One of the beauties in all of sports is looking at the path of a multi-sport athlete, and what choices they made along their journey. Those decisions can lead an athlete to opportunities he may not have had if they chose another sport along their path. Being in the right place at the right time often enters into the equation, but ultimately it’s up to the athlete to perform when the moment arrives.
Such is the case for Stipe Miocic, who faces Roy Nelson in the co-main event on UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on Saturday night in what is easily the most important fight of his career—a fight we wouldn’t be discussing had he chose to hold onto a baseball glove instead of trying on a pair that are four ounces and fingerless.
The NCAA Division I wrestler was also a standout third baseman for Cleveland State and Trevecca Nazarene University, receiving attention from several MLB teams during his playing days. Miocic gave up the chance at being one of the regular boys of summer, to take his strong wrestling base into the world of MMA.
The Ohio-based fighter was originally supposed to face Soa Palelei at UFC 161. However, after the interim-bantamweight title fight main event was scrapped due to injury, Roy Nelson was added to the card as his new opponent.
Just like that, Miocic went from facing a fellow unranked opponent to being matched up against the No. 5-ranked heavyweight in the UFC. A chance to bounce back into the win column has now become a huge shot at a potential career defining moment for the Croatian.
It didn’t take long for him to agree to face Nelson upon hearing the news.
“I was in the middle of training,” Miocic told Bleacher Report on Thursday. “I got a text from my manager and he told me the situation. I said ‘let’s do it.’”
If the +215 underdog earns an upset victory over Nelson on Saturday night, it could catapult him into the top 10 of the heavyweight division.
“100 percent,” Miocic said. “And it’s a great fight for me too.”
His last fight wasn’t so great, as he suffered the first loss of his career in England, on the UFC on FUEL TV 5 card to Stefan Struve by TKO. Prior to that fight, Miocic had racked up three straight wins over Joey Beltran, Phil De Fries and Shane del Rosario.
The Cleveland State alum took the loss very hard.
“Yeah of course,” Miocic said. “No one likes losing, it’s not fun.”
Even though the contest with Struve won him “Fight of the Night” honors, he has only been able to view it once along with his coaches to see what mistakes he made.
“I saw it the one time, got pissed and never watched it again,” Miocic said.
It’s been almost nine months since suffering the lone loss in his career. Miocic let his body heal up, continued his other job as a firefighter and bought a house in Parma, Ohio, only a few towns over from Euclid where he grew up. During that time his opponent has knocked out both fighters he has faced, most recently Cheick Kongo at UFC 159.
The Strong Style team member is obviously concerned with Nelson’s huge right hand; he brought in Raphael “The Silencer” Butler, a professional heavyweight boxer with 28 knockouts, to help him prepare for this fight.
Perhaps though, people are sleeping on Miocic’s power and ability to end someone’s night early. After all, seven of his nine victories have come by knockout or TKO.
“I mean it is what it is,” Miocic said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I hope they do take me lightly and think I don’t have any power. That’s fine. That’s OK. Give it to the other guy. I love it. Good.”
Miocic gives credit to baseball for his “reaction time,” in MMA, as he’s transitioned from reading pitches to reading punches. Although it’s his background in wrestling that could be his biggest ally in this matchup.
“I feel good,” Miocic said about his strengths should the fight go to the ground. “That’s something that I did wrong in the last fight was ignore it. I’m a wrestler at heart, I take anyone down. I get to hold them down and do what I want.”
The 30-year-old heavyweight is at his best when he employs his wrestling. Save for the loss to Struve and his 43-second demolishing of Phil de Fries, Miocic usually mixes it up fairly well. In his victory last year over Shane del Rosario at UFC 146, he showcased great top game with his wrestling and some vicious ground and pound to earn the victory.
Could that be the way he finds a victory over Nelson?
“I definitely see it going that way if I do what I got to do,” Miocic said. “Keep control and not give him any opportunities…He is a black belt, he knows what’s going on down there. If I do what I’m supposed to do I’ll be alright.”
A win at UFC 161 over Nelson would instantly change the landscape of the heavyweight division, and Miocic would share in the lineage of Cleveland State upsets—the biggest being the 1986 NCAA tournament, when the No. 14-seed Vikings defeated the No. 2-seed Indiana.
Win or lose on Saturday night, Miocic doesn’t ever regret his choice to pursue MMA.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said.
Michael Stets is a Featured Columnist Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.