By Gareth A. Davies
It was 12 years ago when Stipe Miocic first walked into Strong Style MMA Training Centre, in Independence, Ohio. Brought in as a training partner to wrestle with Dan Bobish. No one knew this 22-year-old with an Eastern European name. But once he was once on the mat, the gym came to a standstill.
“I do remember that day. It was very interesting. Nobody was watching and we started going at it and then everybody was watching. They all stopped what they were doing for a while. It was crazy,” recalls Miocic, now the reigning, undisputed UFC heavyweight champion of the world. The raw novice was more than a match for the grizzled veteran known as ‘The Bull’.
Marcus Marinelli had simply requested help for sparring for Bobish, and he could barely believe what he was witnessing. Marinelli, now inseparable with Miocic as friend and head coach, having masterminded the 34-year-old’s career, remembers the day well. He reckons it was the day that changed his life – in and out of the gym.
“We were training Dan and we were looking for another wrestler to come in and train with him. A mutual friend of ours said he knew this guy who would love to come in and wrestle, so Stipe came in. He was a nice guy.
“Dan was a D-3 national champ but, boy Stipe looked good. Me and Bobish, who was like 300lb, were like, ‘Holy hell, where did this guy come from?’ He did really well. I started talking to him about fighting, we trained a little bit, but then he wasn’t so interested.”
Miocic was on a different track at that time, with different goals, juggling sport and work. He played baseball, football and wrestled while at Eastlake North High School, then received interest from Major League Baseball teams during his collegiate years at Cleveland State and Trevecca Nazarene University.
“We didn’t see him for a while,” Marinelli recalls. “He was doing some stuff in wrestling and baseball but then he came back and started training with us. He ended up leaving to go to paramedic school for his firefighter stuff. He came back after that.
“We took some time off MMA to box and he did really good in that. He won the regional Golden Gloves and some other amateur bouts. I actually went with him to the Golden Gloves nationals and he made it to the quarter-finals. That was after only eight months of professional boxing.
“It was crazy. People were like, ‘Holy s**t’. They couldn’t believe how well he did. So we boxed a little bit more and then we went back to MMA and we’re on the road to where we’re at now.”
That road led to UFC heavyweight gold in May in Brazil when he knocked Fabricio Werdum out cold. A defence against Alistair Overeem in his hometown of Cleveland four months later then gave Miocic the desire to keep an iron grip on the crown. Now there is the aim to break the jinx that history has on the belt, with no man capable of securing more than two defences of the UFC heavyweight crown during its existence.
Marinelli and a group of coaches who oversee the fighter’s life believe that in Miocic they have just the man to do that. “It’s fantastic being the UFC heavyweight king. I know what I’ve done to get here, the amount of dedication and sacrifice it has taken,” explains the gargantuan champion with shovel-sized hands. “It’s great but I’m not going to give it up. I worked too hard to just give it up.”
The key to reaching that goal, according to the American of Croatian heritage, is his coaching team and support network. Speak to any one of Miocic’s legion of specialist trainers and advisers, and they say they have the model pupil.
“I love taking something and making it my own,” says Miocic, who signed with the UFC in 2011. “If I try a move, I’ll make it work the way I want it to work. I’ll make myself comfortable. I like to learn my way – make it work for me. I just love learning. It’s fun.”
He then adds, slow and deliberate: “My coaches put so much confidence in me and I’ve got so much confidence in them. That’s what you see on fight night. We know we’re the best team walking in there.”
There is a great union between head coach and fighter. Marinelli is a communicator, a motivator. Miocic remains the quiet man. “I saw it right off the bat. I saw his ability,” explains Marinelli. “As a person, he’s probably one of the most respectful and humble people I’ve ever known.
“He’s got this side of him… He’s just a great guy – one of my closest friends. He’s loyal, he’s honest. I’m 54 years old and Stipe is 34. But I learn a lot from him. He’s actually helped me grow as a person – just watching how he handles stuff.”
Marinelli adds: “He’s also very coachable. He trusts us a lot. We don’t take that lightly. We put 100% into all our fighters but someone like Stipe really has 100% trust and he wants to be coached. The whole picture with him is a very good setup for the type of achievements he’s had. He thrives in that environment where he has a very close relationship with myself and the other coaches.
“We do a lot of stuff together outside the gym. We go through everything together, the good and the bad, the personal stuff. That’s undoubtedly helped create what he is. Put it this way, I don’t want to ever let him down. And that goes for all the other coaches. I try to do all the homework I can. We put 100% into developing him and him reaching his full potential.”
Now Marinelli believes he has the heavyweight who can change history. “I definitely believe he’s the guy to do it. He’s just way more well-versed than a lot of the other guys. He’s extremely strong and agile and quick. He understands the game. He studies it. But it’s the heavyweight division and it’s a tough division. The reason it has changed hands a lot is because the smallest mistake and you’re in trouble. In nine months he beat Arlovski, Werdum and Overeem in the first round. That’s f**king crazy, man.”
That deep faith Marinelli has in Miocic is mutual. “He’s my best friend. He means everything to me,” Miocic admits. “I’m very lucky to have him as a coach, but even luckier to have him as a friend and someone just in my life.” That trust is extraordinary.
