UFC Heavyweight Champ Stipe Miocic Balances Life as Fighter and First Responder

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2016, file photo, Stipe Miocic speaks during a post fight press conference after his knockout win over Alistair Overeem, from the Netherlands, in a heavyweight title bout at UFC 203, in Cleveland. Miocic finally gets his chance for revenge, and this time he is defending his world heavyweight title for the second time. (AP Photo/David Dermer, File)
David Dermer/Associated Press

The heavyweight champion of the world is making coffee for everyone.

The fire station in Valley View, Ohio, is a lot like other places: The kitchen is the central gathering place. Firefighters and visitors shuffle in one by one and seat themselves around the rectangular, church-social table that fills the center of the room. There's not much space between the table and the counters, so the background noise of the morning is the rubbery scrape of folding chairs along the linoleum floor as people scoot forward to let someone by, followed by the quick response of, "Nah, man, you're fine, you're fine."

It's a Monday morning in October, and Greater Cleveland is getting cold. The champ reaches out to each person in turn, lifting the coffee cup from their hands—how do you take it?—before gently returning it full. Careful! It's hot!

Everyone settles in to recap their weekends. The banter moves from golf to TV shows to even, for a few bracing moments, the Browns. Stipe Miocic is not the UFC heavyweight champion at this table. He's a firefighter and a paramedic with the Village of Valley View Fire Department, and this is his happy place.

"I'm obsessed with golf now," he says to everyone and no one. "I want to get a simulator. I bet I could build one. How does that work?"

At 6'4", he's tall, but not so tall that he casts a shadow over the assemblage. He frequently breaks into a wide grin that's part Woody Harrelson and part James Bond villain on Christmas morning. Media types describe Miocic with a few staple phrases. "Meat and potatoes." "Soft-spoken." "Classic Midwesterner." At this table, these are not familiar descriptors. Here, he's boisterous, gentle, funny, stubborn, boyish. It's hard to find the guy who, in the public eye, can't seem to avoid his own cliche.

Under a navy blue fleece emblazoned with the department's logo, he is obviously in shape, but again, not in an eye-popping way. The cauliflower ear and the lumpy terrain of his face—a good deal rougher in person than on TV—are the only clear tells of a professional athlete.

That is, until you shake his hand.

Miocic (left) punches Fabricio Werdum.
Miocic (left) punches Fabricio Werdum.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The thing is gnarled and hard as raw bone. It's instantly clear you are touching a weapon. The hands that just sugared everyone's coffee are the same that knocked out Fabricio Werdum, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos and nine other professional fighters across a 17-2 pro career. Those are the hands that jab, feint, parry and fool opponents until they can lace through with thudding power, growing almost sentient at the first hint of weakness. Those are the hands of the baddest man on the planet, as the UFC heavyweight champion is commonly known. Those are the hands that on January 20 will duel with those of Francis Ngannou, the Cameroonian-French phenom with a barreling hype train and his own ghastly highlight reel. If Miocic can win—which he's not favored to do—he'll set the UFC record for heavyweight title defenses.

As it happens, those hands are the same ones that restart stopped hearts, splint broken bones, insert IV needles, administer drugs from aspirin to morphine and comfort vulnerable people on the worst days of their lives. As a first responder, Miocic participates in many of the roughly 800 calls that Valley View takes each year. He has saved lives and he has lost them, many times over.

Miocic (right) talks to another firefighter at the Valley View Fire Department.
Miocic (right) talks to another firefighter at the Valley View Fire Department.Scott Harris

"I love what I do because I go train, then I come here and it's a total 180," he says. "It's calm, collected. We talk about fighting but we also talk about work, about life, what we're having for dinner. It breaks me off from fighting, and it keeps me grounded. These guys check me a lot. I don't act like I'm better than anyone, but they keep me grounded."

