What It Was Like to Spar At Miletich Fighting Systems Back in the Glory Days - Part 1

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

In the primordial soup of MMA circa 1998 to 2006, a gym in tiny Bettendorf, Iowa, possessed something that other gyms did not. You hear it all the time. Those stories of sparring at Miletich Fighting Systems were legendary. That place was a warzone. They went 100 percent all the time. 

At a time of single-discipline mastery—one place for kickboxing, one for submissions, one for bicep curls—Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) crossbred a holistic approach to striking and grappling with a corn-fed-wrestler approach to conditioning. Less wasn’t more. More was more. To hear the guys who were there tell it, training was often about sweating, bleeding, concussing, falling down, standing up, crying, fighting fatigue and the guy across from you and the guy within you, and coming out in one piece.

As brutal as it seems from the outside and in the present, something obviously worked: The gym was home to several UFC champions—Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia, and Miletich himself—and a litany of contenders in that promotion and others. This weekend, Robbie Lawler, a fighter reared in that environment, fights Johny Hendricks for the vacant UFC welterweight title, nearly 15 years after his first walked in the door of Miletich’s gym.

To celebrate the rebirth of Lawler and to capture a glimpse of that special time in the middle of nowhere, Fightland spoke with Pat Miletich, the gym’s founder and the UFC’s first-ever welterweight champion; Jeremy Horn, a submission fighter with more than 100 fights on his ledger and who once vied for the UFC’s light heavyweight title; Sylvia, the two-time UFC heavyweight champ; Bart Palaszewski, a member of Miletich’s Quad Cities Silverbacks IFL team; and Sam Sheridan, an author who chronicled his training at MFS in his first book, A Fighter’s Heart.

Some look back and describe it as cruel--the degree of punishment delivered and absorbed as unnecessary. But to Pat Miletich, the choice was simple: Take your beating in the gym or take it in the ring—sometimes with terrible consequences.

Pat Miletich: Let me give you a little perspective of why we trained so hard and why I did things the way I did. In my first amateur kickboxing match, I broke my right forearm in the middle of the fight in the first round, actually—I hit the guy with a spinning backfist and shattered my forearm. I finished the fight with a broken arm, and I got tired because I was a bit panicked. I got exhausted during the fight, I lost a split decision, but I came away from that thinking to myself, “I never wanna be tired in a fight again.” I made sure my training was so intense that I could never get exhausted in a fight, and I could never lose because I was tired.

Then, when I first held the UFC title, I was a special guest at a kickboxing event in Chicago where a kid died. I was sitting ringside. I didn’t know the kid, but he got knocked down, got up, and then collapsed. The referee started counting—the kid was literally three feet from me, his head was turned toward me, and I saw his pupils go jet black. I climbed in between the ropes, pulled the kid’s mouthpiece out, and I told the referee, “Stop counting. This kid’s in trouble.”

The kid stretched out and stopped breathing right as three volunteer firemen climbed in—they were there watching the fights, but they jumped in with me. We started CPR and he turned dark blue right in front of us. We worked on him for about eight minutes until the ambulance got there. They didn’t have a ring doctor upstairs—he was downstairs tending to a kid with a broken nose. The ambulance got there, and he was dead. He died in my hands.  I never wanted to be the guy that had to tell a kid’s parents why something seriously bad happened to him in the ring or the cage because I didn’t train him correctly.

From that point on, the training room was to create champions but also to thin the herd and make sure the people that did not belong in the cage didn’t go into the cage. The guys that couldn’t handle it, we got rid of ‘em quickly. It was very harsh to a lot of people. A lot of people thought that I was an asshole, but I did it to make sure I didn’t ever have a kid on my team end up in that situation.

Curious fighters flocked to Bettendorf to be a part of Pat’s team. At its peak, some 30 to 40 fighters—many who held or fought for UFC titles or smashed their way through other promotions of the day—counted themselves among the stable of professionals at MFS. Each came for his own reasons and from someplace else: Jeremy Horn from Nebraska, Tim Sylvia from Maine, Sam Sheridan from Massachusetts, and Bart Palaszewski from next door in Illinois.

Jeremy Horn: At the time, Pat was the only person that was putting things together the way he was. He did karate when he was little, wrestling, kickboxing, he was an avid boxer, and he did jiu-jitsu as well. Back then, there weren’t many people, if any, who were actually doing all of it the way he was, and he was a cardio and conditioning freak. I think a lot of people recognized that he had a winning formula and wanted to train with him.

