Oooooold article about MFS
I just stumbled onto this article (from January, 2007) & it was such a nostaglic piece I had to share it. Shocking to think how much the sport has changed since I first started following it 7yrs ago...
Want to Find the Country’s Best Ultimate Fighters?
Travel to a Tiny Town in Iowa
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 •••• 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.
* * *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.
* * *UFC heavyweight champ Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia probably got it the worst. Surprising, since he’s huge—“He eats hay and ••••s 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 •••• outta you.’ ‘You ain’t gonna amount to ••••.’ 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.
* * *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.