One look at Jason "Mayhem" Miller and you can tell he was probably never the prom type. Just picturing him doing something as normal as pinning a corsage on a date or squeezing into a rented tux seems wrong, like imagining a dog eating with a knife and fork.
That's why it shouldn't surprise many fight fans to learn that while his high school classmates were attending the senior prom in April of 1998, a 17-year-old Mayhem was fighting a man named Al "Superman" Dill for $300 cash in Virginia Beach, Va.
His girlfriend at the time? She was in the audience watching, Miller says. And she didn't even mind missing the prom since, as he puts it, "We were weirdo kids. We weren't going to the prom, anyway."
For Miller, this night had been years in the making. He'd wanted to be a fighter ever since he knew it was a real thing people did without going to jail. Maybe he'd seen too many Van Damme movies as a kid, he admits, or maybe he just enjoyed unarmed combat a little too much. So much, in fact, that it got him kicked out of his first high school.
"I was kind of just an idiot kid," he says. "If somebody was trying to mess with me I would step up and fight them, and with very little provocation. Like, okay, let's go."
After Miller was expelled for fighting, his family had to move 40 miles to a new school district just so he could finish high school, something he now realizes he might owe his family an apology for. At the time though, it might have been the best thing for him. He discovered high school wrestling, which only stoked his desire to learn other martial arts.
"I would go to karate schools and try to fight the guys. Looking back I see how stupid I was. But I really thought that all the karate people, the goal was to be a fighter, to be able to fight people. And I didn't care so much if that was their goal, because my goal was to test my skills against theirs. I didn't get that nobody wanted to do that; they just wanted to have a karate school and make some money."
It turned out that local karate instructors did not want to fight some gangly, wild-eyed teenager who came in off the streets, asking them to "put on the little bootie things and kick me." The people in the judo classes inside a local gymnastics academy were slightly more accommodating, but only to a point and only for a little while.
"The problem was, at the judo school all I wanted to do spar. I kept breaking all the dorks noses and stuff. They were trying to do this traditional martial arts stuff, and I was trying to tear everyone's heads off. I thought, we have to treat this like a fight, because that's what it is. It's a fight."
Even though Miller was paying his membership dues, eventually the instructor decided it was better for business to lose one crazy student rather than a bunch of normal ones.
"He pulled me aside and said, 'Jason, I know you want to be an ultimate fighter, so there's a gym right down the street, like a block away. Go there.' I was like, what? Why didn't you tell me this before?!"
Miller went that very night, now that he was no longer welcome at judo. The gym was closed, but as he cupped his hands around his face and peered through the glass he saw walls covered in pictures of Frank Shamrock and Royce Gracie, cutouts from magazines and early MMA promotional materials. Right away he knew he'd found a home.
"I started going there every day, and I would not leave," he says. "The summer before that, I spent all my time on skateboarding, something I was terrible at. Then the next summer I spent learning how to fight, which I was pretty good at. It was a crazy time in my life."
The gym, Miller says, turned out to be "a tax write-off for some veterinarian," but it had what he needed, which was mostly a matter of attitude and a little skill here and there. He got boxing lessons at the hands of a man known only as "Boo-Boo," though the sparring sessions were so punishing he had to wear a chest protector just to survive them. There was another man who had learned what submissions he could from the 'Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Action' VHS tapes. A "fat dude who was in the Army" stopped by from time to time. A real dream team of trainers and sparring partners, in other words.
Miller soaked up everything he could, but he knew that in order to take it to the next level he needed a real fight against a real opponent. This is how he ended up in the ring with "Superman" Dill on prom night.
"He was a grown man, and I was a little boy. I was 17 years old," he says, though that wasn't what worried him the most. Dill not only showed up wearing a gi, which right there suggested some level of jiu-jitsu sophistication that was unknown to Miller, but he also had a colored belt around his waist.
"To me, it seemed like he was almost magical. I think he had a blue belt or a purple belt, and I was like, oh no. I was a little concerned. There was no blue belts or purple belts in my neighborhood. Nobody knew that stuff. It wasn't until months later when I went to a Gracie school and was tapping out blue belts and purple belts that I realized, oh wait, that doesn't actually matter that much."
Once the fight got started, the gi and the belt soon became the least of his concerns. Miller might have been a skinny kid with "a blonde afro," but Dill had put a little more time and thought into his appearance that night.
"I realized when I threw a punch at his head that he had a Superman logo painted on the back of his head. At first I thought he was bleeding, but then I realized I had paint all over me. It was just like, what the hell? Paint?! You come in here with paint on you?"
The fight went the full eight minutes, during which time Miller mostly relied on his high school wrestling skills, taking Dill down, punching him every now and then, but mostly "holding on for dear life."
When it was over, he raised his own hand, was pronounced the winner, and enjoyed a few brief moments of joy and relief. Later, while relaxing in his free hotel room with the girlfriend who seemed not at all impressed with the idea of professional fighting in general, Miller finally had a chance to reflect on what had happened.
"It was the same thing as today when I win a fight. I just thought about all the things I could have done better. I thought it was boring, I didn't do any of my moves. I was nervous and I played it safe. It didn't feel right. I told myself I'd never win a boring fight again. I'd take risks and try stuff, whatever happened."
The difference between Miller and most 17-year-olds was, even then, he knew this was the start of something. The sport may have been in its nascent stages in the U.S., but he knew without a doubt that he had a future in it.
"I knew that there was a long career in this for me, and I also knew that mixed martial arts was going to be a huge sport eventually. My dad was telling me I was an idiot, and at the time he made a lot of sense. If you're not in the sport, you can't see how things are taking shape. He told me to go to computer school. I told him, 'Kiss my [expletive], I'm going to be a fighter.' And he said, 'Well, you're an idiot. Get out of my house.'"
Miller did, eventually, though not by choice at first. He eventually worked his way to California, where he lived in his van in the gym parking lot and began the long process of becoming the fighter he is today. The girlfriend who skipped out on the prom to watch his professional debut? She lives in San Francisco now, he says, and is still not particularly impressed with anything he's accomplished.
"She always thought fighting was just this stupid thing I was doing. She just loved me for my Justin Timberlake curls. She didn't care what I was doing."