CLEVELAND — If not for the likable local hero who dethroned a champion a few months ago, Cleveland’s sports title drought might not be over.
Stipe Miocic beat LeBron James to the punch.
In May, Miocic went to Brazil and knocked out Fabricio Werdum in the first round to capture the UFC heavyweight title. The victory triggered a run of championships for Cleveland as the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters won the Calder Cup and James led the Cavaliers to an historic comeback over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, ending a title dearth stretching to 1964.
For Miocic, a Cleveland native who works as a fire fighter and paramedic, starting the string of titles for his hometown was special.
“Cleveland needed it,” he said. “For 52 years, man, we had nothing. It’s something to be proud of. You can say I broke or I didn’t break it, I really don’t care. I’m just happy we have something to be proud of. Nothing is better than that.”
Miocic will now become the first Cleveland champion to defend a title as he’ll face Alistair Overeem in the main event Saturday night in UFC 203, which will take place in sold out Quicken Loans Arena, giving the 34-year-old Miocic a distinct home-octagon advantage.
Also on the card is the long-awaited UFC debut of former pro wrestling superstar CM Punk, who at 37 is attempting a transition few would dare attempt. Punk will take on Mickey Gall, a rising 24-year-old welterweight who wanted to fight Punk and will now get his chance. Werdum gets back in action as well for the first time since losing to Miocic against heavyweight Travis Browne, who had some salty words for his opponent during Thursday’s news conference.
Miocic has gotten a sampling this week of what he’ll experience Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder’s workouts have drawn big crowds and hundreds of fans were at the news conference, with many of them shouting out encouragement to Miocic, who responded with a quick smile and clenched fist. It’s been a whirlwind summer for Miocic, who in addition to taking batting practice with the Cleveland Indians, riding in the Cavs’ downtown parade attended by nearly one million people, got married.
His engagement this weekend with Overeem has some parallels to his fight against Werdum.
In front of 45,000 of his countrymen, Werdum came out aggressively and was off balance as he chased after Miocic, who landed a right-handed punch to the Brazilian’s chin. Werdum may have been slightly overconfident on his home turf, and he paid for it.
Miocic promises he won’t make the same mistake.
“It doesn’t matter where I fight,” he said. “It could be Cleveland. It could be Brazil again. I’m here for business. I’ll walk into the octagon and all I’ll think about is me and Alistair, and that’s all I care about. No one else is getting in there with us, so I’m going to come out the winner and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Overeem has spent the past few days saying he’s hungrier than Cleveland’s champ and feels Miocic may be distracted by being home. A former kickboxing champion, Overeem says fighting on familiar ground can be helpful — and a detriment.
“It does give you a little extra boost,” the Dutchman said. “It does give you a little more shivers. On the other hand, there’s the extra appearances you’ve got to do and everyone wants a piece of you. It depends on how you handle it. I think with my 86 fights and my 22 years of training, I’ve been able to handle it very well. It’s going to be curious how Stipe handles it. Stipe seems very professional, but we’ll see how he handles it on Saturday.”
Overeem has been targeted by some verbal taunts from Miocic supporters, who can’t fathom the idea of him winning in Cleveland. Overeem has learned to like the city and even attended the Cavs’ victory parade, which he described as madness.
“It was nice to see a very proud state finally accomplishment championships,” he said, adding a threat. “I almost feel a little sad that I will be taking something away from them.”
Not if Miocic can help it. He’s helped change Cleveland, which has spent the summer celebrating like never before.
“Now we’re a city of champions,” he said, “and we plan on keeping it that way for a long time.”