The shores of Lake Erie have seen countless waves come and go. There have been times of peace, and times of war; times of plenty, and times of scarcity. As early as 10,000 years ago, primitive ancestors dwelled upon the water’s edge, enjoying the abundance that a gigantic freshwater lake provides.
Maize cultivation bolstered the populations that roamed the land, and territory became a matter of life and death. For one hundred years, the region was said to have been uninhabited from the destruction of warring locals, and it wasn’t until Moses Cleaveland saw the land’s promise, that the area saw an incorporated settlement in the summer of 1796.
The Ohio River and the hard wrought Erie Canals brought commerce, and Cleveland became a bustling port city. The availability of raw materials brought through shipping allowed for a strong manufacturing tradition to arise. The Civil War’s demand for goods, such as warships, railroad iron, textiles, and tobacco allowed Cleveland to swell into a commercial behemoth. By the end of the war for abolition, the city had become a major steel manufacturer and hub for refining oil.
Oil tycoons, businessmen, and factory owners built their mansions and spent their money in perhaps the number one manufacturing city in America. In 1920, Cleveland was the fifth largest city in country, and home to the World Series champions, the Cleveland Indians. The twenties were as prosperous to the city as any other in the states until the Great Depression plunged the entire nation nigh on economic ruin.
The city took on a darker edge in the thirties in response to the previous decade's financial challenges and political agenda. Speakeasies, gambling, prostitution, and organized crime rose to prominence in the land, but the city managed to recover reasonably well from the chaos of Black Tuesday.
Wartime once again posed Cleveland as an important center for manufacturing and commerce, and the prosperity led businessmen to call the city, “the best location in the nation." The Cleveland Indians recaptured the World Series in 1948, and in 1949 the "Land" was deemed an All-American city. By 1950, the population had soared close to one million, and the Cleveland Browns became a terrifying force in the NFL.
In the 1960s, the music stopped in Cleveland. The city had neglected its infrastructure, overcrowding grew out of control, racism was driving a wedge within the city, and poor leadership failed to properly address the growing list of issues. Cleveland had entered its most trying time in history, and little did they realize that the 1964 Super Bowl champions, the Cleveland Browns, were to begin a cursed fifty-two-year championship drought in the NFL.
The racial divide and critically neglected state of the city culminated in the 1966 Hough Riots, and in 1969, as if to signal the depth of despair that the city had descended into, the Cuyahoga River burned. Cleveland’s reputation became, “the mistake on the lake." The inflation, oil crisis, and decline in steel demand of the seventies finally brought the the once great city to its knees, and in the winter of 1978, Cleveland became the first major city in the country to declare bankruptcy since the Great Depression.
The city struggled through the eighties and nineties to evolve without the industry that had supported it for so long, and the once bright light of Cleveland had become chronically dim. Since then, Cleveland has been fighting for life, struggling to deal with the ineffective administration that has done little to improve the condition of the city. A broken school system, a bureaucratic nightmare of a water department, a devastated housing industry, and a shaky business sector have continued to plague recent administration.
Despite these major problems, the city has begun to show glimmers of hope and promise. New stadiums for aspiring champions, a revitalized arts district, a burgeoning nightlife and the rise of major employers, like The Cleveland Clinic, have steadily quickened the pulse of a depressed city. The election of Jane Campbell, and subsequently Frank Jackson, have indicated an enlightened community, ready to shed the shackles of past inequity. A wave, once as subtle as the tide of Lake Erie, had swollen to new heights, and the city is all in.
On May, 14, 2016, in front of 45,000 Brazilian screaming, “uh vai morrer," a stoic Clevelander, born of brave Croatian immigrants, raised in a fighting city, dedicated to helping others survive, walked into an eight sided proving ground and dared to prove the spirit of Cleveland. As the killer of an emperor, super Samoan, and a king, charged wantonly at the humble kid from Euclid, the Land saw a curse broken and a kingslayer fall slack at his feet.
If Stipe Miocic shocked the world on that fateful Saturday, it was only because they were yet unaware of who Fabricio Werdum was dealing with, and where he came from. He is a Cleveland State Warrior, an experienced grappler and athlete, and the Land’s quiet fighting son. Such calm can only achieved through facing death often, and defiantly saying, “not today, not here, not on my watch." Stipe has walked through the fire, and carried others out on his back; this time, it was an entire city.
When the Lake Erie Monsters won their Calder Cup for the first time in the franchise's history months later, it began to dawn on us that something was different now. And when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA Championship after that, the thought was undeniable; Stipe Miocic, unshaken by the fear of being burned, had faced a half century old demon hand-to-hand, and sent it home licking its wounds. It was a championship not given; it was earned.