Tim Sylvia: I had met Pat [while attending] a UFC, and he invited me to come train. I was kind of at a crossroads. Being from Maine, I was bigger and better than everybody I trained with, and it was just hard to find fights and it was hard to get training partners and stuff like that. I met Pat and I went out for two weeks in ’99 and absolutely loved it—it was one of the toughest two weeks I’d ever had in my life. Everyone was asking me when I was gonna move back, and it’s like, I’m not one of those guys that’s gonna move here without permission. Pat pulled me aside and said, “Hey, there’s definitely a spot on the team for you. If you want to come out here and live and pursue your dream, you’re more than welcome to.” That’s all I needed to hear.

Sam Sheridan: I had the great fortune in that I knew Kirik Jenness—he ran a little gym right up the street from me in Amherst, Massachusetts. And of course, Kirik is the guy who owns and runs the Underground and has been around forever in the sport. He was a great early source, and he said, “If you want to go to the best place in the country, go to Miletich’s. There’s no question.” I called Pat, he said, “Fine,” and I sold this magazine story idea to Men’s Journal. I wrote a proposal—my agent didn’t even see it, I just sent it off to the editor. My agent was kind of pissed, but the editor bought it. So I set up a time to go out there—I set aside about four months—and I rented some shithole they had across the street from the gym.

Bart Palaszewski: I started training at MFS a few months before the IFL [International Fight League] kicked off. I didn’t know it was the trials, but it was the trials, and I just did my thing. I was this young kid—I loved sparring. They said, “Spar with this guy.” It was actually another guy who was trying out to be on the team, but he didn’t know he was trying out either. We were just beating the shit out of each other. And I got the call the next day, like, “Hey, do you wanna join our team?” Fuck yeah.

As Pat established his team on MMA’s biggest stages, his team established its reputation: Basically, don’t come into the training room on Monday and Wednesday nights unless you’re ready to fight for real. That reputation for being a warzone led to a shared anxiety that, for many, consumed the moments ticking by before the start of practice.

Sylvia: You’re sitting there getting ready to eat before you go work out, and you really don’t feel like eating because you’ve got the butterflies in your stomach. Because you know in sparring, it’s either knock out or be knocked out, you know? You gotta be on your toes.

Sheridan: You saw guys come in, and you were getting ready to die, basically. You’d put on any pad you could wear, like Tim Sylvia used to put pads on his knees so he could throw knees. Like that’s gonna help—you’re still gonna break my ribs. They all wore shoes because they wanted to kick and not hurt their toes.

Sparring started at 5:30, and you’d be sitting around watching the time from three o’clock. “Lord, let me live through these next 15 rounds.”

Sparring sessions ran the gamut—sparring with takedowns on Mondays, straight kickboxing on Wednesdays, sometimes 12 rounds, sometimes 15 rounds, sometimes three minutes at a clip, sometimes five minutes at a clip. The essential goals were simple: don’t stop until practice is done, and do what you have to do to survive in a room where people like Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, and Tim Sylvia treat your chin like a bull’s-eye.  

Sheridan: What was amazing to me then and is amazing to me now is the open nature of the place. You really could walk in off the street and get your ass kicked. You could walk in, and if you had been around and if you had had fights or whatever, they’d let you spar.

Horn: It wasn’t anything super rough. It’s not like guys were getting knocked out regularly. I don’t even know how many times I saw somebody get knocked out—it wasn’t many. But I think things got a lot rougher after I left.

Miletich: When it came to sparring, they had 16 ounce gloves, headgear, shin pads, they were all geared up, and that was to eliminate injuries as much as possible, but that way they could go full speed, and they could get the endurance, the reaction time, the aggression, and everything else—they needed those benefits for when real fights came around.

Sylvia: I mean, if we could have charged [people to watch], we would’ve made a buttload of money. I mean, there were times I’d actually enjoy it if I was coming off a fight or something and I’d take a week off, I’d just go in there and watch sparring and watch guys get beat up and bloody and knocked out. It was interesting. I was fortunate because I was never on the receiving end of getting the crap kicked out of me. I got pretty lucky. Being six-foot eight and having a striking background, that helps.

Sheridan: I kind of didn’t even know what I was getting into. Listen, I had spent six months in Thailand, I’d fought once, and I’d had, like, a little bit of experience, so I wasn’t like a complete asshole walking in there, but I wrote about it: I sparred Tim Sylvia as the first thing I did there. Of course, Tim was warming up and goofing around, but Tim Sylvia—he hits with bad intentions.

Sylvia: We were wearing 16-ounce gloves, shin pads, headgear—we were fully geared up, so it was balls to the wall. You get all that gear on, and if you can’t deal with it, you definitely can’t be a fighter.

