When it was over, when Stipe Miocic was done gnashing and grinding Francis Ngannou’s championship aspirations and the UFC 220 promotional budget into a fine chalk, then blowing it all into the wind and dusting off his hands with a gravelly grunt, there was no denying his claim to history.
In 25 grueling minutes last Saturday night, Miocic systematically disassembled Ngannou’s burgeoning legend, stealing away his evening in piecemeal style. First robbing him of his stamina, then of his power, then of his composure, and finally, of his will. Miocic was truly a thief of dreams.
The end of the night should have been a coronation for Miocic, but the reality felt like something more bitter, starting from the time he ripped the heavyweight belt out of the hands of UFC president Dana White in order to let his coach Marcus Marinelli place it around his waist, and continuing through the post-fight press conference. If there was any question that the chip on his shoulder had become the Árbol de Piedra, he pretty much acknowledged it in a single line while discussing the personal significance of the win.
“Everybody s--t on me, dude,” he said.
For weeks, the king had been under siege from all sides. By his opponent, by the oddsmakers, and maybe even by his promotion, which put significant resources into prioritizing the incredible story of his opponent. To be fair to the UFC, Ngannou’s personal story is one of human triumph worth promoting when you’re in the business of selling stars. And to be fair to Miocic, he has a legitimate reason for feeling slighted by the inattention paid to him.
For several months, Miocic has made it clear that he has felt disrespected by the UFC, who paid his last two pre-Ngannou opponents more in base salary than him despite the fact he was the reigning champion. While he successfully renegotiated a new contract, moving right into a situation where he again felt slighted feeds perfectly into his me-against-the-world mentality. He is great, he is unappreciated, and he is angry.
For Miocic, all of these things probably feed into each other. He draws inspiration from slights either real or perceived, bolstering his training, and leading to excellent performances on fight night. It is a perfect circle of motivational drivers for a bootstrapping Midwesterner.
For the UFC though, Miocic has been a perplexing problem. To them, he is a square peg they’re only occasionally attempting to hammer into the round hole. He doesn’t fit their favored stereotypes. He is not brash or beautiful; he doesn’t speak in audacious sound bytes.
The Clevelander is not a typical, straight-out-of-central-casting star; he does not drip with charisma or steal headlines with every statement. But he is big and bad and bold and blue-collar, and all of those ingredients can add up to a greater public popularity with the right push. Chuck Liddell rarely said an interesting thing in his life and was a freaking accounting major; Miocic destroys monsters and rescues people in his spare time. How is he not on Conan or Jimmy Fallon or some other show that WME has tentacles into? A part-time heavyweight G.O.A.T. who is more excited about becoming a dad and driving his snow plow than having the title ... you can’t sell that? That is specifically why the UFC should love him.
Only the UFC brass knows for sure if they were actually rooting for Ngannou to win, or if they would have simply preferred it. The fact is, it doesn’t matter. They invested money into publicizing a fight, and Miocic came out the winner. While they cannot recoup their investment in Ngannou right away, their equity applies nearly equally to the champion, because while they portrayed Ngannou as an unstoppable phenom, Miocic stopped the phenom.
No matter their plans or preferences, the UFC will have to at least try to sell Miocic; they have no other choice at least for now, with Miocic separating himself from the pack of contenders behind him. His recent six-fight stretch stands among the most dominant runs in UFC heavyweight history. During that time, according to FightMetric, he has out-landed opponents 652-121 en route to five knockouts and a lopsided decision win. It’s been one thrashing after the next, and while he didn’t finish Ngannou, he barely allowed the challenger to lay those considerable hands on him. The biggest blowout came in the fourth, when Miocic machine-gunned 82 strikes to Ngannou’s zero. A total round shutout in a championship fight is practically unheard of. That should be sellable, too.
For Miocic, at least there’s a silver lining to the heavy Ngannou hype. While the UFC—and part of the media—spent so much time portraying Ngannou as a world-beater, if you beat the world-beater, what does that make you? Even if it was indirect, there is a real benefit to him.
One thing we have learned in combat sports is that aside from supernovas like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, most stars need time to form. The organization has to promote and the fighter has to win, and then after years, the fighter breaks through. Anderson Silva took years to do it. So did Liddell.
Miocic’s combination of potency and relatability has yet to make him a real star, but there is no question there are routes for him to arrive there. “Pissed off and angry” has always intrigued us. “Me against the world” has always sold. From The Count of Monte Cristo to Die Hard 17, the solitary hero is a reliable trope for a reason.
Miocic is that and more. Firefighter, fighter, everyman, king. Unappreciated and disrespected, he’s pissed off and he’s angry. Hide your contenders, hide your legends, hide your president while you’re at it. He’s coming to take it out on everybody, and the UFC should love it.