Guys show up. Who can stop them? They get their bus tickets or load their cars and make their way past cornfield after truck stop after cornfield until they arrive at a cinder-block gym in cozy little Bettendorf, Iowa, home of white clapboard farmhouses and picket fences and some of the toughest, meanest badasses on the planet.
The guys who show up here at the Miletich Fighting Systems gym are bar fighters or college wrestlers or generic tough guys looking to parlay their willingness to take a punch into something big. Some call ahead, some don't. But all believe the rise of mixed martial arts means they can make their livings doing what they love most: Fighting. As long as the new guys pay the gym's $299 tryout fee and pass a background check and an HIV test, they're free to receive -- or deliver -- whatever kind of beating is coming to them.
They know this is the place, the unofficial mecca of MMA, located three blocks from Lourdes Catholic Elementary. They come because of Pat Miletich, the toughest little tough guy there is: a 5-foot-10, 185-pound, squat-nosed, gristle-eared guru who gives each newbie a single workweek -- five intense days -- to prove that he belongs.
In the 10 years since he opened his gym, Miletich has trained a record 11 UFC champs. On a typical day, 20 to 35 fighters mix it up here alongside UFC belt-holders (Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia) and International Fight League stars (Ben Rothwell, Rory Markham). All have made the pilgrimage for the same reason: to learn from Miletich, who is nothing short of an MMA deity.
If a new fighter lasts the week, he can stick around. Then he really gets to know the old-school, early-UFC Miletich. The man practically rubs his
hands together as he reports his gym's most famous statistic: Of the 25 or so fighters who come to Bettendorf with a dream each month, maybe two or three last the nightmare of the first week, and only one endures two months. The 39-year-old Miletich scoffs at the myth that MMA's newfound popularity has created opportunities for quick, easy cash.
"Everybody sees the money," he says. "They say, 'Hey, I want to fight UFC.' I ask, 'Have you ever fought?' They haven't, and when they find out they've got at least a year of amateur fighting ahead of them, they start to think about it a little."
The sport has reached almost unthinkable heights, regularly drawing three million viewers on Spike TV and one million for pay-per-views. (The UFC's Sept. 8 event peaked at 5.6 million, more than NASCAR's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 race and the Virginia Tech at LSU game.) But, reminiscent of action sports, MMA seems to have sprouted whole from the earth. Unlike competitors in most major sports, which long ago created avenues for youth participation, MMA competitors turn up from more random backgrounds: college wrestlers looking to make money; martial arts students who believe they have exceptional skills; street toughs who figure they might as well get paid for punching people.
All find their way to Miletich, a two-time UFC champ himself. When he started winning PPV bouts in the mid-1990s, he spotted potential in the sport and an even greater opportunity for himself. In 1997, he opened one of the first MMA gyms and invited other fighters to train with him. By the time he retired, in 2002, a trip to Bettendorf had become a must for MMA competitors. As the sport has grown, so has the demand for Miletich's touch. His training system has licensing agreements with 20 nationwide facilities, and he's helped develop training programs at 100 additional gyms.
But the centerpiece is still his gym in Iowa. Wannabe fighters arrive in all shapes and sizes, with all measures of attitude. The humble ones succeed with honor or fail without shame. But others, particularly the ones who believe they must announce their toughness, might as well cut open a vein and jump into a shark tank.
One big guy from Minnesota -- nobody remembers his name -- acted as if he expected to hear bugles when he arrived. So on Monday night, his first at camp, after a tough morning workout, Miletich put him in a sparring session with Rothwell, the IFL heavyweight king and a member of Miletich's Quad Cities Silverbacks. Monday nights are wake-up calls for new guys who have yet to learn their place. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Rothwell started by sweeping a kick across the guy's knee. Then, well, here's how the heavyweight tells it: "I kicked his leg off and started punching him in the face. I was just about to head-kick him when Pat came flying in to stop it. The guy was crippled. He couldn't even walk."
Miletich understands Rothwell well enough to know that he might not have stopped on his own. "The guy had it coming," Rothwell says. "I took it upon myself to make sure his false reality was rectified."
