Jason Miller (left) has had quite a ride since making his only UFC appearance in 2005. | Photo: Marcelo Alonso
It was one of the most important years in the development of the Ultimate Fighting Championship: 2005. The promotion secured a regular television deal with Spike TV, and the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” created a crop of new stars that helped to carry the sport for the remainder of the decade.
Jason “Mayhem” Miller could have been one of those stars. A charismatic and colorful showman, Miller was young, talented and marketable. He made his UFC debut at the age of 24 in the opening bout of UFC 52 -- the card that matched Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell after they coached on Season 1 of the reality series. UFC 52 drew what was at the time by far the biggest UFC buy rate under Zuffa LLC management. It was a perfect platform for Miller to showcase his abilities.
There was only one problem: Miller’s opponent was a young French Canadian prospect by the name of Georges St. Pierre. St. Pierre did not simply hand Mayhem a loss; he made Miller look like he did not belong in the Octagon. St. Pierre dominated the striking. He dominated the wrestling. He dominated the submission game. A unanimous decision later, Miller found himself out of the UFC.
Over the next six and a half years, Miller created a name for himself. He competed around the world. He became a reality TV star. He fought on network television. His ascent very much paralleled that of the UFC, but, unlike so many other fighters, it came completely outside of the Octagon. That was, of course, until now.
Originally, Miller was not supposed to coach the current season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Chael Sonnen was targeted to coach opposite Michael Bisping, but the polarizing Team Quest veteran could not get licensed by the state of California. Miller had not spoken with anyone in the UFC about coaching on the show, but he sent out a tweet that he wanted the spot. Shortly thereafter, he got the call. Sonnen’s misfortune turned out to be the biggest break in Miller’s career.
“In my entire life, things haven’t worked out exactly perfect,” Miller says, “but in this case, my luck was swinging in the other direction. It all eventually paid off. I liked what Junior dos Santos said about how if you’re a positive person and you work hard things will turn out good for you. And it’s true. Before, I don’t think I was that positive a person, but I’ve moved over to being a grownup. I’m not a selfish guy; I’m trying to give to others, and it’s coming back to me tenfold.”
The big opportunity to coach came opposite the cocky Brit Bisping, who is quickly becoming one of the sport’s top villains. Bisping and Miller did not have any bad blood heading into the show, but enmity slowly built during taping. With the two coaches talking trash and playing pranks on each other, anticipation built for their fight at the end of the season, set for “The Ultimate Fighter 14” Finale this Saturday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. Ratings for Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter” rebounded from the disappointing numbers posted by its predecessor, which featured Brock Lesnar and dos Santos as coaches.
The interest in the Bisping-Miller bout was apparent at the UFC on Fox 1 show on Nov. 12. When Bisping made his way to his seat through the crowd, he received the strongest negative reaction of the entire event. The boos were so loud that the crowd was barely paying attention when Dustin Poirier tapped out Pablo Garza. There was no doubt how fans felt about Miller’s rival.
The editing of any reality show plays a role in the perception viewers have of the people involved. However, Miller insists that, if anything, the editing actually was charitable to Bisping.
“They edited it to make him not look as bad!” Miller exclaims. “There’s a common misconception that you can edit things to make it bad. One thing I learned from ‘Bully Beatdown’ is if you don’t give it to them, they can’t make it. If you’re not a jerk, they can never paint you to be a jerk. And if you’re doing all the things that he did those six weeks, of course, you’re going to look bad because you looked bad in real life. There’s no magical CGI. The guy was a jerk, so they went ahead and showed it to everybody.”
While most seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” have culminated in a pay-per-view showdown between the coaches, Bisping-Miller will be the second such fight to take place on Spike TV. UFC ratings on Spike TV and Versus this year have not been good, but this fight could be an exception with the hottest television grudge match in years.
There are frequently fights where one man feels like he has something to prove, but Bisping-Miller is the rare match where both men feel they are being underestimated by the other. Miller has been dismissed by some as more of a character than a fighter, with losses in many of his biggest fights. Bisping, meanwhile, is sometimes dismissed as a U.K. marketing tool fed a diet of less-than-stellar competition. Neither criticism is really fair, yet it is clear that each man buys into the criticism of the other to some degree.
“He’s a decent fighter,” Miller says of Bisping. “He’s a tough fighter. He’s kind of a workrate guy. He gets on his bicycle and starts running. I think he’s a bit overrated, but he definitely has some skills and is a dangerous opponent. I’m happy to be able to go out there, beat him and show the world where I’m at. They’re talking about him getting a title shot. Give me a title shot.”
Bisping primarily relies on his striking to win fights and Miller has a strong ground game, but Mayhem feels he will give the Wolfslair Academy representative problems on the feet.
“I have a feeling he’ll shoot on me before I shoot on him,” Miller predicts.
For all he has accomplished outside the Octagon, Miller knows he is still an unknown to much of the UFC audience. That makes an impressive performance against Bisping imperative. The difference between a win and a loss could not be greater.
“Most casual fans don’t even know me,” Miller acknowledges. “Some know me as the ‘Bully Beatdown’ guy. That’s fine. That’s one part of my career. I used my gift of gab to make myself famous as a comedian and to help bring new fans into a sport I love so much. And so far, I’ve been welcomed with open arms from UFC fans. They may not have seen me fight, but they research me and go, ‘Oh, this guy is a real fighter.’”
Few fans remember Miller’s only other UFC fight, way back in 2005. The fight with Bisping is likely to be a completely different story. There will be millions more watching, and Miller is no longer 24 years old. He is in his prime, and his second chance in the UFC seems long overdue. A decisive loss will not soon be forgotten, but neither will a spectacular win. The adage about there never being a second chance to make a first impression has rarely seemed so off.
“Of course [that first UFC loss eats at me],” Miller says, “but, at the same time, I was a lost soul at that point of my career. I was trying to find the right weight. I was trying to find the right camp. I was in and out of jail. I wasn’t exactly focused on my career. To me, since I was last in the UFC I really grew up. Now, as a grown-ass man, I get to do something I wasn’t able to do when I was a boy.”
From boy to man, it has been a long journey back to the sport’s biggest stage.