He's been a firefighter for nine years now, starting well before it became clear he could make a real run in MMA. Since then, the champ has found fame and fortune in the cage. According to public records, in 2017 Miocic, 35, earned $690,000 for one fight, a win over dos Santos. In 2016, he took in a reported $930,000 combined for three victories. Miocic doesn't even know how much he made last year as a part-time paramedic, splitting about 10 shifts a month between Valley View and nearby Oakwood. It wasn't a lot, especially compared with his fight purses. The average full-time firefighter earns about $52,000 per year, according to national estimates.

More than a few pro MMA fighters, even at the UFC level, are forced to work second or third jobs, making ends meet as instructors, bouncers or something unrelated to fighting. Sometimes MMA is the side job. Miocic doesn't have this problem anymore. Still, he continues on at the firehouse.

There is more than one reason why, but the first one is the clearest. 

"I like being there for a person that needs you," Miocic said. "No matter if they're just a little bit sick or if they're in full [cardiac] arrest or something. Doing the best you can to get them stable and get them to the hospital … The whole fireman aspect, helping people any time, day or night, I just love it. I love every second of it, just knowing there's a chance I could help someone."
                                 

The Locker Room

Growing up in the Cleveland area, the grandson of Croatian immigrants, Miocic gravitated to athletics. Gifted with size, strength, speed and work ethic, Miocic excelled at more or less every sport he tried. He was a good wrestler, but baseball was his first calling. He went on to play for Cleveland State, even garnering some Major League interest. (He also wrestled at Cleveland State and became a Golden Gloves boxing champion before taking up MMA.) 

Still, Miocic realized a career in pro sports was not exactly the surest bet. Understanding his own propensity for action, he considered joining the Coast Guard. Ultimately, friends pointed him toward firefighting.

"I can't be behind a desk," Miocic says. "I hate dressing up. … But I just love helping people. I want to help. I want to give back. Without that, I wouldn't have any purpose."

Breaking bones one day and putting them back together on another may seem incongruous to some. And in a way, it most certainly is. But for Miocic, firefighting and cagefighting hold plenty of similarities. When it comes to being a first responder, Miocic doesn't need the money. What he does seem to need is its social infrastructure. The firehouse is not similar to a locker room. It is a locker room, just with different gear and objectives. In this setting, Miocic can be himself. It is, and always has been, his native environment. The firehouse, then, may be a kind of hedge against the inevitable day when he'll no longer be a pro athlete.

"I always have to be having fun, busting balls," Miocic says. "People don't understand."

As he holds court in the kitchen, it becomes clear that Miocic has two modes: very serious, which is the side that comes out when he's working, and very unserious, which is literally all the rest of the time. When he's in his element, Unserious Stipe has a well-earned reputation as a prankster. But he's more than that. He's a bona fide storyteller.

Setting a scene with sweeps of those lethal hands, Miocic relays the tale of a Cleveland Indians game, where, during his full-throated efforts to secure a few baseballs for a nearby kid, he annoyed a well-dressed woman in a plum seat nearby and very well may have terrified a batboy, who was concerned about breaking team rules by tossing balls into the stands. As Miocic tells it, each character has a different voice, even a different posture. No one is denigrated (much). He gets the baseballs for the kid. The room is in stitches.

Scott Harris

Then there are the paramedic's war stories. 

"I had a call once, it was this 80-year-old guy who had cut his leg with a chainsaw," Miocic says. "It was like this 12-inch cut. You couldn't see the bone, but only because of all the blood and tissue in it. And he was just walking around on it, like, 'Meh, it hurts a little bit,' like, 'Hey, this sucks.'

"But he was walking around. He was just so tough. Then I went to get an IV needle and get him going on that, and he was like, 'Oh no, that's gonna hurt!' I was like, Is he for real right now? We patched it up. But that guy was an animal."

Anyone familiar with first responder culture understands the dark humor and raucous storytelling that are traded there like a second currency. It's a kind of release, a critical step in processing the stress and emotion of the job. Miocic is good at this, and it's not hard to see that this quality, as much as or even more than being good at his job or being a UFC champion, is what endears him to his firehouse colleagues.

