazilian slugger may not carry the same reward, but Miocic hasn't allowed those matters to rattle his focus.
"It is what it is," Miocic told Bleacher Report. "I was excited to fight Junior and it sucks that it isn't happening, but I now I'm fighting Fabio Maldonado. I get to go down and see a great country and have a great fight. I've heard a lot of good things about Brazil and I'm excited to go down there. The fans are crazy about the fights and that's awesome. They are loyal and passionate and I'm going to try to put on a great show for them.
"Of course I still want to fight JDS. There's no question about that, but right now Fabio Maldonado and May 31 is the only thing on my mind.
"I've been through this kind of thing before," he added. "I was supposed to fight Soa Palelei and ended up fighting Roy Nelson. I took a fight on short notice against Shane Del Rosario on the all-heavyweight card back at UFC 146 as well. That's part of the game. Guys get hurt and things change. It happens all the time and injuries are a part of this sport."
While a change of opponent can sometimes mean a fighter will be facing a completely different style than the one he prepared for, this particular situation doesn't register in that category. Miocic was training to face a boxing-based striker in Dos Santos, and Maldonado operates from a similar skill base. There are obvious differences between the two fighters, but Miocic is confident his preparation will make him ready for anything Maldonado brings to the table.
"I've had to make a few little tweaks in the game plan but no major changes," Miocic said. "We are both stand-up fighters and I imagine that is where this fight is going to take place. He's a tough guy that hits hard and just keeps coming, but I think I have some things that are going to frustrate him a little bit. I'm ready to go."
Throughout his time under the UFC banner, Maldonado has developed a following for his willingness to stand toe-to-toe and sling leather with his opposition. In many of these battles, the 34-year-old has taken a solid amount of punishment in order to dish out his own brand of offense. With the proven finishing power that Miocic has in his hands, that route isn't one he's opposed to traveling.
"I hope that is his plan," Miocic laughed. "That would be great for me. But I'm down for whatever happens. It is a five-round fight and I've trained to go 25 minutes if I have to. I'm ready to get that 'W' by any means necessary. I'm just excited to fight. I'm ready to go.
"He's been a tough guy for fighters to put away but I'm going to do what I have to do to try and get that done. If I'm not able to finish him, it is what it is, but I'm going to put a beating on him because he's going to be trying to do the same to me."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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