Colorful first-week tales are a staple of gym life in Bettendorf. If a fighter makes it through Monday night, he still has to survive Wednesday, when things turn especially savage. All campers arrive at 6 p.m. and glove up for two hours of fighting -- not typical gym sparring, but full-contact karate and kickboxing: Three-minute sessions, some with only 30-second breaks, over and over, up to 12 times; switching partners, elbowing, kneeing, punching -- all driven and monitored by Miletich and two fight-style specialists.
"Wednesday?" says Rothwell, laughing. "That's when guys learn in the worst way possible. They get absolutely degraded, and their whole world is crushed."
Within a month of a promising new fighter's arrival, Miletich starts to enter him in local shows, which often are held in nightclubs around the greater Bettendorf-Davenport-Moline-Rock Island metro area. Next, the fighters enter bigger amateur shows, then small pro fights. Even the best need at least a year of Miletich's seasoning before getting a shot at the big leagues, which means one of the three or so TV cards per month. By this time, a fighter is training as many as 40 hours per week. And he might be making enough to pay his $165 share of the rent to live in one of the apartments above the gym, having long ago moved out of one of the two hotels in town where most newcomers stay.
Markham was one of those promising rookies when he turned up in Bettendorf, in 2002. He'd just finished the second workout of his second day when Miletich invited him to attend a local amateur fight. Exhausted, Markham wondered if the whole enterprise was a good idea: "After the two workouts on Monday, I was asking myself, 'Can I really do this on a consistent basis?'" But he also knew that the invitation amounted to an anointing. Not everybody received that kind of attention from the boss after two days in the gym. So Markham accepted but asked for time to clean up and change clothes. Miletich told him not to bother, which should have been Markham's first hint of what was in store.
On the ride to the club, Miletich dropped the bomb: He had entered the tough Irishman from Chicago's South Side in a bout. "There are moments in your life that are crossroads, and that was one," Markham says. "If he thought I was ready, I was ready. I decided to find something out about myself that night. I've always fought to find out more about myself. That's part of the journey for me."
Despite his fatigue, Markham attacked immediately, and the fight ended in the first round when he knocked his opponent out of the ring.
"I knew Rory was tough," Miletich says, "but I wanted to see how he'd respond to this adversity. He passed the test."
Markham started martial arts at age 6 and eventually became a kyokushinkai karate expert, ignoring team sports. ("I was always the guy beating up the football players," he says). When Markham was 20, his karate instructor told him Miletich could make him a world champion. His move to Bettendorf was financed partly by the sale of half of his DVD collection.
"I had breakfast with my mom the morning I left," he says. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'I know this is going to make you happy.'"
Family and friends of Sherman Pendergarst had the opposite reaction when he decided to join the fight game. Three years ago, the former college wrestler and kickboxer, who had ballooned to 325 pounds, quit his job as a mortgage broker in Baltimore, sold his house and started MMA training, eventually moving to Iowa. Now 40 years old and a cut 260 pounds, Pendergarst has fought in 17 MMA bouts, including one in the UFC. "My parents always knew I was a little off," he says, "but they looked at me and said, 'Iowa? Are there even any African-Americans in that state?' And there are. Not a lot, but some."
His Bettendorf teammates like to remind him of his age and race. While Pendergarst is being interviewed, Rothwell asks, "Are you talking to him because he's a senior citizen or because he's black?" Pendergarst laughs and counters with an unprintable insult. In a world where men roll around on mats hour after hour and day after day, attempting to find the most efficient and debilitating way to grab each other, no topic is taboo.
But one topic that does crash MMA's central nervous system is the double-edged adjective that accompanies popularity: mainstream. The followers and practitioners of MMA have no problem with the increased exposure and money. But at Camp Miletich, there remains the insider's pride that comes from being involved in a sport that not everybody understands. Inside the gym, between those padded walls, survivors retain the vestiges of the sport's cultish past; after all, as more tough guys show up, more tough guys go home humbled.
The cocky big guy from Minnesota, the one Rothwell trashed and Miletich saved? He has a story too. He might have doubted the toughness of the toughest, but he didn't stick around for further study. He left the next day without a trace. He took his newfound humility and the ringing in his ears and went home to his big talk and his bar fights.
He paid his gym fees for the whole week, though. Miletich made sure of that. Dreams aren't free, and they aren't refundable.
Tim Keown writes for ESPN.com The Magazine.