On this Monday morning, the hijinks reach another level when Miocic's favorite comedic partner, station chief Ken Papesh, enters the kitchen.

The two greet each other with an exaggerated bro hug, milking the moment for laughs. Papesh is young for a fire chief and fairly new in the role. His thick build could make him nearly as imposing a figure as Miocic if not for his shock of blonde hair and easy grin. Like Miocic, Papesh likes to keep things light if he can help it. At the same time, he's fairly thoughtful when the time is right, playing the straight man and counterweight to Miocic's clowning.

When asked what a paramedic's job typically entails, Miocic searches for the words.

"We're just like an escort, or a chauffeur," he says. "But in a healthy way, I guess you could say. Making sure that when they get to the hospital, we've already established that process of healing them, and they know what's going on and they have more access to more things."

Then he pauses, having realized two things simultaneously: that he has probably not offered an ideal description, and that he now has a chance to antagonize Papesh, who has quietly slipped into the next room. 

"Kenny!" Miocic calls out. "That's a good explanation, right? We're like an escort. Paramedics. Right? We're like an escort?" 

"No, we are not like an escort," Papesh says from the other room. "Not at all."

"I mean like a chauffeur," Miocic said. "Paramedics are like a chauffeur."

Papesh walks back toward the kitchen.

"Our job," he says, "is to stabilize someone and transport them to the appropriate facility."

"OK, that's exactly what I said. A healthier version of an escort."

"A healthier version of an escort."

"You know what I'm saying. I just say it in different words."

You can see that Miocic, Papesh and everyone else in the room take energy from all of this, just as one might from a workout.

"The firehouse is a brotherhood," Papesh says. "You are the only person who's allowed to continually beat and pick on your brother. And that's the way it is here. Nobody outside is allowed to mess with us, but inside, it's constant. … When he got back from beating Roy Nelson [in 2013], the next shift he was here, he was mopping floors."

Even so, when the alarm sounds, Miocic locks into the job, colleagues say. When a task is at hand, Serious Stipe is on point.

"He and I were together on some pretty sick patients, and he was spot-on the whole time," Papesh says. "We like to goof off, and people might take that for not knowing how to do your job, but it's the exact opposite. When it's time to do your job, it's time. I think you can see that in his fighting, too."

Comfort Zones

The champ has achieved a solid level of fame, particularly in Cleveland, but so far it hasn't reached the kind of tipping point that would make his second job untenable. You get the feeling Miocic would be miserable if he couldn't go on calls anymore or go out to eat with his friends.

Miocic is always willing to sign something, take a picture or chat, but you can see him start to squirm and then glaze over, like a young boy getting his cheeks pinched in church, when the attention reaches a certain level or becomes excessively formal.

His fellow firefighters get that. Oh, boy, do they.

"We take advantage of ensuring that he gets recognized when it's appropriate," Papesh says. "We were out in the community doing a training, and I had just gotten promoted, and he kept calling me 'Chief.' I was just not there yet with that. So I was like, 'Dude, knock it off.' And he wouldn't knock it off. So when we went into this big main area, I go, 'Hey, everybody, the champ's here! The champion of the UFC is here! Come get your pictures!' At the hospital, he gets recognized too. And he gets so uncomfortable. That's the best part."

Some UFC brass and fans may wish Miocic would trot out his fun-loving side more often, bring Unserious Stipe to the press conference instead of his sterner doppelganger. Miocic is regularly described in the media as "soft-spoken." Miocic is not soft-spoken. It's more that, when the cameras roll and the presser begins, he just isn't having fun and kind of shuts down. There is not always a lot of yarn-spinning in that setting, despite how naturally that comes to him. Hello, Serious Stipe. Out comes that boyish reluctance, dutifully answering questions but, perhaps a bit worried about saying something wrong, stashing the fun and humor for when he's safely back in the treehouse.

