Pat Miletich, founder and patriarch of Miletich Fighting Systems, is tired of watching all the young whippersnappers having fun. He wants back in the ring.
The Davenport, Iowa native had a stutter step in his last return to fighting, a submission loss against former teacher Renzo Gracie in a 2006 International Fight League appearance, but has not lost the competitive burn he feels makes him a threat to anyone in the welterweight division.
Miletich says he's done extensive rehab on a longstanding neck injury, and feels it's time to test himself in action. On Dec. 11, he will dip a toe back into MMA waters, facing Thomas Denny at Adrenaline MMA's second show, in Moline, Iowa, Miletich Fighting Systems' back yard.
It's been a long time since "The Croatian Sensation" ran the two-lane roads of his home state, torturing himself outside the cage to make his fights inside them easy. At 40, he's seen the first generation of his fighters go on to become world champions, stars in their own right.
Miletich himself lead the charge, becoming the first UFC welterweight championship in pre-Zuffa days at "Ultimate Brazil." He defended the title twice in the organization's dark days before ceding it to Carlos Newton at UFC 31. The loss ended a dominant period in Miletich's career, and after losing again to Matt Lindland in a middleweight contest at UFC 36, he decided to hang up his gloves.
In his gym's recent past, cornerstone fighters like Matt Hughes, Robbie Lawler, Spencer Fisher and Jens Pulver have slowly moved away from the nest leaving a void in leadership, maybe even in the gym's spirit. Some of the departures had to do with the business side of the sport, others with fighters' need to see the world outside MFS walls. Fight teams are ever changing, ever colliding groups of personalities and ideas; they need figureheads and new blood equally to keep them vital.
With over a decade in the fight game, Miletich had seen ebbs and flows in the gym, but never an identity crisis. To the MMA faithful, Miletich Fighting Systems meant work ethic. In a young sport, it was one of the few gyms with an undisputed championship pedigree. There were talented fighters at MFS with years in the game, but they were always overshadowed by the marquee names. Miletich realized he couldn't be the only role model of the gym's reputation -- he needed to convince the next generation of fighters they were part of its tradition as well.
"Basically, what it was is you need things to wake you up," Miletich explained. "You've got to keep up with the curve. I think it was a phase where the new guys finally realized how good they were and have just started taking over, which was very important. I had been waiting for that to happen and had talked to several of them. The older guys are retiring and moving on and doing this and doing that. (I said), 'You guys need to step up and become the leaders of the team and be the guys that are the role models of the work ethic, in the void those guys have left.' They've stepped up and done that."
Somewhere between a kick to the head and the crank of an armbar, Miletich woke up too, realizing he loved competition too dearly to give it up.
He cites fighters like Ben Rothwell, Ryan McGivern, Mike Ciesnolevicz and LC Davis -- all members of his Silverback team from the IFL's salad days, as the new heart of the gym. Former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia also remains, faithful to the man who first introduced him to the world of fighting.
No less than seven of Miletich's new stars will fight on the Adrenaline card, and the gym appears to be singularly focused on preparation for the event.
In preparation for his fight with Denny, Miletich has re-invested much of his training time into bringing his jiu-jitsu game up to par, working with two Brazilian black belts at the gym.
"I've gone back to learning," he said. "If you ever quit learning, you become so stagnant. And there were times in my career where I had stopped learning, but I sought out and luckily got the help of a couple of very good jiu-jitsu guys. I used to feel that I was real good on the ground, and I'm starting to feel like I flow like that again, which is nice."
Miletich says the plan, at least for now, is to wear Denny out and finish him in the second round or early in the first. He thinks his championship experience, as well as his daily grind fending off the sharks at the gym, will be the deciding factor. But perhaps because of his last return, he's a little cautious about making bold predictions.
"I think he's got a ton of experience, a fairly well-rounded guy," Miletich said of Denny. "[He] looks to slice people with elbows a lot, which I'm not real fold of, but I'll do my best to avoid. Overall, I think I've got better skills that he does, but it's MMA. You never know what's going to happen, and upsets are happening all the time in the sport. So I've got to be on my toes with him, because he's experienced enough to do damage."
As to whether he's turning over a new leaf in his career, there is equal caution.
"I guess that depends on who offers me a fight," he commented. "We'll just take this fight and see how it goes, and work from there."
One thing he's certain on, though, is that his time away will not be a factor against Denny.
"Not this time," he said confidently. "I love to compete, and still feel that if I'm healthy and in shape, I think I can basically hang with anybody out there at 170. So I thought I might as well get out there and have some fun."