Las Vegas -- As UFC middleweight Dan Miller wrapped up his open workout at the MGM Grand on Thursday afternoon and a hungry throng of media circled him with cameras and microphones, for a brief moment it became very easy to read minds.
Everyone had one question, or some variation of it, on the tip of their tongue. It was just a question of who would get to it first.
That is, until a UFC PR rep asked reporters to keep all questions "fight related," and suddenly all the enthusiasm drained out of the scrum.
The media loves nothing so much as a hard luck tale, and right now Miller's is one of the hardest in all of MMA. As Miller prepares to take on Michael Bisping in what may very well be a win-or-get-fired match at UFC 114 on Saturday, his 4 ½-month old son struggles with a potentially fatal kidney disease back home in New Jersey.
Miller and his wife are hopeful that their boy may yet receive a transplant that will save his life, but in the meantime Miller has to take to the Octagon for the most basic of reasons: He needs the money.
There's something about this narrative that is at once compelling and a little troubling. On one hand we have a father fighting (literally) to keep his family afloat in a difficult time. On the other, it's hard not to wonder if Miller is really in the proper mental state for a pro fight right now.
This isn't a tennis match, after all. This is a cage fight. This is the kind of situation where a man could get seriously hurt if his mind isn't in the right place on fight night.
We want our fighters to battle with grit and passion, but when they're doing it only because they have to, and in a time when they probably wouldn't choose to, something about it begins to feel a tad ... uncomfortable.
Maybe that's the implication UFC president Dana White was responding to when he answered a seemingly innocuous question from MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani, who asked whether a promoter should ever advise a guy not to fight during difficult personal times, with a diatribe about life in the "real world."
"I hear lots of fans talking such dumb [expletive] sometimes," White said. "In the real world, nobody waits for you, nobody babies you, nobody takes care of you. ... The real world is, nobody gives a [expletive]. The real world is hard and you got to get out there and you got to overcome adversity to get to where you want to be."
In other words, if you're looking for sympathy, look elsewhere.
White has a point when he says that the decision to fight should ultimately be left up to the athlete, who knows better than anyone what he's capable of in his current mental state. He also has a point about the harsh realities of the real world, even though in this case we're talking about an insular world that White himself exerts almost total control over.
At the same time, Miller's struggle is the kind that would make most of us unable to concentrate on even menial tasks. Taking care of business in the office or punching in for a shift with that in the back of your mind would take serious willpower, and it might not be done with the greatest of passion or focus.
But Miller doesn't have the kind of job he can sleepwalk through on a bad day. He doesn't even have the kind of job where he can afford to have a bad day.
Fighters get judged on what amounts to a few minutes worth of job performance data every few months. Instead of getting bad reviews, they get beat up. If they lose three straight in the UFC, which will be Miller's situation if he doesn't beat Bisping on Saturday, they usually also get fired.
Trust me, these are people who already know about how hard the real world can be.
If you heart doesn't go out to a guy like Miller, who is about to do something that would be unthinkable to most people, and in an excruciatingly high-pressure situation, it's quite possible you don't have one.