LAS VEGAS — Stipe Miocic has been the UFC's heavyweight champion for more than two years, calmly dominating the most tumultuous division in mixed martial arts during a record three title defenses.
Yet deep in his core, the longest-reigning heavyweight champ in UFC history has embraced the fact he'll always feel like a firefighter from Cleveland whose life took an amazing detour.
"When I walk into the octagon and they lock the door, I'm like, 'Well, I can't leave now,'" Miocic said. "It's fight or flight, and you've got to fight. It's a little surreal, though. You look across the cage, and you're like, 'Huh. I'm fighting Daniel Cormier. Awesome. I watched this dude when I was an amateur.'"
Real life for Miocic (18-2) isn't under the bright lights of Las Vegas' T-Mobile Arena. He'll take a moment in that cage to appreciate the brilliant absurdity of being in a superfight against Cormier (20-1), the imposing light heavyweight champion, in the heavily anticipated main event of UFC 226 on Saturday night.
Real life is at home in Cleveland, where his pregnant wife is attempting to wait to deliver their first child until he gets home. Real life is in the firehouses in suburban Oakwood and Valley View where he still works as a firefighter and paramedic, fitting in several shifts each week between MMA training sessions.
The 35-year-old Miocic firmly believes he has kept the UFC heavyweight division locked down because he stayed in Cleveland and worked relentlessly to avoid both the trappings and the traps of success.
"If I ever acted like I was better than someone, my wife and my mom would pretty much murder me," Miocic said. "I think it's just the people around me. My wife, my family, coaches, friends, my firefighter buddies. If I do something dumb, they would be like, 'You're an idiot.' Plus, I come back from a title fight, and literally the next day I worked, they're like, 'Here.' They're throwing a plunger at me. They bring me down real fast."
He won't let it go to his head, but Miocic's accomplishments in the heavyweight division are peerless at this point.
After winning eight of his first 10 UFC bouts, he won the title by going to Brazil and knocking out Fabricio Werdum on his own turf. Miocic kept the belt by stopping decorated veterans Alistair Overeem and Junior Dos Santos, followed by a one-sided victory last January over Francis Ngannou, whose meteoric rise was stopped cold by a champion who came in as an underdog.
Not bad for a former Cleveland State wrestler who basically stopped studying MMA for a full year while he completed his paramedic training.
His longtime coach, Marcus Marinelli, has been gratified to see Miocic's ability to maximize the potential he saw so many years ago.
"I thought he could be a champion even before he got in the UFC if he continued on his path, (but) that's a big 'if,'" Marinelli said. "Not everybody can sustain that growth for long periods of time, and not buckle under the pressure and change. When you have success, you can go Hollywood. You can ruin everything. Your mind changes. Instead of training, you can think, 'Oh, I'll go in Wednesday.' Never for him. All of the characteristics in his personality that he had, they kept on getting stronger. I think he realized that his success was coming from it, and he didn't want to change it."
Miocic is making the biggest payday of his career Saturday, and the champ said he is finally "100 percent" happy with the UFC's financial commitment to him. That wasn't the case earlier this year, when his disappointment over a relatively meager check for his defense against Ngannou prompted him to take the belt from UFC President Dana White in the Boston cage so Marinelli could put it around his waist instead of White.
"They made it right," Miocic said. "I love it, especially for my family."
The family is about to get bigger: Miocic's wife, Ryan, is due on Aug. 1, but it could happen anytime. Ryan doesn't plan to tell him if she goes into labor shortly before the fight, and Miocic could head home right after the fight on a private jet arranged by a sponsor.
The weekend is full of potential distractions, but none of the normal Vegas variety: Along with the imminent arrival of his first child in Ohio, Miocic is heavily invested in the World Cup success of Croatia. The son of two Croatian immigrants will watch the quarterfinal match against Russia and then take a nap before the biggest fight of his life.
"It's going to be a great day on Saturday," Miocic said. "They're going to win, I'm going to win, and it'll be great."