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UFC 20: The Croatian Sensation

"I think everybody did their best to keep the faith, and things worked out." - Pat Miletich
Former UFC welterweight champion Pat MiletichMention the words “Wednesday night” to anyone who made their bones on the Miletich Fighting Systems team over the years and an impish grin will likely creep over their face.

Especially the face of their coach, former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich.

“It was amazing to wake up on Wednesday morning and have that much excitement about Wednesday night,” he laughed. “Right when your eyes open, you smile and go ‘ha, ha, ha, this is my favorite day of the week.’”

In the MFS gym in Iowa, Wednesday night was sparring night, but not just any sparring night. Consider that at one time these were just a few of the names showing up on that midweek night in the Midwest: Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Jeremy Horn, Tim Sylvia, Robbie Lawler, Drew McFedries, Tony Fryklund, Josh Neer, and Spencer Fisher. And those sessions were wars that separated the men from the boys, with more than a few fighters leaving the gym and leaving town after a rough Wednesday in Bettendorf.

“That happened more than one time,” said Miletich. “We actually had a guy who was from a production company that wanted to do a reality show at our gym, and they sent one of the producer’s sons, who was a linebacker at Penn State, and he came in to start training with us. And actually, everybody went easy on him. I said let’s not kill the guy, he’s the son of the producer, and they just wanted to come in and kind of film things, write some notes, and get some more ideas on how to develop the show. And after the first session, this is a Division I linebacker, a rough, strong guy, and he left a note on the door of the gym and said ‘goodbye, I can’t deal with this, this is insane.’ Basically, he even put in the note that he was questioning his manhood. And nobody tried to hurt him, that’s the thing.”

The gym and the MFS team were like no other at the time. In essence, while there were a few teams that had a couple solid fighters, MFS had a gang of badasses in the early Zuffa years, all stacking cards and picking up wins left and right, with Hughes, Pulver, and Sylvia all holding UFC gold at one time. And more than anything else, they were just tougher than their peers.

Wednesday nights did nothing to ruin that reputation either.

“Most of the guys had wrestling backgrounds here in the Midwest, and that’s just the way we grew up from age five, six, seven,” said Miletich. “We started out wrestling, and that’s the way it is in a wrestling room and we don’t know anything different and there shouldn’t be anything different.”

Leading the way was Miletich, not only a pioneering coach, but a pioneering fighter, and one of the first to realize that to truly excel in mixed martial arts, you had to be a mixed martial artist. And for him, that meant bringing striking in to mix with his already established skills on the ground. That was a labor of love and some tough love at that.

“I had sparred with a lot of really good boxers at Pena’s in Davenport,” he said. “There were guys like Antwun Echols and Michael Nunn, the McGowan brothers and David Levi. And I said if I can spar with these guys for a long time and hang with them – and not just survive, but really hang with them, rock people back and drop them and things like that – there’s really nobody in MMA that’s gonna hurt me. So that was really important and I did my best to absorb and learn. You had to put your ego aside and get your ass kicked and learn the craft because I wasn’t a striker. Like IMiletich against Carter tell people, I donated blood for a lot of years down there before I started figuring things out.”

Miletich turned pro in October of 1995, fighting three times in one night. The first fight, against Japan’s Yasunori Matsumoto, was by far the most memorable, even to this day.

“I broke his arm and he wouldn’t quit fighting, and he actually put me in a choke with his broken arm and I was freaking out,” he laughs. “I was like ‘this is mixed martial arts, you gotta be kidding me.’ It was called no holds barred back then and I ended up finally taking his back and choking him out. But I dislocated and torqued this guy’s elbow completely backwards, he hit the escape and rolled out of it and we both came up to our feet. I shot a double on him and he put me in a guillotine choke and it took me two minutes to get out of it.”

The man soon to be dubbed “The Croatian Sensation” won that fight, and two more, and he was off and running. In March of 1998 he made his Octagon debut at UFC 16, defeating Townsend Saunders and Chris Brennan in one night, and seven months later he was a UFC champ, defeating Mikey Burnett in Brazil.

But things weren’t like they are these days. Back then, the money wasn’t lucrative in MMA and fighters had to fight outside of the UFC to get some extra cash and make ends meet. In Miletich’s case, one three week period in early 1999 illustrated just how far from mainstream this sport was.

“We had to take extra fights to be able to make enough money,” he said. “And even back then, we were making bad decisions because the finances weren’t great. We weren’t making a boatload of money so we’re taking fights when we were injured, like when I fought Pele in Georgia (in a non-UFC bout in 2000). I couldn’t even walk into the ring, so there was an orthopedic surgeon there that shot my back up with Xylocaine so I could walk to the ring to fight, stupid stuff like that. (In 1999) I defended my title in the UFC (against Jorge Patino), then I fought a pro boxing match the next week, and the week after that I fought in Hawaii against Jutaro Nakao, a guy I didn’t even know of at the time. I was warming up for the fight, and I asked Frank Shamrock ‘how good is this Jutaro Nakao guy?’ He goes ‘you’re kidding right?’ ‘Dude, he’s the number one guy in Shooto right now.’ (Laughs) The fight was going great and I wasn’t having too many problems with him, but I was the guy that had to find out that he had an insane triangle choke.”

Two fights later, Miletich was back in the UFC, defending his title against another future coaching great in Andre Pederneiras (Miletich also battled coaching wizard Matt Hume earlier in his career), All the while though, he saw the potential in the sport.

“There were times when I had my doubts, considering the way it was attacked by politicians and the athletic commissions, but I think everybody did their best to keep the faith, and things worked Miletich in his loss to Newtonout,” he said. “We knew that it was gonna take people with a bit of power and a bit of money to be able to put it over the top, and the Fertittas (Frank and Lorenzo), in working with Dana (White), have been able to do that.”

After four successful title defenses, Miletich lost his crown to Carlos Newton in his first fight in the Zuffa era at UFC 31 in May of 2001. He went 1-1 in his final two Octagon bouts, defeating Shonie Carter and losing to Matt Lindland, and due to injury he only fought twice more, with a loss to Renzo Gracie and a knockout of Thomas Denny, but his influence continues to be felt in the sport, not just due to his coaching, but to his commentating as well.

Needless to say, Pat Miletich is an MMA lifer.

“To be honest, I’m just happy that I’ve been involved for so long and have been able to stay – in different forms – relevant to where I can help the sport, either as an athlete, as a coach, and now as a commentator, to hopefully add something positive to it and help it grow.”


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