On the surface, Stipe Miocic has been his normal, happy-go-lucky self headed into UFC 211.
Behind the closed doors of his fight camp, however, you couldn't blame Miocic for feeling added urgency. The affable Cleveland native will be up against a couple of formidable opponents Saturday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
For one thing, he has a rematch with former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, who in December 2014 became just the second (and most recent) man to saddle Miocic with a loss during his 18-fight MMA career .
For another, there's that pesky UFC heavyweight title curse to contend with.
This will be Miocic's second defense of the 265-pound championship, and this is historically right about when things start to fall apart for the UFC's premier big men.
The life story of the heavyweight title is littered with short reigns and cruel twists of fate, including Bas Rutten's sudden retirement, Randy Couture's contract woes, Frank Mir's career-threatening motorcycle accident and Brock Lesnar's diverticulitis, to name a few.
"No one's ever defended the belt more than twice," Miocic said Sunday in a short Twitter video for UNINTERRUPTED, "but that's how we roll. That's how Clevelanders do it."
Cleveland's own @stipemiocicufc closes in on #UFC211. 🛫 https://t.co/UFAKNyQgQL2017-5-8 00:08:21
This sense of underdog civic pride has informed much of Miocic's title journey thus far.
He captured the belt with a surprise first-round KO of Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198, just a month before his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers battled back from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals to win the first championship in franchise history. Four months after that, the Cleveland Indians made their first run to the World Series since 1997, ultimately losing to the Chicago Cubs in a seven-game classic.
Miocic—who still works as a firefighter in the Cleveland area—has been swept along with his hometown's suddenly ascendant mainstream sports franchises. It remains to be seen, however, whether The Land has enough Cinderella magic left to undo the UFC heavyweight title's long and troubled history.
Of the 17 men who've held the 265-pound championship, just four of them have ever managed to defend it twice. Not coincidentally, the members of that group—Couture, Tim Sylvia, Lesnar and Cain Velasquez—are also considered the division's all-time greats.
None of them ever successfully defended the title a third time.
If Miocic wins Saturday, he'll somewhat improbably add his name to the above list. A victory would put him at the precipice of that mythical third heavyweight title defense, a feat no one has yet accomplished in UFC history.
Standing between Miocic and history is dos Santos, who knows from personal experience that the UFC heavyweight title can be a fickle mistress.
There was a time when JDS, not Miocic, appeared poised to finally bring stability to the perennially volatile heavyweight strap. Back in 2011, he defeated Velasquez to win the championship during the organization's first broadcast on the Fox Network.
That promise was fleeting, however, as dos Santos lost the title back to Velasquez in December 2012 in—guess what—his second championship defense. When the American Kickboxing Academy product defeated him once more in their third fight in October 2013, it seemed to render an unhappy verdict on his future as an elite 265-pounder.
Despite his relatively young age, the 33-year-old Brazilian has endured plenty of punishment in his 15 UFC fights. Counting the two losses to Velasquez, he's just 3-3 dating back to the end of 2012.
On the bright side, one of those wins was over Miocic, when the pair tangled in the main event of UFC on FOX 13.
It was the first time Miocic went a full five rounds, and dos Santos turned the tables on the usually pressure-minded American by crafting a 123-89 advantage in significant strikes. Perhaps most eye-popping of all, dos Santos stuffed all but one of the Miocic's 18 takedown attempts, according to the official Fightmetric statistics.
In the end, the hard-fought scrap was ruled a unanimous decision win for JDS, though a bit shy of 30 percent of unofficial media scorecards had it for Miocic, according to MMADecisions.com.
Since then, they've walked somewhat divergent paths.
Miocic has been on a tear, winning four straight fights, all of them by stoppage, each over a well-known UFC regular. His most recent bout, against Alistair Overeem at UFC 203, was a back-and-forth crowd-pleaser that headlined the organization's first-ever event in Cleveland and won both guys a Fight of the Night bonus. That marked Miocic's seventh performance-based bonus in 12 UFC appearances.
Meanwhile, dos Santos took nearly a year off after defeating Miocic and then could muster just one Octagon appearance each year in 2015 and 2016 due to shoulder surgery, among other factors.
JDS was booked to take on Stefan Struve on February 19, but when Struve pulled out with an injury, the UFC offered him the opportunity to fight for the title instead. In essence, that gave him an extra long training camp for this second fight against Miocic.
Despite his recent inactivity, dos Santos doesn't think ring rust will be a problem.
"I'm feeling good, I'm training very well here at ATT, and I don't think it's gonna be a problem for me," he told Ariel Helwani recently on The MMA Hour, via MMA Fighting's Guilherme Cruz. "I'm getting more mature right now. I'm understanding myself a little bit better, so I can concentrate all my energy on my preparation. I'm coming to take that belt from Miocic."
It would be a remarkable turnaround for dos Santos to defeat Miocic and win the title a second time after losing it to Velasquez back at UFC 155 more than four years ago.
This time, the odds are not in his favor. Miocic is going off as the slight favorite, according to OddsShark, though dos Santos has picked up some considerable ground since the betting lines opened back in February.
If things play out according to chalk and Miocic pulls out a win, it will account for the rare double-dip.
It will get the monkey off his back from his earlier loss to dos Santos, and it would also keep his heavyweight title run on track.
Can Miocic reverse the heavyweight curse? That still remains to be seen, though it might be smart for him to start looking over his shoulder.