Wednesday night is Sparring Night in Bettendorf, Iowa. Which is a long distance from nowhere but the home of mixed martial arts.
Pat Miletich takes a mule kick to the skull that spins his headgear around 90 degrees. “Nice going!” he says through the ear-hole to Matt Hughes, then proceeds to pummel the living shit out of his teammate.
An old man clutching a cupful of tobacco juice comments, “I used to be a boxing fan. That’s like watchin’ old people waltz.”
Miletich and Hughes exchange body shots. Geysers of snot, saliva, and sweat erupt from their heads.
On the sidelines, a freckle-faced 11-year-old girl wearing braces and a Matt Hughes T-shirt informs her mother that her idol’s “stand-up” has improved.
There are no free parking spaces around Champions Fitness Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays. Locals hurry past the weights and treadmills and enter a Spartan room that has the rank smell of a barn. On a wrestling mat that can hold about thirty men—normal- to Jurassic-sized—the fighters are paired off in twos. They’re armored in shin guards, 16-oz gloves, headgear, and mouthpieces that make their features protrude, lending them the appearance of carnivorous creatures eager for dinner.
Dozens of bodies are collapsed in their own blood and sweat after an hour of combat. It looks like a direct hit; asses and elbows everywhere. It takes some knowledge of MMA to understand this isn’t “human cockfighting,” as Arizona Senator John McCain described it in 1998. (Although, to the uninitiated, watching two people on the ground trying to work a submission looks like beetles copulating on the Discovery Channel.)
The men mauling each other are members of Miletich Fighting Systems, a team composed of pro athletes as skilled and dedicated as anyone in sport. Their art is a modern fusion of boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai, and various other forms of Asian martial arts. These are brutal men, who have formed a family in the cause of supremacy in the Octagon.
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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) combatants do battle in an eight-sided cage; other leagues such as Japan’s Pride or the fledgling International Fight League (IFL) use a conventional boxing ring. They all enter alone, barefoot, wearing nothing but shorts, a hard-shell cup, and fingerless gloves with little more padding than a pair of Isotoners. Bigger, faster, stronger, better, these martial artists—who transcend what the programmers of Mortal Kombat might invent—are constantly evolving.
And no one’s doing a better job of molding them than Bettendorf’s Pat Miletich, a humble, well-mannered, pillar of the community, who used to cave in windshields with his forehead.
“I never got in trouble in school for fighting,” reflects the 38-year-old, an ice pack in one hand and a protein shake in the other. “But outside of school I was in them all the time. Thinking back on it, I had a chip on my shoulder. I never started fights; I just never backed down from any. From high school through my early twenties, I had at least 150 street fights.”
Miletich’s two older brothers, whom he idolized, wrestled and played football. Like any other Iowan, he was fitted for his wrestling singlet at 6. This is a place where Dan Gable is synonymous with God; utter the collegiate wrestling legend’s name and grown men become silent and stare at their shoe-tops.
“I sucked at wrestling when I was a little kid,” says Miletich. “I think I got pinned in every match for three years straight. But I didn’t like losing. So I was gonna do it until I figured out a way to win.”
He figured it out, graduated from high school All-State in wrestling and football.
Miletich’s father was respected in the community. He held a top position at the region’s arsenal, founded the Dad’s Club in town, coached Pat’s pre-high school football teams, and was a sadist.
“He drank a lot,” Miletich says. “He was abusive to my mom and the kids.” An old friend of his confides that Pat found he could take a punch early on, something he has been able to turn into an asset.
“Most of the guys in this sport—that I have at my gym, anyway—have had troubled backgrounds and split families” says Miletich, who first detected a pattern back in high school. “Sitting at the lunch table with ten of my closest buddies, I realized everyone one of them had just their mom at home, and we’d all been through similar trials. None of us had ever thought about that, but we gravitated toward each other.”
Certain guys still gravitate toward each other in this town of 32,000, just north of the Mississippi. Except now they’re making a pilgrimage to the MMA Mecca, coming from nearly every state in the Union. And before anyone is accepted into the Miletich fold, he must survive a weeding out process that makes March of the Penguins look quaint. There’s an initiation period where one’s psyche and emotional constitution is battered worse than anything done to the body. Any form of weakness will be rooted out and put on display by these pugilist-detectives.