"I hate them so much," Miocic says of news conferences and the like. "I like training and hanging out at home."

Miocic is frequently held up as a kind of athletic embodiment of his hometown. That's a double-sided coin.

On one side, Clevelanders see themselves in Miocic's work ethic and his tendency to have to travel a longer road than others. That's a fair assessment. After all, he had to pile up an 8-2 UFC record (five of those wins were knockouts) before receiving a title fight in the comparatively thin heavyweight division. Once he had the shot, he promptly flattened the favored Werdum in less than three minutes.

Miocic at the Cleveland Cavaliers' victory parade in 2016.
Miocic at the Cleveland Cavaliers' victory parade in 2016.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

That was May 14, 2016, 36 days before LeBron James and the Cavaliers ended Cleveland's half-century drought of major sports championships. Miocic led the victory parade. The native son has become not only a symbol of the city but a good-luck charm to those Clevelanders who follow sports, which is pretty much all of them.

"He's one of us," says Papesh, also a Cleveland native. "He's the perfect person to carry forth what Cleveland is. Hardworking, don't get anything for free, nothing's handed to you. How many times did he have to fight to get a title shot? How many times did he have to prove himself? It's what Cleveland is, and I think Cleveland has latched on."

Miocic is unabashed about his preference for those places and faces that are familiar to him. He likes his privacy. The flip side of that tight-knit social fabric is the risk of becoming insular, even mistrustful. Cleveland has been described by its own citizens as having that quality. If Miocic embodies the city, he carries that gene as well.

There is not an introverted bone in Miocic's body, but there seems to be a sense of wariness when it comes to promoting himself and his own fights, and that instinct could be self-defeating.

It might be part of why Miocic, for all his knockouts and championships and organic likability, perpetually seems to take a back seat to his opponents. That is certainly the case in the run-up to his bout with Ngannou.

Miocic (left) and Francis Ngannou (right)
Miocic (left) and Francis Ngannou (right)Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

At a recent media event to promote their fight, which was chronicled by the Los Angeles Times, Ngannou, a charismatic if quiet 31-year-old with God's own left hook and a compelling backstory of his own, said Miocic "will try to survive, but whatever he's going to try, I will touch him and connect, and you know what happens when I connect."

UFC President Dana White claimed Ngannou's punching power is equivalent to 96 horsepower, that his punch is "more powerful than a 12-pound sledgehammer being swung from full force overhead" and like getting "hit by a Ford Escort going as fast as it can." A bit of a stretch, most likely, but splashy all the same.

Miocic responded to it all with the verbal equivalent of yawns.

"This is what I signed up for," Miocic said at the event. "Why would I be intimidated by another man?"

The calm is admirable, and Miocic acknowledges that he "loves" being the underdog, as oddsmakers have him against Ngannou. But in a world where much of the responsibility for selling fights rests on the fighters—and that's according to White himself—Miocic is not always a compelling salesman. It may not be that fans view Miocic as the inferior fighter. They just lend their attention to that which works the hardest to capture it.

Miocic steadfastly insists he doesn't care about such things, but those things may have something to do with his circuitous path to the title and what have been, by his own estimation, relatively paltry paydays in the past.

If the public heard a Miocic tale or two along the lines of what visitors hear in the firehouse, any perception that he is uninteresting would vaporize pretty quickly. Now, following productive new contract progress with the UFC, perhaps Miocic and UFC owners WME-IMG will invest more energy in the champ. For now, it's an open question.
 

'A Very, Very Good Coach'

Miocic celebrates with his corner after defeating Werdum to win the heavyweight title.
Miocic celebrates with his corner after defeating Werdum to win the heavyweight title.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Monday morning is now Monday evening, and it's time to train. Strong Style stretches like a measuring tape across a light-industrial commercial zone not far outside Cleveland. A huge image of Miocic stretches across its front facade.