But there is another side to Miocic’s life outside of fighting. Arguably, it puts him into adversarial positions, too, in his second role as a firefighter and paramedic. “I think it aids my fighting life 100%,” he explains. “In my line of work you have to stay cool and calm under pressure and just do your job. We train all the time and learn all the time as a paramedic. It’s the same with fighting.”
Marinelli pipes in: “I watch how he handles adversity. Not just in the cage but out of it. People don’t realise you can get beat inside the cage because of adversity outside the cage. I watch how he handles it and he’s got a way of understanding when to give something energy and when not to.
“During fight week we share the same room. We literally don’t leave each other’s side for four days. I watch him deal with all the pressure, especially when he fought in Cleveland. He was getting pulled in so many different directions. I was like, ‘Holy s**t, that guy has a hard time.’ He does extremely well with it. He could be having his worst day and somebody could come up to him and say, ‘Stipe, could I get an autograph?’ He could be so busy but will be like, ‘No problem, thanks very much for supporting me.’ He’s just respectful. It’s awesome to see.
“The thing is about Stipe, he’ll never quit. He loves helping people. People ask him all the time, why are you doing that, why are you doing this? He just loves helping people. What’s wrong with that?
Miocic has become a loved figure in Cleveland, a lucky charm even. “I don’t know about a lucky charm, but I’m just glad this city has something to be proud of,” Miocic explains. “It’s about time. The city needs it. The city was looking for something and now we’ve got a bunch of positivity. It has all worked out.”
Marinelli says the base Miocic fights from has a solidity that’s hard to match in heavyweight MMA. It starts with his boxing. “We’ve always had a lot of good boxing coaches. We’ve always realised the value of keeping your feet on the ground and punching to start off the fight. I believe he could win the heavyweight championship of the world in boxing now.
“That comes from a lot of very good boxing coaches who aren’t even our coaches. They come into the gym and watch him and are like, ‘If he was able to box every day, he’d be right in the running with these guys now.’”
On the subject of fighting boxing’s heavyweight champions, Stipe is a little more coy. “I don’t know about that but I’d definitely give them a good fight. I’ll fight anyone, man.”
Marinelli again. “The fact is that Stipe’s very efficient. He’s got a very good mind in there, too. He’s got nice movement, good angles. His speed and athleticism allow him to cover the ground very well. He gets where he wants to get. He’s got an iron jaw. He just has it. He has it for fighting.
“The Roy Nelson, Junior (dos Santos) and Mark Hunt fights were longer and you started seeing different aspects of his game come out – stuff nobody has seen from him. People think he’s just a power puncher but that’s not true. In the gym, it’s like playing a video game with him. It’s freaking nuts. We have code words for everything and we change them up and have different techniques we use based on the opponent. We try to arrange techniques where they are effective.”
Smack talk, though, is not part of Stipe’s vernacular. Never will be, either, he says. “People love it. Some guys talk smack. I’m not that guy. I’m not so good at talking, but I’m good at fighting. Some guys are good at it. Conor McGregor’s good. They hype it up. But that’s not me. I’m just not a talker, man. I just want to go out there and do my job. I train too hard to a let a guy get under my skin. I bust my balls as hard as I can.”
Does no one get under his skin? “My wife does,” he laughs. But Marinelli never has, and never will, by the look of it. There will be no ‘calling out’ from Stipe, either. “I don’t know who I’ll fight next. I’ll just wait to hear who I have to fight. I’m not going to swerve any fight,” he says, though he admits that avenging defeats to dos Santos and Stefan Struve are on his bucket list.
“Whenever you get a loss, you want that loss back. They’re great guys, too. I don’t call guys out. I’ll fight whoever the UFC wants me to fight. It doesn’t matter who they put in front of me. I’ll win.”
Marinelli adds that any setback is addressed immediately by Miocic: “It would be good to get that victory back against dos Santos, but it’s not about that anymore. It’s about moving forward. That loss did a lot for him in the sense of learning. He came out of that fight and within five minutes of being in the back room he was like, ‘I could beat him tomorrow.’ There were some tactical things that could have been done a little bit better but he still fought a very tough fight and I thought it was closer than how the judges saw it.”
Overall, though Miocic is a game-changer in his home city and in the gym. A genuine role model. “To the gym it’s amazing. I started this gym from scratch 22 years ago,” explains Marinelli. “I came from a shootfighting and karate background. Running the gym isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It’s a tough business. When we got into the MMA 22 years ago, we watched this sport grow. We’ve been involved since the beginning.
“It’s been a blessing, it’s been awesome. But to get to this point through all that – it’s almost indescribable. I look around and it’s awesome to see all the people out there who don’t fight but maybe take classes and whatever and they’re all so proud that Stipe is the world champion. It’s very emotional for me when I think about it.”
When I tell Miocic how Marinelli says he has changed the coach’s life, he’s visibly moved. “That means everything to me,” Miocic adds. “He’s mentored me, man. He’s always been there for me. He’s an extraordinary person. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I owe that guy everything in my life.”
Loyalty. It means the world to fighters, and in heavyweight Stipe Miocic, the UFC has a figurehead right now as its champion who may have the special qualities to re-write history in its blue riband division.
*** This feature originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***