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UFC heavyweight champ Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia probably got it the worst. Surprising, since he’s huge—“He eats hay and shits in the middle of the road,” is how Miletich puts it—needing to whittle his 6’8’’ frame down to 265 to make the heavyweight limit. He was ridden the hardest by 5’7’’ Jens Pulver, a fantastic lightweight but a fly on an elephant’s rump by comparison.
“’You suck.’ ‘You’re fat.’ ‘Pat beats the shit outta you.’ ‘You ain’t gonna amount to shit.’ It was like being back at home with my mom,” explains Syliva, who moved to Iowa from Eastbrook, Maine, a town of about 400 where he claims to have been the town whipping boy.
His mother was physically and mentally abusive, he says. When she could no longer literally kick him around, she just poured on the verbal abuse. Pulver, whose childhood makes Sylvia’s seem Rockwellian, sensed a soft spot and exploited it like a left hook to the liver.
“I was beat up by my classmates all throughout high school,” Sylvia says. He was short and fat as a sophomore, then had a remarkable growth spurt that only turned him into an ungainly, sore scarecrow.
Pulver’s taunts had him “going through it all over again.” Once, he even broke down in front of his teammates and regularly sought out Miletich at his office, where the waterworks came. But he never quit and came back each day. Like his brutalized shins, his insides must’ve calcified and he became immune to punishment.
Now he’s top of the UFC food chain and the biggest thing to ever come out of Eastbrook. The two Miletich fighters are the best of friends; a testament to the bond cemented in Bettendorf between men who share a common past, spill blood together, and toil towards immortality in the Octagon.
Jens “Lil Evil” Pulver has already achieved such status, but his accomplishments occurred before the UFC’s recent surge in popularity and their successful partnership with Spike TV. From 1999 to 2002 the lightweight (155) went undefeated in the UFC, even beating the masterful B.J. Penn. who went on to handle the elite at the next weight class.
Pulver, hailing from Seattle, WA, showed up on Miletich’s doorstep in 2000. “I had a bag with some clothes,” he recalls, “and a plastic one with quarters and nickels all my college roommates put together.”
After leaving the UFC over a contract dispute, he led an itinerant existence. He fought in front of huge crowds in Japan and sometimes in less glamorous settings—“on Free Bacon Night” at club shows closer to home. He recently reunited with the UFC and will be featured as a coach on the fifth season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” A nonconformist who has a weakness for kilts and changes his hair color as often as his socks, he might find his true calling as a reality TV star, giving Flavor Flav a run for his money.
“I’ve got this constant up down, up down battle with myself,” he says at the gym between sets of dumbbell presses. “I’ll create those situations. I’ll make things worse than they are. I don’t know why?” Life in Bettendorf gives him a sense of calm he treasures, but he feels it runs counter to an edge he must maintain to kick ass. “It’s like I constantly gotta have that battle inside my own body, otherwise I don’t feel right. I feel like if everything’s quiet, I’m slippin’.”
At 32 (but rumored to be a few years older), Jens is still wrestling with childhood demons. Many of these psychological problems are owed to his father, who used to take pleasure in putting a loaded firearm in his mouth. His brother has been less successful channeling his angst and is doing a double life sentence. In spite of all the abuse, Jens broke the cycle of violence—at least when he’s not practicing his trade—and has a warm relationship with his daughter Madiline, whom he has joint custody of, as well as his girlfriend, an MMA fighter who trains with the team. Uninterested in regaling you with stories of his greatest KO’s, he’d rather talk about the outreach work he does with troubled youth.
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Matt Hughes defies certain stereotypes, too. He’s driving his wife’s ancient Honda to the chiropractor, rather then the new black Hummer the UFC awarded him. While many of his teammates had unfortunate childhoods, his serves as a counterpoint. No major family dysfunction to speak of. Just hard work on his parents’ farm in Hillsborough, Illinois, where he still lives with his wife and two kids when not training for a fight. When in Iowa, he rooms with Tim Sylvia, in order to save money. Although the purses and endorsements have been getting bigger, it’s not close to De La Hoya coin. The 33-year-old’s plans to retire in a couple of years depends on how many faces he punches and pennies he pinches.
“I kinda threw the dice with this whole MMA thing,” he says, nodding to a trucker at an intersection who recognizes the thick neck, square jaw, and cauliflowered ears. “I was an electrician up at Eastern Illinois University, making $28.80 an hour and was the assistant wrestling coach. So I was making good money and doing what I wanted to do, coaching.”
