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Wherever you are right now as you read this, look around. Take mental notes on the layout of the room, where the furniture is, where the windows and doors are and so on. Most likely you’re at a place you’ve been before, and if an emergency were to break out, you’d be confident and deft at finding your way to safety quickly. Visualize how you’d slink down the hall and to the stairs, cutting familiar angles on your way to the reprieve of the street. No sweat, right?
Let’s try again, only now the building is engulfed in flames. You can’t see anything because the smoke is thick enough to block out whatever light there is. You’re on your hands and knees to utilize the little remaining visibility, feeling the edges around you to compensate for the functional loss of your primary sense. This also helps to partially avoid the searing heat billowing up all around you. As sweat pools on your skin, it instantaneously turns to a scalding vapor. Your blood vessels dilate to try and regulate the increasing temperature of your body. The fire surrounds you physically and psychologically; you try to cover your face, but it still seeps into your mouth and nose, causing you to cough up fumes like the exhaust of an old car. The room around you splinters crackles and groans as if an invisible enemy is descending upon you from all sides, turning what was once a familiar room into a jungle gym of danger. Time slows; your heart pounds; your fingers tremble with adrenaline; panic fogs your thinking the same way the smoke clouds the room; you hurriedly pull at the door handle to escape.
Now imagine you’re trying to go into the room.
Against the shrieking wisdom that the human amygdala has picked up over millions of years of evolution, you cross from safety to danger, equipped with training and guile and deep reservoirs of courage that -- hopefully -- are enough to squelch the fiery leviathan. This is why children everywhere idolize firefighters. They are the closest approximation to superheroes in our society, only their heroism is rooted not in special powers so much as the rush of adrenaline and self-sacrificing commitment to their community.
None of this is novel to the newly minted UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, who fights fires when he’s not training to fight the most dangerous men walking the earth. Though he certainly felt the adrenaline surge walking into the belly of the beast in Brazil to fight in the backyard of one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time, when it was all said and done, the win was for Miocic as much as it was for his hometown of Cleveland, which has been sorely devoid of professional athletic titles since the Browns won an NFL championship in 1964.
For all metaphorical intents and purposes, when Miocic made his walk to the Octagon in Arena da Baixada on Saturday in Curitiba, he was walking into a burning building. Brazilian fighters were 8-1 against non-Brazilians at UFC 198 up until that point, and the raucous crowd was singing choruses reminding the foreigner of his inevitable mortality. Miocic, whose title shot depended on his own success as much as it did the injuries of Cain Velasquez, was more than worthy as a challenger, but he was still the underdog in the fight and not just because of the home court advantage that Brazilians have notoriously had. Even if the fight was taking place in a more supportive stateside venue, Miocic was still fighting a man bent on cementing his name as the greatest heavyweight of all-time -- consideration he earned by tearing through the three men who had previously laid claim to that title.
Fabricio Werdum had developed from a one-dimensional grappling ace to a wily veteran with aggressive standup to match his unmatched submission chops. When given space to heat up, Werdum’s game is suffocating. It melted the ice-cold Fedor Emelianenko, who tried to pounce on him with his glacial inevitability. It torched the earthen roots of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, beating “Minotauro” with the same crushing submission game that defined the former Pride Fighting Championships and interim Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder. When Velasquez tried to fight fire with fire, Werdum sucked the wind out of the room and devoured the lesser flame.
Fans -- who had previously singed Matt Brown -- crackled and burned around Miocic as he walked into the eight-sided furnace. “Hu vai morrer” billowed heatedly, setting the stage for a flashover from crowd to cage. They awaited an immolation, but the fireman from Ohio was ready as soon as the alarm sounded.
Miocic was cautious from the onset; basic firefighting protocol is to circulate around the structure and make note of any perilous signs. Firefighters are supposed to keep contact with the walls around them to stay balanced and oriented amid the blaze, but for Miocic, the fire pushed him to the cage against his wishes. Werdum turned the heat up on Miocic, chasing after him with aggressive combinations. The firefighter backpedaled, calmly, and did what anyone in his trade would do in such a position: He put his opponent out cold.
Ask any firemen and they’ll tell you about the eerie stillness that envelops a room once a fire has gone out. It is almost as if fires burn down the channels through which sound is carried. Listen to the celebration speech after Miocic won, and you’ll understand that silence.
In his own words, Werdum was reckless, as flames are wont to be. Dangerous as fire is, it can also consume all the surrounding oxygen until it simmers itself. Miocic simply put on the extinguishing touch. It was a shocking performance from the spectator’s perspective but nonetheless true to the nature of the stoic firefighter. This was not the first inferno he emerged from victoriously.
When asked if now, as champion, Miocic will finally focus 100 percent on person-fighting and leave firefighting on the backburner, Miocic was Miocic: “I love being a fireman, I love helping people. Ain’t gonna change, man. I’m the champ, but I’m gonna keep being a fireman like I am.”
After this weekend, it’s easy to understand that decision. He does what he does because he is who he is -- a firefighter.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.