In 1995 Pat Miletich had one long-term goal: getting into the UFC. His short-term goal? To make at least enough money so that he didn't starve in the meantime. Something called the "Battle of the Masters" could help him achieve both, or so he hoped.
Battle of the Masters was a one-night, eight-man, no-holds-barred (with the exception of biting and eye-gouging) fighting tournament at St. Andrew's Gym in Chicago.
It was also winner-take-all. The prize for second place was little more than a pat on the back and a free bag of ice for your swollen face.
"I needed the money worse than any of those guys," Miletich says now. "I don't think they knew what they were getting into."
Of course, neither did Miletich. Not really. He'd studied a variety of martial arts. He'd done some boxing, a little Muay Thai, and he knew the basic fundamentals of jiu-jitsu. Naturally, he knew how to wrestle after growing up in Iowa where, in his words, "you learn to sprawl before you learn to walk."
Still, street fights were the closest thing to MMA that Miletich had ever done at that point, and none of them featured matches against one well-trained opponent after another with $5,000 on the line. This was different than anything he'd ever done, and he knew it. He just didn't know how different.
"Back then it was no weight division, no time limit, no rules," he says. "It was a little unnerving, to tell you the truth."
The day before the tournament Miletich and a friend drove over from Iowa and spent the night in "a crummy little motel on the south side by Midway airport," and there Miletich plotted his game plan. Since the tournament winner would have to win three bouts by the end of the night, Miletich wanted to make sure he spent as little time in the ring as possible for each fight.
"In tournaments, my mentality was to go out and go a hundred and ten miles an hour the whole time until I got the guy out of there," he explains.
That's why he was slightly dismayed when he saw that his first official MMA opponent on October 28, 1995 was the much larger and more experienced Yasunori Matsumoto, who was a champion in judo and full-contact karate back home in Japan.
"They deliberately matched me against Yasunori Matsumoto because they thought he'd beat me," Miletich says. "The guy was a freak, number one. He was tougher than hell. But I was really freaked out by the fact that I was fighting a guy who had a ton of fights and I had never had an MMA fight before. He'd never had an exact MMA fight either, but a lot closer to it than I had."
But things looked good for Miletich early on. He caught Matsumoto in an armbar and felt sure that he might be about to end his first fight early. Only Matsumoto didn't tap. Not even when Miletich could feel the man's elbow popping loose.
"When I broke his arm -- when I caught him in a joint lock and dislocated his elbow -- and then he escaped and started choking me with the arm I just broke, that's when I went, okay, now I know what MMA is all about," Miletich laughs.
Looking back, he's still not sure if it was the guillotine that Matsumoto applied that he briefly struggled with, or if it was the sense of pure shock at what his opponent was able to withstand. Eventually, however, Miletich escaped and went on the offensive again. As Matsumoto began to fade, Miletich locked on a rear naked choke and finally forced the submission after nearly eight minutes of battle.
It wasn't exactly the quick finish he was hoping for, but at least it was over and he was through to the next round, even if he was unsure what awaited him there and beyond.
"I remember thinking, this is going to be a long, rough career if all the guys are like [Matsumoto]," Miletich says.
Fortunately, they weren't. At least not on that night.
Though the next two fighters Miletich faced in the tournament were both significantly larger than him, they were also less skilled and already fatigued from longer fights earlier in the evening. Miletich was able to put Angelo Rivera away with a rear naked choke less than two minutes into their fight, and then in the finals he downed Kevin Marino with the same move a little less than four minutes in.
And just like that, Miletich was the tournament winner. More importantly, he was also $5,000 richer.
It would be another three years and more than fifteen fights (including a second meeting with Matsumoto, which Miletich won via doctor stoppage) before Miletich would get his first shot in the UFC. In the meantime there were more one-night tournaments, more winner-take-all purses, and more chances for Miletich to prove to himself just how badly he wanted to make his dream come true.
"When you look back, I thought I got some experience out of it," says Miletich. "I thought, at the time, that I had a future in it at least. But like with any fighter, once you've got thirty or forty fights you look back at those first few and think, I knew absolutely nothing. Just nothing."
By the modern standards of the sport, fighting three times in one night just for a shot at a relatively meager paycheck might seem foolish – even insane. But back then, says Miletich, it didn't even occur to him not to try. Having been through them, he doesn't romanticize those early days of MMA the way some fans might, but at the very least he can still appreciate them for what they meant to him at the time.
"When you're the smallest guy in the tournament and it's three fights in one night, it wasn't that much fun, to be honest with you," Miletich chuckles. "But when it's ten grand or whatever for the winner, hell, young guys will fight to the death for ten grand. When you're thinking about your refrigerator at home and there's one slice of baloney in it, you're going to kick the hell out of some people for ten grand."