He had his first MMA fight in 1996 at an all-girls Catholic high school in Chicago. The purse was $100 and Pat Miletich was the ref.
“It was just a hobby,” he says, admitting he had all the slickness and nuance of a caveman. “I was just trying to fill that need to compete. Pat found my fight pure comedy.”
Hughes possessed his legendary brute strength and his collegiate All-American wrestling skills, but was sorely lacking in other areas. A year later, Miletich reffed another one of his fights.
“Pat’s first words to me: ‘Hey, you come train with me and I’ll make you a world champion.’ It’s amazing that he was right,” he says, now getting his spine realigned at the chiropractor’s.
Along with the work ethic instilled in him from growing up on a farm, Hughes credits his twin brother Mark for his success. Close as they are, they’re so competitive, it’s “who’s got the nicer lookin’ kid, who’s got the strongest truck. You grow up with that mentality and it’s hard to shake it,” he says.
“When I moved to Iowa, I was away from my brother,” he says. “Pat took that role, no doubt about it. A blind man could walk in that gym and tell that Pat and I are basically brothers. He could ask me for about anything and he’d get it. And I could ask him for anything and know he’ll come through.”
Watching the Miletich Men of Bettendorf, Iowa during Wednesday Night Sparring might not strike the average person as the model family—a dysfunctional one is more like it. But if family is supposed to give trust, respect, and support, then you couldn’t ask for a better one when you walk into the Octagon.
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*shorter version below
Wednesday night is Sparring Night in Bettendorf, Iowa, and there are no free parking spaces around Champions Fitness Center. Locals hurry past the weights and treadmills to stand along the wall of a large, open room. On a wrestling mat that can hold about 30 men—normal- to Jurassic-sized—the fighters of Miletich Fighting Systems, who call the gym home, are armored in shin guards, 16-oz gloves, headgear, and mouthpieces and paired off in twos.
In this Spartan room, in the middle of nowhere, there are several former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders and the current heavyweight kingpin. It’s a collection of talent that would sell out a Las Vegas arena. But here in Betterndorf, it’s just an average Wednesday night.
Pat Miletich, the team’s architect and the UFC welterweight champ from 1998 to 2001, takes a mule kick to the skull that spins his headgear around 90 degrees. “Nice going!” he says through the ear-hole to Matt Hughes, the most recent Miletich fighter to hold the welter belt until he lost it to Georges St. Pierre last November. This doesn’t stop Pat from pummeling his teammate with a combination to the grill, a hook to the liver, punctuated by a knee to the thigh.
In recent years, no mixed martial arts team has enjoyed as much success as the men of Miletich. In addition to the four former or current UFC world champions—lightweight Jens “Lil Evil” Pulver, welterweight Matt Hughes, heavyweight Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia, and Pat “The Croation Sensation” Miletich—the mat holds a dozen or so contenders in the UFC and IFL—a new league with which Miletich has gotten involved. Then there are guys still working club shows on the Midwest circuit, and some beginners yet to test themselves in a sanctioned fight.
Hopeful fighters from all over the country now pack their belongings into a duffle and make a pilgrimage to this tiny city a few miles from Davenport to train with Miletich Fighting Systems, making Bettendorf something like the Shaolin of Iowa. And Pat Miletich is the head monk.
Many credit the 38-year-old Miletich, considered one of the most complete mixed martial artists, with having a gift for finding and molding talent. Raised in Bettendorf, he grew up soaking in the regional obsession—wrestling—getting fit for his singlet at age 6. After seeing his first UFC fight in 1993, he knew he’d found a calling, and he went on Bruce Wayne-esque training quest. “I soaked up every bit of knowledge I could get,” says Miletich, who studied Muay Thai kickboxing, made 3rd degree black belt in Shuri-ryu karate and did time in a Davenport boxing gym where top ‘90s middleweights Michael Nunn and Antwun Echols trained. “A white kid walking into that gym was definitely a marked man,” he says. “For three straight years I bled from every orifice in my face. For my ground-fighting, I trained in Tampa, FL with a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. I slept on the mats in his garage for two-month stretches, and he showed me things the Brazilians weren’t showing anybody back then. ‘Don’t tell anyone where you’re learning this,’ he’d tell me. Back home, I’d teach people as much as I could of what I’d learned, so that I could have good training partners.”
