NEWBURY PARK, Calif. -- The most potent, stinging combination in fighting is a one-two: the words “it’s over.”
Real fighters never want to hear it. They refuse to believe it. It asks them to leave behind their first and perhaps greatest love. If sleep is the cousin of death, it follows that the family would also include retirement -- another form of unconsciousness from which a fighter may never wake. Mark Miller has been parrying that one-two combination for the last seven years.
“I know I sound like every other fighter ever, but I was doing things I hadn’t done in a while,” said Miller, sitting inside a bright, modern sushi restaurant. “Being someone who is in tune with my body and in tune with myself, I was really excited.”
Back in 2005, the K-1 kickboxer amassed a 1-2 mixed martial arts record in Podunk fights on the Ohio circuit; the lone victory was omitted by Sherdog’s Fight Finder, according to Miller. He had been training MMA at Miletich Fighting Systems in Iowa prior to finding out about his congenital heart defect in 2006. Pre-fight medicals for a muay Thai bout revealed his cardiac output was at 20-percent capacity. Doctors implanted a cadaver valve in his heart in 2007.
Miller pursued a return to fighting, but tragedy had a way of pouring it on. In 2008, he lost his father, mother and brother in one four-month span.
While attempting to put the horrors of recent times behind him, he focused on his training at the renowned American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. He also taught Jon Jones, Phil Davis and Dominick Cruz at the short-lived Lionheart MMA in Pennsylvania, after which he accepted an invitation from UFC hall of famer Randy Couture to teach at the Las Vegas-based Xtreme Couture.
By this point, Miller’s bounce-back story became a familiar one in fight circles. The problem: He had immersed himself in alcohol and cocaine to cope with the aforementioned misfortune. Miller needed to first defeat his addictions before he could confront any opponent in the ring.
Four years sober, he can proudly boast about the success of becoming the first fighter in any combat sport to compete following open-heart surgery. On May 28, 2011, in Moscow, he ended a kickboxing match with Russian favorite Nikolaj Falin in less than 10 seconds thanks to a trusted overhand right. Miller’s tale had been gritty and dark at times, but it nevertheless offered an element of unforgettable cinematic redemption.
Now Miller is entrenched in his second comeback story.
Last year, the 42-year-old was poised to fulfill a dream of competing at Madison Square Garden in New York City. However, flu-like symptoms that began in October prevented Miller from competing at Glory 12 the following month. Stubbornly, Miller continued to train up until Oct. 24. A little more than a week later, Miller learned he had developed pneumonia, sending him into kidney failure.
Blood work results prompted an urgent, overwhelming call from the doctors: “You have to go to the emergency room right now. You’re in end-stage renal failure. You need to get dialysis, or you will die.”
Behind a salt-and-pepper fu-manchu that turns into a full-on, scraggly beard, Miller confesses he has a better understanding of the ruination abyss this go-around because he has -- almost -- been down this road before.
The lesser-known plotline in his tale is the fact that Miller’s replacement aortic valves last at most 10 to 20 years, meaning the surgery to save his life was just the first. Now, Miller stares at another life-altering procedure: a kidney transplant. Kidneys, like aortic valves, require periodic replacement, meaning Miller’s life, on a rough timeline, will be dotted by alternating kidney and heart operations for years to come.
“I have to believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “That’s the thing that keeps me from beating the s--- out of people.”
Fighters are accustomed to solving their issues with sanctioned violence. With that option gone, the adjustment to idle hands has proven a difficult one for Miller. Movies, books, and music are what he uses to escape the sterile world of kidney dialysis. Handling boredom has always been a problem. It was the most significant issue he faced when dealing with his heart surgery. Later, the heavyweight’s kidney issues caused his fit, 210-pound frame to dwindle to an alarming 178 pounds -- a number he has not seen since stepping on a scale in high school.
“We go through the mall, because that’s what they want me to do, is walk,” he said. “I get gassed doing that. It’s, like, two months ago I could go run five miles and run sprints after and have no issues. There’s a part of me that goes, ‘What the [expletive] happened?’”
He knows to stay away from the gym, as any feelings of being home quickly turn on him once he must stop short of training. Fighters are often faced with sudden, drastic reductions in health. That is written plainly in the job description, but it is more difficult to face when the trouble takes hold from outside the ring, as Miller’s congenital heart defect and kidney failure did.
The physical sacrifices made to compete at the highest level are no longer Miller’s primary objective, for he has no excess health left to sacrifice. The ring demands a body healthy enough to deflect and absorb trauma from a well-trained adversary. Miller no longer possesses the well-being to do what he loves, a frustrating fact that the fighter still struggles to digest.
“For whatever reason, your mind shuts off to how you feel,” he says. “[I say], ‘I'm still alright.’ No, you’re not.”
There comes an acceptance that the fighter’s identity and spirit will always survive even without sustained engagement in live combat. That brings a level of peace.
Miller still recalls how dejected he became during his heart surgery and how the goal of returning to the ring had kept him going. He wishes he had arrived at the Garden, if only to know his contributions to an international kickboxing event like Glory in New York City. If only he had not gotten sick.
“Boom, everything was taken out from under my legs,” he said. “My whole life -- Madison Square Garden.”