Inside, a kids' class has just let out. A stream of youngsters scurry around chairs and visitors, snatching up clothing and gear. Jessica Eye, the other Strong Style fighter currently under UFC contract, patrols the floor, surveying the scene and hobnobbing with the regulars.

In the fitness area, set apart from the huge grappling mat and sparring cage, Miocic's wife, Ryan, hops on the treadmill. Stipe and Ryan met at a firehouse. It was six years ago, and Ryan was introduced to the then-up-and-coming Miocic by her brother, also a firefighter at the Oakwood station.

Across the gym, a bystander spots Miocic, who is standing off to the side of the gym's large central mat with his head coach, Marcus Marinelli. 

"Oh, man! Stipe!" says the man. "Can I get a picture?"

"Yeah, of course," Miocic responds with perfect equanimity, as if he had been asked to pass the salt.

"He doesn't care about being recognized," Ryan says, slightly winded as the treadmill gets rolling in earnest. "He's so normal. He doesn't realize that when he talks to people, they might be in awe. That's why people relate to him and like him so much. I think he means everything to [Cleveland residents]. He's their Rocky Balboa. He's different from other athletes."

Trained as a hospice nurse, she also understands what Miocic derives from his work as a paramedic. 

"It's a totally different gratification [than fighting]," she says. "He wins a fight and it is gratifying because you train hard, you work hard, and you want to win. But a first responder is totally different. People look at you in times of desperation. The feeling you get from helping people in that time of their lives is such a high."

Here, Miocic helps set an atmosphere much like the one at the firehouse. When it's time to go to work, a mask drops and Miocic dials in. But up until that moment, it's all fun and games. And as with the firehouse, it serves a purpose.

"In my amateur days, I think it was like my fourth or fifth fight, there was a guy everybody was saying, 'Oh, he's gonna beat your ass,'" Miocic recalls. "And we're backstage and Marc was screaming at me about everything I had to do and stuff. And I look at him and go, 'Are you done?' And he keeps yelling so I go over there and boop. I booped his nose. Then I say, 'We trained our d--ks off for this, and there's nothing more we can do. We're either going to win or we're going to lose, but stop. You're making me nervous.'"

Leaning back in his office chair, Marinelli offers a counter.

"He's a very large child," Marinelli says with a grin. "He wore a tutu to sparring once. He came in here once wearing a bunny suit. But there are two sides to Stipe. There's his humor. He's always good-natured. We're all very close. But there's a side of him that's pure killer."

With his wife, training partners and coaches around, Strong Style represents another home base for Miocic. It's an atmosphere he likes to take with him. Ryan never misses a fight in person. Firehouse buddies sometimes travel to events too. 

"Every fight, I go," Ryan said. "He would feel weird if he walked out and didn't see me."

Now Miocic, Marinelli and a sparring partner are in the cage at Strong Style.

"Counter," barks Marinelli. "Try to counter everything. Every shot. Pop! Pop!"

Miocic does it, sweat rising on his shoulders and soaking his tank top. In October, no one knew for sure that Miocic would face Ngannou next. But no one seems concerned either way. As it is when he goes on a call and his training snaps into place, he is all business inside Strong Style's cage.

"Stipe is very, very intelligent, in a lot of ways," Marinelli says. "He watches opponents and sees their tendencies almost immediately. He'll walk past another fighter here in the gym and say, 'You're holding your left hand too low' without breaking his stride, and he'll be right. He gets it. … At some point, he's going to be a very, very good coach."

Only those behind the proverbial curtain, it seems, are fully privy to the real Miocic, the first responder and life of the party, making coffee in the firehouse kitchen, hanging out with people who aren't asking him to be something other than what comes naturally.

"If I couldn't help people, life would be boring," Miocic says. "I'd have no purpose. Just because, when I go out to dinner with my friends, I buy dinner for everybody. They don't look at me as the UFC heavyweight champ. They look at me as the big, dumb, big-headed kid they hang out with. I'm not dumb, though."


Scott Harris covers MMA and other sports for Bleacher Report.

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