Those of us in Cleveland know all too well that demons never stop; they can only be kept at bay. A new foe stepped up to strip our city’s hero of his crown, and his name was Alistair Overeem. A terrifying kickboxer, a crafty veteran, and the most dangerous fighter that Stipe Miocic had ever faced. Some may argue that legendary New Zealander, Mark Hunt is a more ferocious puncher, but none can deny the well-roundedness of the "Demolition Man." The mixed martial arts world, still unconvinced of the mettle of the new Croatian-American king from Cleveland, insisted that Werdum had lost his title; the implication being that Stipe hadn’t truly won his belt.
So, while the fight community whispered their doubts, Stipe trained under the fierce heat of the Cleveland summer. Alistair was supremely confident from all indications. The flying-limbed Dutchman pointed to Stipe’s new clothes and predilection for beer, something folks around the Great Lakes enjoy immensely. Little did he know that Stipe was training as hard as ever. In what felt like a matter of moments, fight week was upon us.
That’s where I enter the story. Many know me as the Reem Heckler, or the Cleveland Hooligan; others have called me a dork, geek, douchebag, four-eyed, homosexual, loser and a chicken. I’ll admit that I didn’t realize that I’d garner the ears, eyes, and ire of the world watching. However, even if I had known the reaction I was to receive from my support of Stipe, I wouldn’t have done things any differently.
On Wednesday of fight week, I had taken the day off work, and was prepared for an afternoon of rowdiness. When I walked onto the Quicken Loans Arena Gateway Plaza for open workouts, I was going to be the harbinger of the king, and an agent of ruckus.
So I did me, and brought what noise and chaos I could muster from the depths of my Cleveland soul. I called it as I saw it, and nobody can deny that I made my presence known and my opinion evident. Stipe Miocic was going to knockout the striking assassin on Saturday night, and Cleveland was going to keep that belt right where it was.
A cursory analysis of Overeem’s career makes clear two things; one, that Alistair Overeem has perhaps the most deadly striking the world has seen, and the second, that Alistair’s long career has cost him several knockout losses of his own.
The reality of combat sport is a harrowing one, but it is also one about personal ambition, free will and individual liberty. Nobody forced Stipe or Alistair to test their souls against one another, and if anyone tried to stop either of these men from striving for their dreams, they would be encroaching upon fundamental human rights.
People must also understand that, although it certainly would be imprudent to attack me at an open-workout because of my blunt point of view, I put myself in a position to experience repercussions; if not from Alistair himself, at the very least, supporters and teammates of the Dutchman.
When Alistair found me in the crowd, I didn’t shy away. I shook his hand with respect, told him that I was a die-hard Stipe fan, and Alistair smiled at me, told me he appreciated my passion for the sport, and hugged me to show his class and strength of character; qualities I already knew he had from years of following his storied career.
I did not hide in the shadows, safe and anonymous behind a keyboard, like literally every hater that spit venom my way because of my singing and chanting. When media interviewed me for my antics, I chose to give my true name, unashamed of my passion for hyping my hometown hero. I left the open-workouts with priceless photos, fond memories, and a reputation as a troublemaker. In my estimation, it couldn’t have gone better.
On Thursday, I went to work at the hospital in the morning, but took a late, long break to attend the UFC 203 press conference before heading back to work. Again, I stuck up for my man Stipe Miocic, and stuck out in the small crowd in attendance.
Stipe and Alistair acknowledged me in their characteristic manners; Stipe with a subtle shaka, and Alistair with a hearty laugh. Travis Browne looked up at me from the dais, and smiled broadly at my larks and calls.
Afterward, I managed to meet with and talk to the MMAFighting media team covering the event. It was a pleasure, albeit a bit nerve-racking, to joke around and converse with folks I had been watching for almost a decade, and it was another unforgettable experience in the week for me. By that point, I was well established as the Heckler.
On the day of weigh ins, at the charitable advice of a prominent media member from the day before, I spent my lunch break at the Wyndham Hotel in downtown Cleveland where the majority of fighters were lodged. For a fan like myself, being there was a dream come true, and I met so many legends and stars of the sport.
I was blown away at how gracious, humble and generous the people are in a sport that is called “the hurt business." As fighters munched on snacks, and returned to the hotel with smoothies and take-out, the mood had changed from the last two days; no doubt a result of the return to real food and fluids after the official weigh-ins.
On my way out of the hotel, Team Overeem stopped me and we spoke about my time at the open workouts. Mrs. Overeem, and what I had heard was one of his managers, spoke to me, declared me sane, and then attempted to convince me to switch sides. Another member of Team AO asked for a picture of me jokingly getting collar choked, and I gladly agreed.
