Stipe Miocic had heard about the dreaded "Octagon jitters." People told him all the usual horror stories, the tales of guys who froze up in their first UFC fight and got run over like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming semi. But he knew that wouldn’t be him. The heavyweight had been on big stages before, both in college sports and in the Golden Gloves. He could handle the pressure of his UFC debut. He knew he could.
Then he walked out into the Toyota Center at UFC 136, and suddenly he wasn’t so sure.
"It was a little overwhelming," Miocic said from Omaha, where he’ll face Phillip De Fries at Wednesday’s UFC on FUEL TV event. "I thought I was going to be okay, but I was nervous. I felt it right when I walked out. You’re always nervous before a fight. But it really hit me when I walked out and saw all the people there. Then you look up and see your name on the screen."
For Miocic, it was a moment he’d been planning for and working toward since his pro MMA debut in February of 2010. With the great expectations heaped on him after his early performances, the former Cleveland State wrestler and baseball player knew that someday he’d end up in the UFC. He just didn’t know it would feel quite like this, or take this much out of him. Neither did his coach, Marcus Marinelli, who thought everything was going according to plan in the opening round of the fight with Joey Beltran on the pay-per-view prelims.
"I couldn’t really tell until I saw him in the corner after the first round," Marinelli said. "Then I knew that he was having a little bit of a letdown. He had a really good first round, but he just looked more tired than he should have been."
The sudden jolt of adrenaline was taking its toll on Miocic. Both fighter and trainer could see it when he turned to go back out for the second round.
"Your heart beats faster. You think about all the time you spent thinking about being in the UFC, and now it’s here," Miocic said. "It took more out of me than I thought. The second round I really felt it."
Miocic still had enough left in the tank to get through the round and win a unanimous decision over Beltran, which is what makes the story of his UFC debut seem more like a comedy than a tragedy when he retells it now. He was naive enough to think he’d be different. He thought he’d have some sort of immunity to the Octagon jitters. He was wrong.
The good news is, you only have to go through it once. Or so Miocic is hoping as he heads into his second UFC fight and looking to keep his perfect 7-0 record intact.
"I think some of it is just going through it," said Marinelli, who’s trained Miocic at Ohio’s Strong Style Fight Team since the start of his MMA career. "The first time you’re in there, it’s like you need to go through it to realize that there’s not that much to be nervous about, and you do belong there. When you see him come out for this one, you’ll see a lot less of that. ...I still think that was about 60 percent of what I see in the gym. There’s a lot more he can bring to the night of the fight."
He’ll probably need to against De Fries, who is also unbeaten. The British heavyweight made his Octagon debut at UFC 138, earning a decision victory over Rob Broughton. It was the first of his eight wins that didn’t end in a submission, so Miocic is expecting De Fries to try and get him to the ground early on, he said, "but I think I’d like to keep it standing."
To help strengthen his ground game, among other things, Miocic spent a portion of this training camp working with Phil Davis at the Alliance gym in San Diego. He also went through an especially tough grind back in Ohio, where Marinelli said he "threw everything but the kitchen sink" at Miocic, "and he held up incredibly well."
Now that Miocic has his nerve-wracking debut out of the way, De Fries might be in for a rough night, according to Marinelli
"The guy’s a grappler. His takedowns are just average, and he’s not a great striker. He is a heavyweight, and if a heavyweight hits you, you could be in trouble. But we’re prepared. I think if Stipe does what he’s supposed to do, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a fight."
As for Miocic, he's just happy to have his own pair of trunks this time. In his first UFC bout, the pair he was supposed to wear "fell through at the last minute," he said, which resulted in his homage to MMA great Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic with the checkered Croatian flag-inspired trunks. This time he got his sponsor Hayabusa to make him a pair of his own, so he hopes to avoid any difficult comparisons to a legend of the sport -- especially so early in his career.
"I saw people afterwards calling me a fake 'Cro Cop.' It was funny. I wasn’t trying to do that, but at the last second I needed a pair of shorts," he said.
Then again, if you have to be a fake anybody, you could do a lot worse, Miocic pointed out.
"I don’t really care what anyone says about it. Cro Cop’s one of my favorite fighters, so I'll take that."