Stipe Miocic's favorite place in the world is T.J. Maxx. The 6'4", 245-pound mixed-martial-arts fighter is Cleveland-born, -bred, and -raised. And after climbing his way from the amateur circuit to the multi-million dollar international stage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, collecting knockouts and paychecks along the way, he remains quaintly thrifty.
"I got a pair of D.C. shorts there for like $15," he says during a chat in the Valley View firehouse, where he works part time, about the life of a rising but not fully risen athlete. "I don't need to be shopping and spending money. They're my favorite shorts. Now that I have a few sponsors, I get T-shirts and stuff, but I get a lot of my workout clothes there. It's my favorite place. I love it."
Miocic is 29 and a relative latecomer to mixed martial arts, though he was a standout wrestler and baseball player through high school at Eastlake North and college at Cleveland State. He also enjoyed a brief successful stint as a boxer after that. He's been fighting for only the past two years, but has amassed a tidy 9-0 record in that time, which has him on the brink of his biggest and most important fight yet: a September 29 date with 6'11" Stefan Struve in the main event of a U.F.C. card in Nottingham, England.
Think of MMA fighting like a ladder, much like boxing or a video game where the bouts get increasingly tougher with each level. Miocic started as an absolute rookie back in February 2010 at NAAFS Caged Fury 9 in Cleveland, dispatching Corey Mullis by TKO in just 17 seconds. Five more bouts and he signed with UFC in June 2011; his last fight, back in May in Vegas as a short-notice fill-in against Shane Del Rosario, catapulted the Croatian-American to the precipice of heavyweight champion contender. If things go his way in England this fall, he'll be in line to square off against one of the top five or so ranked fighters in the world.
Here, in the firehouse, however, Miocic is just one of the guys. Training — two sessions a day, five or six days a week — is a full-time job, but his part-time gigs as a firefighter and paramedic in Valley View and Oakwood are his reprieve.
Three guys are on recliners watching Iron Man 2 as Miocic talks at the kitchen table. Earlier today, he was taking pictures of his nipple for his buddies and pressing his face against a photocopier to give an underwater effect to his impressively chiseled jawline.
"It's great, you just can't beat it. What's better than this?" he says. "It keeps me sane. I come back in, and [the other firefighters] are like, 'Oh, check this out.' And they'll have my last fight frozen in like the worst spot, the one they know will bug me the most. I haven't seen them in two weeks or whatever, and I'm like really? Really? They're just like, 'Welcome back.' It's just good ball-busting. Here I'm just the guy with the big head."
And MMA is not the only realm in which he's undefeated.
"You ever watch 'Tosh.0'? We play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Balltap," Miocic says. It's just like regular rock, paper, scissors, he explains, except participants are blindfolded and the loser only knows he's lost when a third party gives him a quick shot to the undercarriage. He pulls out his phone to share a video of one such contest with his firehouse buddies. "I haven't lost yet. Thankfully. That's what we do for fun."
The dichotomy of Miocic's two halves presents an easy and compelling narrative — part-time life saver, part-time life destroyer (sort of) — but he emphasizes that he's truly passive by nature. The first time he got punched, he was 10 or 11.
"It was a football game or something. My buddy got me good, real good," he says. "I got my licks in a few years later. But I'm not a fighter. The last time I fought was like when I was 12. I'm a passive guy. I try to avoid arguments. If you piss me off, I'll get fired up, but that's not really me."
Which is why the excessively violent career in the octagon is incongruous. Miocic has a beaming, ever-present smile. As a punchline to nearly every funny story, he contorts his lips into a stone-faced grimace as if he's angry. His underlying smile shines through, as do his soft eyes, revealing his jovial nature. It's all hijinks and jokes between him and the firehouse guys — not to mention his friends, his girlfriend, his coach, and fellow fighters. It's all fun.
No one likes getting punched, and Miocic is no exception. But even his worst moments on the receiving end aren't that bad.
"I really got clocked in my second pro fight," he says. "It wasn't that I was hurt. It was just that he caught me off-guard. In my head, I was just like, 'Whoa, I should keep my hands up.' With heavyweights, all it takes is just one punch. In one fight, this guy caught me and I kind of breakdanced across the ring, kind of slipping. It didn't really get me, but all I could think was, 'This probably looks really bad on national TV.'"
Miocic's mom wouldn't have seen that. She doesn't watch: supportive, but always worried, and not inclined to watch her son pummel and get pummeled.
"She saw one fight after the fact," he says. "The neighbor had taped it and told her it was OK to watch it because it only lasted 43 seconds. And I never do this, but that time I did the whole, 'I love you, Mom!' thing after the fight. She was crying afterward. But she just waits for the phone call, from me or someone else, to tell her I won and everything's OK. She's so proud. I call her first thing after each and every fight. Sometimes she'll be like, 'How's the other guy?' And I'll be like, 'I'm fine Mom, thanks. And the other guy is fine too.'"
He's got more family scattered across the area; his dad is back in Croatia. When Miocic travels to England, his father will be there in person. And all his friends will be there virtually, blowing up his cellphone one way or the other.
He tries to get back to everyone, and usually does, but after his fight in Vegas in May in front of 15,000 people — which he calls the best experience of his life — more than 250 messages of congratulations poured in, slowly killing his phone in the process. Back in the hotel room, Miocic was far too tired to deal with the onslaught and gave up replying halfway through. He'd also taken two Percocets, something he usually doesn't do, and was in the midst of dry heaving thanks to taking the painkillers on an empty stomach. The next week back in Cleveland, the recuperation would be all natural, but slow.
"The first night back, we went to Shooters with my girlfriend and coach and some people," says Miocic. "I went up to go to the bathroom, and it took me like 20 minutes hobbling up the stairs. I slept a lot that week and basically shut down."
Then it was back to Strong Style, the Independence gym where he trains, and the firehouse. Along with the routine have come some press, more attention, and a little more recognition around town.
"People are real nice," says the up-and-comer. "They just come up, shake my hand, and say, 'Good fight, man,' and leave me alone."
It's also brought another shot at moving up the ladder.
"It's been fun," says Miocic. "And when it stops being fun, I'll be done. But even then, being at the gym with the guys and training, that's all fun too. 'It's been a fun journey so far,' is what my coach says. 'A great journey, but it's not done yet.'"
Bigger paydays await, and Miocic had planned on waiting until after his fight in September to make any "big" purchases; until now, the biggest thing he'd splurged on was a new Mac computer. But he recently stumbled on a house in Parma and got a good deal. After 15 minutes of filling out paperwork and nervously pondering what he had just done, he finally calmed down, assured that he could not only afford his mortgage, but could probably pay off the whole thing at once. He'll move in next month, which means there are things to be bought and only one place to go.
"I was at T.J. Maxx shopping with my girlfriend," he says. "They have the bed and bath section, you know? And I was looking at these things like, 'Oh my God, look at this. Look at this. And look at this.' And she just shook her head. She's like, 'This doesn't match this, and this doesn't match that.' Just stuff I would never have thought of. And I wanted these towels, and she was like, 'You have neutral colors. You can't get that.'
"Maybe I'll just have a bed and TV," he says. "Get a table and dishes. It'll be OK. I'm just really lucky."