It was an important moment for me, as I was able to let the team know my behavior was to support Cleveland’s Stipe, and that outside of the matchup, I was a big supporter of Alistair. We parted way cordially, and in future encounters, Team AO and I were all smiles. Heading back to work, I couldn’t shake the surreal feeling of of the week. I also began to feel pangs of nervousness as I realized that the fights were almost upon us.
After work, I headed to the weigh ins, and finally experienced a sense of the crowd that would descend upon the Q on fight night. The stadium sections were crowded, noisy, and smelled of beer and fresh popcorn. People approached me, asking for pictures with the heckler. I was taken aback at being recognized, but I was also overwhelmed at the positive messages about my actions throughout the week.
People called me hilarious, brave, clever, a highlight of the week and a star; the polar opposite of what I was seeing on the internet. I was happy that for the first time that week, when the main eventers were weighing in, I wasn’t the one making all the noise; it felt like the whole city was instead.
I returned to the Wyndham after the weigh ins, and spent the rest of the evening meeting and speaking with many more of the people whom I had been following for a good part of my life. Fighters, managers, media, and UFC staff would stop and ask me if I was the heckler, and when their suspicions were confirmed, they would laugh and offer to take a picture with me. In my mind, my hooliganism was worth it, if only for the amusement these people got out of it.
Even Alistair’s manager from Holland stopped by to tell me that he enjoyed my enthusiasm, and that the team had a good laugh at my antics. He told me that all hype is good hype, and fans ought to support their hometown fighters as stolidly as myself.
As Alistair left for dinner with his team, Azad Hervre and Benjey Zimmerman, whom I had been joking with all day, came up and asked me if Alistair could borrow my phone charger to use while they were out to dinner. I was more than happy to oblige.
Stipe supporters may ask why I would help his opponent charge his phone, but I was glad I could help, as I have nothing but goodwill and respect for Team Overeem.
When Alistair returned to the hotel after going out, I got my charger back, and Alistair asked to take a selfie with me to remember the moment. I went home that night, starstruck as ever, grateful to have had the opportunity to meet my idols.
The lake was flat as glass the morning of the fights, as though it were conserving its energy for the night to come. In the early afternoon, a wind picked up, and a storm began to move across the water. The sky darkened, thunder began to rumble and the clouds began to pour across the city. If the demons were coming back to Cleveland, the weather was doing its best to make sure any fire they brought with them would face a fight.
The truth is, nobody knows what will happen in a fight. With four ounce gloves, particularly at heavyweight, one shot and the night is all over. If my confidence was off-putting to some, they should know that I was scared for Stipe, and far from sure of the outcome.
I expect that Stipe and Alistair were afraid of each other; as they should have been. Fighting, as much as people would like to say it’s a sport, is not a sport. Unarmed combat is what sports strove to replace, in order to prevent men from hurting one another.
I respect athletes who play sports, but I respect fighters more. Regardless of whether or not people believe fighting is right or wrong, the fact remains that there are people on earth that fight to survive; not everyone has the option to pursue professional golf or tennis.
The world isn’t as innocent as many believe, and fighters stand testament to this truth. If a person respects what Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey or Mike Tyson did in the ring, then they ought to respect the fighters of today as much, if not more. What Stipe and Alistair agreed to do on Saturday,September, 10, 2016 is one of the bravest things two people can do, and I never forget that for a moment.
As expected, when Alistair Overeem made his walk out to the octagon, the crowd erupted in boos, but the Pride champion, walking out to the defunct organization’s theme song, appeared unphased.
Moments later, the lights blacked out in Quicken Loans arena, Young Gunner’s piano lick pierced the silence, and close to 20,000 Clevelanders heralded the hard-hitting King of The Land in a deafening roar.
The two heavyweights met in the middle of the cage, and shook hands before Marc Goddard gave the signal to go to war. Alistair immediately started backpedaling away from the aggressive pressure of Stipe, staying defensive and staying out of range of Miocic.
Miocic waded in and threw a couple left hooks, a right straight, and another left hook to the then running Overeem. Alistair switched stances before settling into southpaw and feinting the left kick, gauging Stipe’s reaction. Feinting with the hands, Stipe covered up and started to back up, which is when Alistair whipped a hissing kick that snapped into the liver of the champion with a loud slap.
Stipe straightened up from the hard kick, and began chasing down the retreating challenger. An errant headkick was sent Overeem’s way as Alistair ran back to the center of the octagon. Most likely expecting the body kick, Stipe reacted to the attacking Overeem by covering up, only to get cracked with a clean straight left, and ended up on the floor as Overeem jumped on the flashed champion.
