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 bull•••• 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 ••••’; ‘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.”