The natural consequence of this was Miletich Fighting Systems, which was initially established on a carpeted racquetball court in 1997. It wasn’t long before kids were emerging from the cornfields, searching for someone to mold them into fighters. “I showed up here with two bags in 2000,” says Jens Pulver. “One had three outfits in it, the other was full of quarters and nickels. That’s all I had.”
Newcomers are granted a week-long trial to train with the team. Pulver survived his hazing and went on to win multiple lightweight championships in the UFC. The majority of newcomers are no-shows after the first rough outing.
“This team tries most peoples’ limits,” says Pulver. “But training and fighting is all I’ve ever known, so it’s a natural environment to me. It’s when I’m not here busting my tail that I could come off track. When I’m done with the gym, I play my video games. I don’t go out drinkin’; I don’t need to be tested. I’m here to fight. Hell, I can drink when I’m 60. This is the place to be a fighter, not just because of the team but Betterndorf itself. It’s calm—no bumper-to-bumper and enough room to move around in. The people in town are extremely polite. They don’t look down on us. They don’t hate us for what we do.”
“I came here right after graduating high school,” says John Aguirre, a mohawked 18-year-old from Kerville, Texas who sits on a bench and watches the elite fighters spar. “I was 205 and mostly fat. Now I’m working my way down to 170, but I’m still pretty soft. I did some martial arts back home and loved watching the UFC on TV. It was my dream to be here. Pat won’t let me fight yet but I’m hoping he lets me get in some amateur MMA in the next year. Pat got me a job at a local motel his friend owns, and I clean the mats after practice or whatever needs to get done.”
If Miletich doesn’t see a pro career in a kid’s future, he doesn’t bullshit them. Still, it’s a testament to people like Aguirre that they’re even making it through the daily workouts that include torture tests like “The Hill,” a dizzying quarter-mile ascent up a paved road, which you haven’t completed properly until yesterday’s lunch revisits your throat. Or hanging with Miletich when he does his 45-minute weights-and-treadmill circuit, where he blasts every body part doing high reps with weights most mortals couldn’t budge, then runs like a Kenyan for eight minutes—wash, rinse, repeat, with no breaks between exercises.
And then there’s the psychological pressure the group exerts on the newbies—testing them to see if they’re strong enough.
“This team has made me a stronger person,” says 6’8’’ 265-pound Tim Sylvia, as he readies himself for “buddy carries” the day after sparring. The exercise involves a fireman’s carry of a person your size for 40 yards, at which point the person being carried drops to the ground, does 25 pushups, and then switches roles—they do it 10 times each.
“Everyday after I got here, Jens would tell me, ‘You’re fat’; ‘You ain’t gonna amount to shit’; ‘Just leave,’” says Sylvia, the reigning UFC heavyweight champ. He was routinely brought to tears by the taunts of Pulver—who stands 13 inches shorter and weighs 110 pounds less. “It was like being back home in Maine with my mom. She’s an alcoholic and used to verbally and physically abuse me growing up. It took me back to high school and all those assholes who beat the crap out of me when I was small and defenseless. Jens had me going through this history all over again. He broke me down. But I never quit. I came back every day. I took it all on till it did nothin’ to me, meant nothin’ to me. Now we’re as good friends as can be.”
The group’s technique of building a man up by first seeing if they can tear him down is on display Wednesday night. “Where’s Inhofer?” Hughes asks, surveying the other fighters. Hughes is one of the team’s original members and arguably the most famous and dominant champion they’ve produced. Inhofer—Noel Inhofer—is a new fighter trying out for the team. He dropped out of the third season of Spike TV’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter (called “TUF” by those who follow the sport) over what were portrayed as trivial girlfriend troubles.
“We don’t tolerate weak links. That’s about a guy who doesn’t want to fight, but doesn’t want to come straight with it,” Hughes says. “Believe me, this is the wrong place to have those thoughts. He’s gonna get worked over tonight. If he’s got some quit in him, we’ll find it. He shamed himself when he quit that show. Not everybody appreciates the sacrifices we make, what it takes to be a part of this group.”
Inhofer might not. And he was wise enough not to show up to sparring this night.
“The guys have to see you stick around for a long time,” says Miletich. “You gotta help them get ready for fights, see you go on the road with the team, have a lot of wars of your own, before you’re accepted as one of them.”