Alistair wrapped up a tight guillotine, the same choke that he’s used to finish several game opponents, including Vitor Belfort. Stipe’s strong grappling pedigree kicked in as he instinctively circled out of the choke. Overeem scrambled into a sprawl and disengaged back to his feet as a wobbly Stipe chased him down. Both fighters have picked up the pace, as Overeem attempted to regain the center of the octagon as Stipe attempted to clear the cobwebs.
Keen to the liver kick, and left straight follow up, Stipe started to find his range. As Stipe closed in once more, Alistair established control of Stipe’s lead hand and darted away; Stipe crossed over into southpaw with a sweeping power right that missed its mark.
Backed up against the cage, Alistair attempted to dart out to his right, but Stipe saw it. Miocic landed a quick left hook that caught Alistair moving to the outside, a right hook was blocked by Overeem, and another clean left hook landed flush. Overeem was hurt, and began backing up before throwing another left kick to the liver of a charging Stipe. Another follow up straight left from southpaw landed, and Stipe’s legs wavered as Alistair clinched up and circled away from the forward moving champion, who had now been hit clean by the left twice.
Stipe continued to chase Overeem, who missed another big left straight, but landed a short follow up right hand. The chase continued, and Miocic began to open up on a covered-up Overeem with fast combinations. Backed up against the cage, Overeem began to eat shots. Stipe smelled blood, and landed a clean right elbow as Overeem was against the fence.
More combinations land for Miocic, and Overeem was back on the run. Stipe, not letting it happen, wildy spams his right hooks on the retreating Dutchman and managed to land again. A knee and a right hook from Overeem do little to stop the freight train movement of the fighter from Cleveland. A second later, the Demolition Man landed yet another liver kick, and left straight follow-up, buckling the legs of Miocic for a third time.
An uppercut followed, and a famous knee to the liver landed on the champion, but Stipe continued marching forward. Alistair threw two more wide stepping left straights, each more labored than the last. The two return to feinting on one another before Alistair threw yet another winging left hand; Stipe leaped forward and landed a one, two, but they missed their target and fell on the body of Overeem.
Alistair backed up against the fence once more, and Stipe took the opportunity to throw a boxing combination that partially landed before throwing a teep to the body of Overeem. The left straight is feinted, and then thrown by Overeem, which managed to clip the chin of the tough-as-nails Miocic.
The heavyweights exchanged kicks before Stipe backed Overeem up against the fence and began to punch through the weakened guard of the former K-1 Grand Prix champion. Another feint of the left straight by Overeem leads to a liver kick that Miocic easily stepped away from.
Overeem threw the first stomp kick to Stipe’s lead leg, and Stipe capitalized and latched onto the ankle of Overeem who turned to run. Stipe completed the takedown, and landed up in Alistair’s guard, who secured a single butterfly hook in place.
Stipe retreated to full guard as the crowd began a thunderous cheer. Stipe stood up in the guard of Overeem, and began raining down punches on Overeem. Miocic pulled the wrists down of Overeem before he continued the onslaught of punches. Stipe’s left knee went down, his right leg posted, and a right hand crashed into Overeem’s chin, then a second, then a third; Overeem went out, and Marc Goddard stepped in.
The defending champion put his mouthguard into his shorts, climbed the cage, and raised his arms in an O, and then an H; the crowd boomed, I-O!
On Sunday morning, the sun rose into clear skies over Lake Erie; the water lapped against the ancient shore like it had for ages. The fight was over, and Stipe Miocic had kept the belt in The Land.
It wasn’t easy, and he took heavy fire from the powerful Alistair Overeem in order to do it. The fight could have gone the other way, and there are a thousand "what ifs" that go along with any fight; but in this case, the fight went Stipe’s way.
I hope to see Alistair Overeem back, stronger than ever. Meeting Alistair and his team increased my respect for them, and I wish them safe travels home and a full recovery.
At the moment, being the heavyweight champion rarely extends beyond one fight, but Stipe managed to do it, in a high pressure fight in his hometown, nonetheless. 2016 has been a very special year in the city of Cleveland, and Stipe’s first title defense has added to it.
My own experience has been out of the storybooks, and I won’t ever forget this week for as long as I live. I made some people get angry and I made others laugh, but the true value this week, for me, has been meeting the people who make this sport what it is.
The people of Cleveland know that good times don’t last, and we've learned to enjoy them all the more when they come around. Win or lose, what Stipe had accomplished before UFC 203 was enough to be forever proud of him. For now, I’m going to enjoy this wave while it lasts, and I look forward to the next time the UFC comes to Cleveland. Opponents of Stipe, look out! I’ll be here waiting.
- The Cleveland Hooligan