Stipe Miocic is on the verge of doing big things in the UFC heavyweight division.
The Cleveland-based fighter has been one of the organization's best heavyweight prospects since making his promotional debut in 2011. The Croatian-American made a strong introduction by defeating veteran Joey Beltran at UFC 136 in Houston, then followed that up with back-to-back impressive stoppage victories over Phil de Fries and Shane Del Rosario.
Three wins out of the gate put Miocic on the radar in a division that was becoming increasingly competitive.
When he was matched up with Stefan Struve in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 5, the table was set for the former baseball and wrestling standout from Cleveland State University to breakthrough into the next tier of the weight class. Unfortunately that night in Nottingham, England didn't prove to be his night as he suffered the first setback of his professional career at the hands of the Dutch Skyscraper.
While rebounding from a loss on sport's biggest stage is never easy, Miocic was determined to right the ship and get things back on track. He was originally slated to face returning veteran Soa Palelei at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, a shake up at the top of the card that created a huge shift in the fight line up.
When the main event bantamweight interim title bout between Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland was scrapped due to injury, and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua versus Antonio "Lil Nog" Nogueira was pulled for the same reason, the UFC was forced to find a bit more star power for the card.
As the result of the shake up, the bout between Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans was moved to the main event slot and the highly touted prospect was given a new opponent in Las Vegas-based knockout artist Roy Nelson. Big Country provided a much different challenge than what Miocic had prepared for in Palelei, but it was a test he handled impressively.
"Winning that fight was fantastic," Miocic told Bleacher Report. "It was a fight I had to win and I went out and did it. I think it was a great game plan that my coaches put together and had me do. It worked out very well."
The win over Nelson in June had Miocic riding the high tide of momentum, and it appeared as if he would draw another high-profile opponent before the year's end. While there were several rumored opponents floating about, nothing materialized and he was forced to end his 2013 campaign with only one showing inside the Octagon.
"I think they were trying to find the right opponent for me and where I was at in the division," Miocic said. "The cards just didn't play out. Some guys I could have fought already had fights or were hurt. That's just the way it happens some times, you know?"
Following his win over Nelson, the Ohio native once again returned to the doorstep of the next tier of the division.
While defeating the former Ultimate Fighter winner helped Miocic rebound from the Struve loss, it was still going to take him one more big victory to hit the top 10 rankings. And when the UFC called with a matchup against Gabriel Gonzaga, the opportunity he had been waiting for materialized.
The Brazilian grappling ace had experienced a rough patch, losing three out of four showings, which resulted in his release from the promotion at the end of 2010. "Napao" responded to the situation with vigor and has made the most of his return to the UFC by winning four out of his five outings since reclaiming his roster spot in 2012.
Miocic is fully aware of the caliber of fight he'll have on his hands and he's very much looking forward to mixing it up with the former title challenger.
"This guy is super-tough. He's fought for a title and been there before. Now, he's working his way back up again. He has great jiu-jitsu and he hits hard. He's a big heavyweight just like everyone else in this division. We've had some good time to prepare for him and my coaches have a great game plan put together to beat him. I'll be ready to go on Jan. 25.
"I hope a win over Gonzaga will put me up there but that's not up to me," Miocic added in regard to climbing the divisional ladder. "I won't say a win in this fight is going to put me anywhere for certain, but he's a good fighter who has accomplished a lot in this sport. I'm just enjoying working my way up the ladder and I'm working to get better everyday. I'm really looking forward to this coming year. Come on 2014!"
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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