UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic crushing critics while elevating his brand

If there was a championship for being a good guy in the UFC, Stipe Miocic likely would've been a top contender since the day he first stepped in the Octagon in 2011. 

Still a part-time firefighter and paramedic in his native Ohio, there's a soft-spoken and almost All-American feel to the fighter in real life that lives in contrast to the violent tendencies he shows as a UFC knockout artist. 

Yet for everything that his fists were able to do for his fighting career, including capturing UFC heavyweight gold by finishing Fabricio Werdum with one punch in 2016, it didn't translate into him becoming a crossover star. Neither did a pair of title defenses, both by first-round knockout, including a violent avenging of his most prominent defeat against Junior dos Santos. 

If anything, an underbelly of criticism began to surface that Miocic can't talk. He's boring. He's too much of an everyman. He'll never be a pay-per-view draw. 

During a time in MMA history when Conor McGregor was rewriting the playbook on how to be a flashy marketer who can talk his way into record-breaking financial opportunities, Miocic was the blue-collar opposite. 

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Yet through it all, Miocic (18-2) simply tucked his chin and powered through, no different than the times he has been forced to weather the storm of trading strikes in the always unpredictable UFC heavyweight division. 

"I just like proving people wrong who are doubting me," Miocic told CBS Sports' "In This Corner" podcast on Tuesday. "I love it. I love when people don't think I'm capable of doing something and I get to prove them wrong. That has been my whole live. I love it and it's never going to end."

The idea of others doubting Miocic seemed to reach a fever pitch in the short build to his January title defense against dangerous yet still green slugger Francis Ngannou, who was just 46 days removed from violently authoring the Knockout of the Year. 

With PPV sales struggling and UFC brass short on crossover stars, it began to appear as if the promotion was fast-tracking Ngannou to the title in hopes it might find the MMA version of Mike Tyson. Both oddsmakers and many journalists (including this one) fully bought in, installing the reigning champion as the underdog. 

Fresh off a contract dispute with UFC that kept him out nearly eight months, the mild-mannered Miocic could no longer stay quiet. Watching the attention Ngannou received throughout the promotion for UFC 220, Miocic talked publicly about feeling disrespected. He even went as far as suggesting UFC was hoping he would lose. 

"I definitely felt that way but [was it true?] Maybe or maybe not," Miocic said. "I can't worry about that though."

Come fight night, none of it mattered. Fueled by his critics, Miocic survived an early flurry of power shots to grind out and badly expose the limited Ngannou over the full five rounds in a dominant decision win. 

"[Ngannou] was big and strong and tough and he kept coming, but I just started picking stuff out in the middle of the fight," Miocic said. "It's what you do. You have to figure it out just like a puzzle. I started catching him with shots and getting him more tired. The takedowns were there and he was getting tired and I started realizing that I could just exhaust him out. He's super strong and I didn't want to give him an opportunity to get back up."

Not only did Miocic, 35, set a UFC record by becoming the first heavyweight champion to record three consecutive title defenses, he did so by portraying the exact qualities he had been tabbed for months earlier when he was named a spokesman for Modelo beer as part of UFC's multiyear deal. 

After being hand-picked by Modelo USA for their new "Fighting Spirit" marketing campaign, Miocic filmed a commercial one month before the fight in Los Angeles. When he entered the Octagon on Jan. 20, the champion is willing to admit now he had more than just Ngannou on his mind. 

"Honestly, I have a funny story to tell about that," Miocic said. "I [knew that I] couldn't walk in there being the first Modelo athlete to go down."

The commercial, which simulated Miocic making the walk through the crowd to the cage on fight night, also featured an appearance from his mother, Kathy, who has never seen him fight in person due to the anxiety of potentially seeing her son get hurt. 

The son of Croatian immigrants, Miocic credits his mother for instilling the same qualities that attracted his new sponsor in the first place. 

"My mother definitely ingrained in me the hardworking, don't stop and make yourself better everyday," Miocic said. "I got to bring her to the commercial and it was so cool for me to have her part of it and show her what it's all about. She loved every second and just wanted to hang out. It worked out perfect with this sponsorship because we both have that fighting spirit and don't give up and just keep moving forward."

The last six months have been good for Miocic, bringing him a new contract, a UFC record and a major sponsorship deal. The good news only continued last month when he agreed to face light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier on July 7 in a true super fight that will headline UFC 226. 

But has his recent good fortune been enough to create a shift change in how Miocic is perceived by critics, let alone appreciated by his employer?

"Yes and no … but that's someone's opinion," Miocic said. "I think breaking the record helps a lot, as does beating a guy like Francis who is considered one of the scariest guys on the planet. But I just go out there and do my thing and winning and proving people wrong. 

"I love the matchup with DC. I match up very well with him and definitely see where I can cause him a lot of problems. He's a great fighter. He fought a lot of great guys. He's got a great pedigree; he's an amazing wrestler, he's good on his feet, he has great cardio and he's smart. But he hasn't seen anyone like me yet." 

Once thought of as a deterrent toward his marketing potential, Miocic can only laugh when thinking how far his wholesome and blue-collar ways have taken him.

"I guess nice guys don't finish last," he said. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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