Does Doing Your Talking in the Cage Work? Stipe Might Be the Ultimate Test Case

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterAugust 16, 2019

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 15:  Stipe Miocic interacts with media during the UFC 241 Ultimate Media Day at the Hilton Anaheim hotel on August 15, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Generally speaking, every fight fan recognizes the art of the cliche. More specifically, everyone recognizes Stipe Miocic as one of the art's most refined practitioners.

It's not that Miocic isn't an interesting guy. He's well-known for his second life as a Cleveland-area paramedic—a job he refuses to relinquish even as his career led to fame, fortune and a record-breaking run as UFC heavyweight champion. Among friends and colleagues, Miocic is nearly as well known for his fierce dedication to prank-craft.

But when a media member asks him about a fight or an opponent—as plenty have done in the run-up to Saturday's UFC 241 rematch with the great Daniel Cormier, who wrested the belt away from him last year—Miocic (18-3, 11-3 UFC) takes a noticeably conservative approach. Although Cormier is the favorite to retain the strap, Miocic and his seven-inch reach advantage certainly have a path to victory. 

You probably recognize the sorts of rote responses that can quickly wrap a fire blanket around any press conference. You know, things along the lines of blocking out the distractions, only focusing on those things you can control, and generally treating the fight as a department manager might treat a quarterly budget meeting.

The Miocic tradition here is rich and demonstrable, but for the sake of expedience, we can rely on one article to prove the point. Speaking recently to UFC.com—a platform not exactly known for hardball lines of questioning—Miocic's cliche machine was running at full power. Let's tease out some highlights.

On Saturday's fight: "I'm going to do what I do. I've been working on a lot of stuff, but same approach. I know I'm the better fighter."

On his slight underdog status: "Awesome, we'll find out. I'm not good enough? He's looking up at me. I'll punch him in the face.

"I train my ass off. I'm going to go out there and do what I got to do. Like I always do, I'm going to go out swinging. I'm not going to sit around and putz. I'm going to go out there, and I'm going to fight. God forbid, something happens (and) it wasn't my night again—it ain't going to be that way. I'm going to walk out with my hand raised, belt wrapped around my waist, 'and new' [champion]."

Was he excited when he learned he would get the rematch? Meh, not really.

"No joke, for two weeks I'm like, 'This is weird,'" he said in the same article. "It just didn't seem right. Then it finally hit, and I was like, 'God, finally. Damn.' I was so excited because everyone was texting me so excited. I was excited too, but it still didn't hit me."

It's not that he's inherently boring—as someone who once spent a day with Miocic at his fire station and training gym, I can personally attest to the fact that he isn't. It's that sitting down under the spotlight to answer questions about fighting—the same questions, over and over—appears to transform him into a church boy quietly and barely enduring the incessant cheek-pinching of the parish elders.

As understandable as it may be, it's equally easy to comprehend why this approach to self-promotion isn't exactly a fast track to notoriety and the opportunities that come with it. It's probably why Mioic had to go 8-2 in the relatively thin UFC heavyweight division before getting a title shot—one he took full advantage of by flattening Fabricio Werdum in 2016 to capture the strap. It's probably why some people view him as a dull fighter despite a laser-guided boxing-forward style that has netted him 14 knockout wins and no fewer than eight post-fight bonuses.

In a nutshell, Miocic's public persona—perhaps best summarized as "reluctant"—pretty much ensures he'll always have to take the long way in his career. There is a 100 percent chance he would immediately respond to that contention by embracing the role or claiming not to notice it at all, but it does have real-world implications beyond clicks and Q scores. Miocic has previously had to scratch and claw for the kind of contract one assumes would arrive fairly automatically for a top performer in one of the UFC's glamor divisions.

But take him at his word, even if those words, at least behind a microphone, all tend to be cliches. One of the OG cliches is that talk doesn't matter, that all the "talking" one need do is inside the cage. UFC 241 is the ultimate test of whether that cliche can double as a promotional strategy.

If Miocic falls to Cormier Saturday, he may not get such an opportunity again. That doesn't mean he'll never receive another title shot; it means he likely won't ever get as large a megaphone for in-cage "talking." 

Cormier isn't Conor McGregor—if you consider that a negative thing—but he is the current heavyweight champ, the former light heavyweight champ (he only lost that title because he vacated it) and a relative celebrity given his media work on UFC broadcasts, original ESPN programming and more. The Olympic wrestler is beloved, and he is dominant, having never been given meaningful trouble by anyone not named Jon Jones.

However, Miocic and his boxing can stick and move their way to a win here. Miocic is always ready to go the distance, and he knows how to avoid trouble while dishing out plenty of his own with precise punch combinations. He's not a flashy knockout artist, but the knockouts still come. His work in the clinch and on the mat also are nothing to sneeze at, though his opponent Saturday will have big edges in both those phases.

But he can win. And what if he does? What will happen if he handles Cormier—what if he gets a stoppage?—on the main event of a pay-per-view broadcast with all the weight of ESPN behind it? What if Miocic, true to form, pays compulsory respect to Cormier, says he'll fight anyone the UFC puts in front of him next, says "and new" a few times and then bolts for the solitude of the locker room? What then?

Daniel Cormier (left) and Miocic
Daniel Cormier (left) and MiocicJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

In that way, Saturday is the ultimate test case of how far "doing your talking in the cage" can get you. It's enough to build a champion; is it enough to build a star? Miocic may not want the notoriety, but he could probably find a way to use the money, and he certainly wouldn't object to the top matchups (and frequent activity) a higher profile affords. The UFC could certainly use another personality, especially if the rumors prove true and this is Cormier's final fight

Can Miocic absorb Cormier's shine without absorbing Cormier's gift of gab? Can a fighter reach elite heights based on performance alone, especially here in 2019? It's an odd question to ask, but it's an open question nonetheless.

If Miocic is a space shuttle, his cliches are a little like gravity, pulling him back toward the ground. If he can do some emphatic "talking" in the cage, that can serve as a major booster rocket. We'll see Saturday whether that's enough to propel him beyond the stratosphere. 

     

Scott Harris writes about MMA and other things for Bleacher Report and CNN.com. 

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