CLEVELAND – Stipe Miocic’s reward for becoming top dog in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest and baddest division was to be handed a mop and a plunger and ordered to swab floors and unblock a toilet.
It was May 2016, and four days earlier Miocic had achieved his career ambition by rendering heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum unconscious with a fierce right hand at UFC 198 in Brazil.
And now, he was back at work. As a firefighter.
Next up on the list of chores was to clean out the communal refrigerator at Valley View Fire Department, spawning the peculiar sight of the UFC heavyweight champ turning up his nose at a collection of long-forgotten delicacies — including year-old nacho cheese.
“These guys are savages,” Miocic chuckled to himself, fishing into the fridge’s deepest recesses and getting his hands on another molding stomach-turner.
Fast forward nearly 14 months to a recent Monday morning and Miocic is still the champ and still a firefighter, having racked up two more first-round knockouts and collecting more than $1.2 million.
Despite those financial rewards and becoming one of the UFC’s most popular stars, thoughts of ditching his second career at the firehouse never crossed his mind.
“Not once,” Miocic told USA TODAY Sports. “There is no reason for me to give it up. I love helping people and you don’t know how this fighting career is going to go. I love work, I love being busy. I don’t want to drive myself crazy having too much time on my hands.
“The fire station is like a big playground for guys. We have training to do, we work out together and you know you are with a group that has your back.”
Miocic, 34, has worked at the fire department, where the average salary is $14 an hour, for nearly a decade. While his employers have been understanding and flexible as his UFC career has grown, he takes pride in keeping up his regular commitments. He is a part-timer but still completes two shifts per week and once worked 60 hours straight due to demand.
Nearly a week before demolishing Alistair Overeem in UFC 203 and Junior dos Santos in UFC 211, Miocic was working at Valley View, having set his own schedule.
“Sometimes I am like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ ” said Kenneth Papesh, chief of the Valley View station. “There will be times he is here just before he flies off for a fight. It is pretty incredible. He could be anywhere, chilling out and preparing for some huge guy who is trying to knock him out. Instead he is here with a bunch of guys busting his balls and making fun of him.”
As a part-time employee, Miocic always gets ordered by the senior members into doing menial chores. “He doesn’t complain,” Paresh said. “And too be fair, there is not a lot he can do about it. It’s the job.”
Of course, the more important parts of Miocic's job include saving lives and administering emergency medical care, such as treating heart-attack victims.
Miocic’s wife Ryan said her husband loves fireman work as it “keeps him normal.” Living a typical life is vital to Miocic, who played collegiate baseball and wrestled at Cleveland State and embraces the every-man image of his upbringing and the city where he has spent all his life.
He drives a truck and does work around the house. He persuaded the UFC to downgrade his first class ticket on a recent flight so his coaches could travel with him. He is frugal as heck and doesn’t overthink things too much.
In many ways he was the perfect man to kick off Cleveland’s long-awaited run of sports success in 2016. After he beat Werdum in early May, the Cavaliers took the NBA title to end the city’s 52-year team sports drought, before the Indians narrowly fell short in the World Series.
“We are a different breed of people here,” he said. “We are tough, hard nosed, blue collar. We take in the daily grind and we support each other no matter how hard it is. The Indians could go 0-162, Browns could never win again, the Cavs could be losing, but there will be people there watching and supporting and suffering through it if we have to.”
He is arguably the most-feared man in the octagon because of his explosive and concussive power. UFC's heavyweight division is an intriguing puzzle. If Miocic wins his next fight he would make history with his record third consecutive heavyweight title defenses. It is the most fickle of all divisions.
By comparison, Demetrious Johnson has defended 10 times in a row at flyweight, yet that unpredictability and raw power are what make the heavyweights compelling viewing.
“Stipe is looking like the man,” UFC president Dana White said. “You have a guy who is a great athlete, gets in there and trades punches, he knocks guys out in the first round. There is a lot to like.”
However, at times it seems the UFC doesn’t quite know what to do with Miocic. The organization’s wheelhouse is in giving a promotional push to its noisiest and sometimes its most obnoxious trash talkers, primarily because it has far more experience in handling that kind of athlete.
Miocic is a little rough around the edges, a champion happiest goofing around and hanging with the guys at the fire station, who chews tobacco and drinks beer outside of training camp, but he could be exactly what the UFC needs right now.
For his part, he is easing into the role of a star. He’s likely to fight again this year but the opponent is not yet decided. Miocic has beaten all the top guys in the rankings except Cain Velasquez, who has been dealing with injuries.
“At first I was embarrassed by the bit of fame and the attention,” Miocic said. “I don’t see myself as being better than anyone else, just because this is what I happen to be good at. Trash talking and all that, it would be too exhausting for me. I keep things simple. I work at the fire station, I work as a fighter, I punch people in the face and I live my life.”