Palaszewski: That’s the kind of place where you need three days of recovery. It was four days on, three days off, and you spent as much time in an ice bath as possible. It was fuckin’ rough, bottom line. My training partners were, like, Jens Pulver, Josh Neer, Spencer Fisher. I got thrown in with Matt Hughes a bunch of times. And it was, like, you better bring your fuckin’ A game.

Sheridan: Really what you were supposed to do was spar for 15 rounds straight, not take a round off, just move from partner to partner. And you’d try to do a little wink and nod to the guy to say, “Let’s take this round easy.” And of course, he’d crack you, you’d get pissed, and crack him back.

Sylvia: There were times I got my legs beat up so bad I couldn’t even walk. People realized they couldn’t kick me in the head or throw heavy punches, but they beat the crap out of my legs, and that happened on numerous occasions.

Through the years, Milietch Fighting Systems was located in a few different spaces in Bettendorf. The most longstanding of them were matted rooms with padded walls inside Ultimate Fitness and Champions Fitness Center, both spaces adjacent to the sorts of treadmill-and-dumbbell gyms folks visit on their way home from their day job.

Sheridan: The water fountain was out in the main gym, and you’d be out walking past these Iowa soccer moms and they’d be kind of checking out these fighters. And you’d be bleeding everywhere and torn up with black eyes and bare feet. It was like you were switching worlds. There are, like, doctors and housewives on elliptical machines, but then they kind of know the fighters, like “Oh, hi Matt!” To them, they were just guys they saw around the gym who had cauliflower ears.

The training room is where prospects—guys who had a decent fighting résumé, guys who had shown their mettle in the basic classes at MFS, guys with good pedigrees from elsewhere—earned spots on the team. It was also where guys who showed up uninvited and unannounced with a U-Haul in the parking lot and designs on making it big as ultimate fighters second-guessed their dreams.

Sheridan: I saw other guys come in who thought they were gonna be fighters and just get the shit kicked out of them. After three rounds, they were sitting on the wall, taking breaks, and then they were packing their shit and going home.

Miletich: There were moments where a guy who’d come from out of town to train for a fight, on any given night, they’d just quit in the middle of practice and walk over to their bag and go pick it up and leave. And we’d say to them, “If you pick up your bag and you leave, you can never come back. You realize that.” And they’d stand there, they’d put their bag down, and it happened numerous times: They’d look at us, look at their bag, look at us, look at their bag. Some would walk back into the room and endure it and stick with it. And some would pick up their bag and they’d walk. Ninety percent of the people that came from out of town left.

A guy from across the river who was a kickboxing coach brought in two guys that were fighting in national kickboxing championships and he told me, “Put ‘em in against your best guys. I don’t think your best guys could even hang with them.” This guy brought one of the local news stations with a cameraman and all this stuff. So I got two of my best strikers and said, “Do what you want with these guys. Wreck ‘em. Because these guys think they’re on the same level as us.” And the guys were offended that this guy brought cameramen to try and do propaganda for his gym, trying to show his place was better than ours. So I just said, “Knock ‘em both out. Just knock ‘em out.” And so, they knocked ‘em out. You gotta take the leash off now and then.

We had about six or seven gangsters show up right before we were getting ready to spar on a Wednesday night—you know, these guys had teardrops tattooed under their eyes and all this other shit. They came in and said, “We wanna train.” And I said, “Okay, here’s the schedule. Any of you guys ever done any wrestling or grappling or kickboxing, anything like that?” They said no—a couple of them boxed. So I circled all the basic classes. They said “No, we’re here to spar; we want to spar with you and your fighters.” I knew what they were there for: They thought they were tough and wanted to beat up some ultimate fighters. So I said, “You guys aren’t ready for this. Trust me, you don’t wanna do this.” And they said, “No, we wanna do this; give us some gloves.”

I put one with me, one with Hughes, one with Pulver, one with Jeremy Horn, one with Ben Earwood, all guys that were UFC guys or whatever. And basically, all of ‘em got knocked out—they all got dropped, we just destroyed their legs on purpose with low kicks, hitting ‘em with liver shots. The next night one of them came back. He trained, he did the grappling class, he stuck it out and kept coming back. It was about two months later, he comes up to me and says, “I’m wondering how I become part of the team and really start fighting.” I go, “Well, there’s a process you have to go through to be accepted.” And he goes, “What the fuck are you talking about? The past two months of me getting the shit kicked out of me every night ...” I go, “Alright, I see what you’re saying.” And he was actually a really tough guy, fought a lot of fights—didn’t make it to the UFC, but he was a tough guy and a good guy. And the cool thing was he was with us for years. It changed his life, he got away from the gang and stuff, so something good came out of it.

Check out part 2 here.

And check out these related stories:

Jack Slack: The Evolution of Robbie Lawler

The Time My Friend Sparred Don Frye