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.