Even from the dark booth at El Compadre on Sunset Boulevard you can see Mark Miller’s right eye is bloodshot. The day before, he was wearing a patch over that eye, and he tweeted out that image with his hands curled into a hook, playfully, like a pirate. The day before that he had surgery on that eye, to fix burst blood vessels that blinded him. This was brought on by high blood pressure, which goes back to his acute renal failure, which became chronic, irreversible renal failure after a series of follies at a county hospital.
Mark Miller’s life can be described as extraordinary. The trail from the here and now going backwards to where he began is harrowing. That he smiles as he tells you that they’re "trying to turn me into Frankenstein," is enough to give you goose bumps.
He needs a new pancreas, and he’s awaiting one with Dr. Donald Dafoe, actor Willem’s older brother, the foremost pancreatic transplant surgeon going. He needs a new kidney, too, and pronto. Because his story is remarkable, and because he’s become a symbol of perseverance in the fight game for keeping his chin high through every dour forecast, he has no less than 15 willing live donors offering up their kidneys. His inspiration returns in such ways.
"I got some guy out in Arizona who’s a tri-athlete who’d read my story on Sherdog, and he’s like, whatever we need to do," Miller says, shaking his head in astonishment. Shelby Belfast, his fiery red-headed partner and the co-author of his memoir, Pain Don’t Hurt, chimes in. "The guy was like, ‘I’m a vegan, I’ve never used drugs, I’m a tri-athlete and I’d be happy to give you one of my kidneys,’" she says. "For all the crap that happens, stuff like that more than evens it out," Mark says.
All the crap that happens. It’s a lot of crap. It’s more crap than an ordinary person could handle.
Recently Miller, known as "Fightshark" in the kickboxing ring, was told that his heart was in trouble again. This is the same heart, metaphorically, that keeps him bouncing back and gives him his aura. And it’s the same heart, literally, that he had operated on back in 2006 to correct his congenital heart defect (CHD). Both the metaphorical and literal hearts form the crux of his fascinating memoir coming out on July 15 on Bourdain/Ecco. Miller became the first professional fighter to come back after open heart surgery and compete again in the ring. That feat, which he and Belfast put to the page in poignant detail, may never be duplicated.
Yet his story continues to unfold in ways that can’t help but boggle the mortal mind.
Miller was getting set to take on an Oklahoman fighter named John King at Glory 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York last November, right as his health went into a freefall. He got pneumonia and went into kidney failure that same month, and had to cancel the bout. In May, it was discovered he had an aortic aneurysm, which would require surgery. His doctors at Cedars-Sinai believe his heart failure has everything to do with the pneumonia and medications he was given to treat the kidney failure. The ouroboros gets dizzying, just as the delicate stacking of knives is now a teetering Jenga-like tower of imposition.
At this point, both Belfast and Miller have heard the grimmest diagnoses, including the one from the heart surgeon who told him point blank that he wouldn’t survive the heart procedure.
"The transplant doctor wasn’t going to do the kidney or pancreas until the heart issues were figured out," Miller says. "Then we went to a heart surgeon and he said I don’t think you’ll survive the surgery. Where does that put me?"
To judge from his dinner conversation, and the encouraging way in which he keeps finding slivers of hope in the rubble of "all the bad shit," it leaves him in the kind of "make the most of each day" life that people preach but rarely embrace. He is centered on the small things, the day-by-day, the hour-by-hour. During dialysis every other day he tweets out his soundtrack -- usually 1990s rap with the hashtag #steezo. He tweets out pictures of sunsets, of meditative scenes, of him in various hospital settings with small smiles of defiance. Both he and Belfast are at the point where they let the enigma of his life continue to do its own wonders.
They’ve come to believe in his own mystical trump card.
"Never meet up with a cardiothoracic surgeon first," Belfast says. "They have the sentimentality of an anesthesiologist -- they don’t have personalities. They are dealing with a person with a 50/50 shot in front of them. They separate themselves from that and think it’s just a bunch of parts. How do I make the parts work again? Ours came in, just a walking box of data and surgical hands, and he says we can’t do heart surgery because you would just die. So…is it just goodbye?"
"I would rather die on a table and get fixed than sit here and do nothing," Miller adds. These are steely realities that he deals in, and he talks about the shadows creeping over his future like they’re opponents to be overcome…like opponents to be conquered. Miller is only 42 years old.
