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Barb Honchak finds unlikely talent with help of legendary family

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Barb Honchak got into MMA after going to her husband's Brazilian jiu-jitsu class at Steve Berger's gym.

Sure, a championship belt would be nice, but Barb Honchak sees her title bout this Friday at Invicta Fighting Championships 5 (Invictafc.com, 7 p.m. ET, $9.95) as a chance to bring some notoriety back to one of sport's greatest legacies.

Honchak (7-2), who faces eight-year veteran Vanessa Porto (15-5) for Invicta's first-ever flyweight title, fights under the Miletich Fighting Systems moniker, and anyone who really knows MMA recognizes that historical name and its relevance to the 20-year-old sport.

The Miletich team -- whose humble beginnings can be traced to a racquetball court at a neighborhood gym in Bettendorf, Iowa -- produced four UFC champions and double that in other promotions during the last decade. Under the leadership of Pat Miletich, himself one of those UFC champions, this scrappy, yet formidable team was, for a time, the very best the sport had to offer.

"When you talk about MMA, you can't not mention the Miletich name," said the 33-year-old Honchak. "Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia, Matt Hughes, who's probably the greatest welterweight of all time, and so many others. They are the originals who helped put this sport on the map."

Much like the Jackson/Winklejohn gym is revered today, 10 years ago, fighters sold everything they owned to make pilgrimages to Bettendorf just to train under the hard-nosed Miletich, a rare balance of technical wizard and master teacher. When you were introduced as a Miletich Martial Arts fighter before a fight, there was an understanding that you took this seriously, having spent more than a few training sessions with your head in a trash can, puking your insides out from sheer exhaustion.

Ten years ago, Bettendorf was the center of MMA's universe and Miletich fighters occupied every rung of the sport's ladder. However, in recent years, many of the Miletich stars of yesteryear have drifted away from Bettendorf (and even the sport) to settle elsewhere. In 2010, patriarch Miletich sold his stake in the aptly named Champions Training Center, to spend more time with his wife and two young daughters.

Champions has kept on training fighters, though, under the tutelage of Ramire "Junior "Hernandez (12-4), a 10-year Miletich student. Among Hernandez's brood some older names remain, mingled in with a crop of hungry up-and-comers. Miletich still teaches at the gym in the quiet moments between his very busy second careers as an MMA broadcaster and a military and law enforcement training specialist.

Honchak and her husband, Tim, moved from St. Louis to the Quad Cities in February 2012 so she could try out Champions when his nursing work brought them to the area.

By then, Honchak had nine amateur fights (8-1) and seven pro bouts (5-2) on her docket. It was also shaping up to be a banner year for women's MMA, which would no longer stay hidden away in its male counterpart's shadow. Though she'd be the only female fighter at Champions, and would have to train solely with the men, Honchak said she found a young, vibrant unit to grow with.

"Miletich had 14 world champions, and although there's not a single one at the gym right now, the knowledge is still there," said Honchak, "and so is a team that has accepted me."

Luckily for Honchak and others, the 44-year-old Miletich just can't stay away from coaching and has assisted Hernandez off and on in Honchak's training since she arrived.

"I'd like to help every fighter," said Miletich, "but the ones I see that are extremely dedicated or working so hard that it's impossible to ignore them, those are the ones that you just have to help. Barb's one of those fighters."

Miletich, who hands-on trained hundreds of fighters from 1995-2010, said Honchak is as hard of a worker as he's ever seen.

"She's very athletic, very tenacious and actually quite aggressive," said Miletich, who's seriously coached seven other female fighters over a decade. "She's tough as hell."

Honchak's parents, both avid scuba divers, undoubtedly nurtured these qualities, as they introduced their youngest daughter to outdoor sports and what she calls "roughing it" early on. Honchak remembers diving with her father for five-to ten-foot drops as early as eight years old. Tucked into his underbelly or under an arm, Honchak said she'd hold onto a heavy rock to help keep herself submerged.

"My father said I could swim before I could walk," said Honchak, who became a certified diver by age 13 and a dive master (with a minimum 40 logged dives) at 18.

In Edwardsville, Ill., where Honchak was born and raised, she worked at the local scuba gear store alongside her future husband, catering to the "mud hole divers," an enthusiast group who dove and surveyed the deeper local rivers, lakes and quarries, as well as staged sea courses.

Honchak's love for the outdoors and nature reflected in her college studies. She earned a bachelor's degree in molecular biology, then her Master's in both Ecology and Genetics. A roommate introduced Honchak and her husband to the UFC and MMA. Once they settled in St. Louis, Tim sought out a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class and found UFC veteran Steve Berger's gym. When his schedule prevented him from training, Tim asked his wife if she'd like to fill in for him in class.

It was an offer that came at the right time. Honchak was working in a lab at Washington University studying photosynthesis, but had envisioned her career taking her outdoors.

The 5-foot-4 Honchak was a fast learner. Six months into training, under coach Berger's nudging, she was offered a local amateur fight. The only catch was that the bout fell on the weekend before her wedding.

After conferring with her husband, Honchak quietly accepted the fight. She told no one of her plans -- most of all her parents. Honchak earned a second-round submission win and walked out of the cage mostly unscathed, sans a poke in the eye, which speckled the sclera with red. On her wedding day, Honchak kept her cool as suspicions arose.

"My mom was watching me put on makeup and asked what I did to my eye," said Honchak. "I told her I'd tell her afterward."

When Honchak did finally tell her mother, the reaction was understandable. Honchak's mother began to cry.

"My mother said something like, 'What did I do wrong to have a daughter who wants to fight?'" recalls Honchak.

Growing up, Barb hadn't shown an inclination for martial arts. She'd been a horseback rider. She loved her diving. She wasn't the kid who got into scraps behind the high school.

Still, coming from such a physically active family who'd spent their vacations hiking, camping, and deep-sea diving together made it easier for Honchak to get her parents onboard with something that would gradually become much more than a hobby for her.

Honchak's parents now attend her fights and witnessed their youngest daughter notch two straight wins at Invicta last July and October. They'll be at her championship bout on Friday, as will Honchak's husband and Miletich, who will corner her.

Barb said she hasn't told Miletich in so many words that she intends to bring home gold in honor of the legacy he spearheaded. She said this will be implied when she's introduced as a Miletich fighter, a name that should let her opponent know that Honchak takes her fighting quite seriously.

"Like what I told people when I quit coaching full time, whether somebody [had] the Miletich name are not, hopefully, one way or another, as it trickles down from fighter to fighter, it's still influencing people," said Miletich. "I'm very glad that Barb feels that way about the team."

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