You can’t discuss mixed martial arts history without at least mentioning “The Croatian Sensation,” Pat Miletich.
The Early Days
Born to Croatian immigrants in Davenport, Iowa in 1966, Miletich would prove his grit from a young age. He began wrestling at six years old and would go on to play football throughout his high school tenure. After his father passed, his senior year, he’d go on to college to pursue his wrestling career. When his mother became ill during his sophomore year of college, he dropped out and moved back home to try and help pay off the house and take care of her.
Emerging in Iowa
While working three jobs, a friend of his got into kickboxing and invited Miletich to a class with him and he went. Militech would go on to win a U.S Muay Thai title before he moved on to training jiujitsu and various other martial arts. While doing this, he caught wind of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He saw this as a way to make large chunks of money in a short amount of time and decided to try the quickly growing sport for himself.
Miletich began fighting on the local scene in Iowa and amassed a record of 17-1-1, his only loss coming to famed coach Matt Hume, before getting the chance to prove himself in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
First Welterweight Champion
UFC 16 would be the first “lightweight” tournament for fighters under 170lbs. Militech entered and won his first fight by split decision against Townsend Saunders. He was set to face Mikey Burnett in finals, but Burnett withdrew with a broken finger. Miletich instead faced the alternate, Chris Brennan in the finals. Brennan had won his bout at 1:20, while Militech had gone to war for 15 minutes in his semi final bout of the night. Despite this, Militech would choke Brennan out with a shoulder choke to win the first tournament for fighters under 170 lbs.
After the tournament, Miletich would go back to fighting on the regional scene to keep himself busy. Here he went to a draw with heavyweight legend Dan Severn after a 1 round, 20 minute long bout.
In his next fight, he would finally get his chance to take on Mikey Burnett in the first UFC welterweight title bout ever. He would win the belt by split-decision and defend the title four times over the next two years before losing the title to jiujitsu standout, Carlos Newton, in 2001.
During his UFC run, Miletich had established Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa. Many credit him with creating one of the first gyms that offered competent training in mixed martial arts. Up to this point, many gyms were known for one art and fighters would have to travel to other gyms to learn others.
Miletich Fighting Systems
Miletich Fighting Systems was also known for its brutal training regiment. Militech gassed badly in his first amateur kickboxing bout and decided he never wanted himself or any of his fighters to feel that helpless in the cage. He amped up his own training and carried this philosophy over when he began training fighters. As a UFC champion, Miletich was invited to be a special guest at a kickboxing event in Chicago. Here, he saw a fighter get knocked down and it was clear something wasn’t right. Miletich ran into the ring and told the referee to stop the count. The young fighter died in his arms while awaiting an ambulance.
Miletich swore he’d never be the guy who had to call someone’s parents to tell them their child had passed away because they were poorly trained, or had no business being in the cage or ring. To assure the people who came to his gym were serious, he enacted a $300 tryout fee that included a background check and physical. Most didn’t make it through the brutal tryouts. But many of those who did went on to become world champions and legends.
The gym housed the likes of Ben Rothwell, Jens Pulver, Jeremy Horn, Robbie Lawler, Tim Sylvia, Spencer Fisher and Matt Hughes. Miletich Fighting Systems has produced 14 world champions, five in the UFC, and went on to have over 80 fighters appear on television and pay-per-view.
Nowadays, the UFC hall of famer is better known for his commentator duties. He worked with many organizations, including Strikeforce, and had a longstanding deal with AXS TV. Miletich was one of the first stars of the lower weight classes and did more behind the scenes than most in the sport of MMA. A true pioneer, it’s difficult to know where the sport would be today without his influence.