Between diabetes, his profession, open-heart surgery and now kidney failure, Miller has turned into the pre-existing condition leper, the uninsurable poster child hanging inside insurance company offices everywhere. Miller has grown accustomed to being counted out but nevertheless grapples with an uncomfortable notion that the tides are continuing to feed him into the undertow. Fighters fight, though. No room exists for a woe-is-me attitude, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Assessing the odds, Miller sounds like a man breaking down a confrontation in the ring. He persevered through the heart surgery with the exact vision he had in mind: a successful return to combat sports. In this second bout against life-threatening illness, he believes in his experience advantage.
In an ideal world, he receives a new kidney, heals up and starts training, not for a fight but to grow healthy again. Absence of drug use and a dedication to rigorous physical training and a clean diet made Miller a great candidate for heart surgery, and the same holds true for his kidneys.
“You have to understand, the chance of rejection is high,” Miller said. “I can be alright for a month, but ... there’s so many roads. There’s an ideal of what’s going to happen, and then there’s probably all the other s--- that’s going to happen.”
In the middle of our conversation, Miller was interrupted by a waiter who complimented him on his choice of attire, namely a red-and-white Jordan tracksuit -- a fashion statement not often seen these days. Proud of his swag, Miller responded succinctly: “I’m old school.”
Where Miller grew up means something. In the Steel Curtain’s backyard, “old school” means tougher than anything happening today. The Pittsburgh native finds motivation in the culture of perseverance back home. Then he rattles off his favorite sports stat, one internationally known but not emanating from the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania.
“There is only one athlete that has never failed in a big game,” he said. “That’s [Michael] Jordan. Kobe [Bryant] and Magic [Johnson] lost in the finals.”
The son of Harry “Moose” Miller, a 6-foot-5-inch World War II veteran that played in the NBA’s first game in 1946, he learned sports in a sometimes cruel and unusual manner. His father placed him in come-from-behind scenarios all the time, leaving him to learn basketball on unfriendly courts in the worst neighborhoods or placing him in cutthroat boxing gyms. It is no wonder Miller chose his path. Everything was a fight, even as a kid.
Miller became known as the “Fight Shark” in kickboxing gyms for his ability to smell an opponent’s blood before finishing him. He exemplifies the sport’s carnal survival-of-the-fittest mentality: kill or be killed, sink or swim. It was a lot to live up to, especially for a man who tattooed the words “lead pipe” across his knuckles and received instruction from champions like Maurice Smith and Rob Kaman.
Miller has spent more time in the hospital than he cares to remember. In the first week alone, his medical bills approached six figures. With continued dialysis and a kidney transplant to come, the number has increased to more than $250,000.
“The amount of money, that’s grotesque,” he said. “Nobody has that.”
According to Miller, the medical care he has received has been so shoddy that he now records every interaction. He administered his own insulin shots because caretakers were not prompt in doing so after he ate, as required. Doctor’s dubbed him a “bad diabetic” without properly assessing his health during initial visits and followed a series of protocols that were not based on Miller’s specific state of being. He slipped from acute renal failure -- the kind that does not require a kidney transplant -- to chronic renal failure, necessitating a new kidney. This was brought to his attention after seeking a second opinion. Now, his original doctors claim to have lost his files.
Fighting has always been a process of revival for Miller. With the Pennsylvania towns he calls home bottoming out, he remains dedicated to keeping their industrious spirit.
“If you survived,” he said, “obviously you know what you’re doing.”
In learning from legends throughout his life, fighting top fighters, traveling the world and experiencing a life he could not imagine, Miller treasures one lesson above all else.
“Not to give up -- that’s been my credo my whole life,” he said. “Overcoming adversity, if you keep going, things will come, if you work, if you’re diligent. If you bitch and whine and hope they fall in your lap, you won’t go anywhere.”
On uncertain legs, Miller does not fear going down swinging. He has dropped his hands, closed his eyes and dared his greatest adversary -- his health -- to take a swipe at him once more. Despite the ups and downs, Miller remains committed to staying positive. In July, his memoir, “Pain Don’t Hurt,” will be released by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s HarperCollins publishing imprint Ecco. He hopes there will be a prologue that tells of his second comeback.
“That’s something else that gives me a focus,” he said. “At least I have that [book]. If you’re a fighter and you don’t have that … I have extra stuff. Most guys don’t. I really feel for them. It’s hard for me right now, but at least I have different outlets to focus on.”
Due to his health, Miller could not spend Christmas with his sons in Pennsylvania. He powered through to attend his oldest son’s 13th birthday recently, getting to share precious time with Benjamin and 9-year-old twins Ronan and Patrick. He held two seminars while in town. With mounting medical bills, he is in no position to turn down money. The martial artist inside him makes it difficult to teach without being able to demonstrate the moves himself. It seems like yesterday he was filling up his teaching schedule in San Diego while training to fight.
Now Miller treads in deep waters, struggling to know if he will ever find the shore. It is almost impossible to forecast what will happen as he navigates the tumultuous terrain of fighting for another comeback, another round or simply another day. Recalling the satisfaction of his first knockout return, the “Fight Shark” sounds forever relieved.
“They said, ‘Oh, he’s back,’” Miller said. “They didn’t expect me to do anything.”
For information or to donate to Miller’s medical fund, visit http://www.gofundme.com/mark-fightshark-miller.
Listen to Acosta on the “Acosta KO” Tuesdays (1:30p.m. PST) on Sirius Fight Club (Sirius XM 92) and at www.majoritydrawradio.com (podcast also available on iTunes and Android). Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend and read his writing on Sherdog and Maxim.