Yet after so much time in hospitals and in the care of doctors, Miller knows the game within the game. He’s an athlete. He takes each bit of bad news and converts it into a mere obstacle. Belfast says his mindset everyday when he wakes up is, "what do I need to do to get better?"
"Did you ever have a dog," she asks. "Dogs don’t think about yesterday, all they think about three goals -- how do I get outside, how do I get your affection, how do I get food? It’s those three things; they’re so simple. Mark’s like a dog in that sense. He has all that shit going on, and every single day there’s some unbelievable mental block. He doesn’t think, ‘I’m a sick guy,’ he goes, ‘what is the next step to getting past this? What is the next step to living?’ Most people would take inventory of what they lost. Not Mark."
This dog can’t be taught to roll over, but he can laugh. As he sits there, buried in a cherished Roots of Fight Cassius Clay hoodie -- a man who not long ago stood across from Sergei Kharitonov, a fight he took on three week’s notice -- he laughs through morbid details. And he segues them to the fight game. He can tell you about histories of boxers, kickboxers, martial artists, fighters in general. And he does. He knows his craft. He’s got a plate of sloppy Mexican food, which, as a Type 1 diabetic who carries his insulin with him, he assures me is strictly for such a rare occasion. He lets it be known how much he’s enjoying it.
Tomorrow, he’ll do dialysis, and the doctor’s will once again puzzle over the fact that he’s still urinating regularly. "I’m a mystery wrapped in an enigma," he says. But tomorrow is a million miles away from a guy who is literally taking things one moment at a time. His eye, bloodshot from the spiraling trail of seemingly tragic events, has a way of seeing things that simple eyes cannot.
Miller’s book, Pain Don’t Hurt, is more than a fight book. It’s a sincere and particularly unapologetic account of his life. In it, Miller jumps from scene to scene, often blurring the timeline in reveries or asides. People like Paul Buentello, Maurice Smith, Oscar Wilde and the Roufus brothers float through, sports, perceptions, music, small revelations. It opens with a helicopter crash from his childhood, an almost dream-like sequence in which he begins:
"I was five years old and standing a few hundred feet from the devastated wreckage of a helicopter," the book starts. "Around that wreckage were body parts, blood, and screaming people. I wish I could tell you this was all fake, that I had stumbled onto the set of a horror movie. But it wasn’t. This was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, and those body parts belonged to people who had been alive only minutes ago."
It ends with him at his parents' graves in Pittsburgh, where he cries. The tension held throughout the book leads to this moment. He has just returned from Moscow, Russia, where he fought Nikolaj Falin after having overcome heart surgery and a spiral into alcohol and drugs. Against staggering odds, he made his way back to the ring.
For whatever reason that broken individuals find their way to fighting, Miller’s was an act of defiance. His early life was fraught with fear. His father, Harry "Moose" Miller, is an ominous, abusive figure -- a monster. He was a former basketball player, who played in the first ever NBA game in 1946 with the Toronto Huskies.
"The Knicks were playing in Toronto, and on Nov. 1 the Maple Leafs were playing. So what they did is they moved their game to Friday. And that became the first game in NBA history," Miller says. "That team folded after a season, and he went to a rival league. That league ran out of money, so he signed with the Celtics, and the commissioner blackballed everybody that had jumped leagues."
Mark was one of "15 or 16" kids that Harry fathered, but he didn’t know but one of his siblings. There are fleeting and sad remembrances of his mother, who never would stand up for him, and her German chocolate cake. There are recollections of his older brother, Colin, the way he was -- before he became a drug-addled specter who slipped in and out of his life. Miller writes about his childhood working in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, where he got to know the likes of Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell and many others. There’s a strange encounter with Lynn Swann, and a confrontation with Greg Lloyd. Meanwhile, Miller begins training in Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do.
The title Pain Don’t Hurt may come from one scene when he braces for a beating after confronting his father on an impulse. His father wanted to beat the fragility out of him, to toughen him up against his defects, which Miller likens to the message of Johnny Cash’s "A Boy Named Sue." After that episode -- and because of it -- his father unwittingly sets his son on the fighter course when he drops him at the boxing gym while he went to the bar.
"The next day I was dumped in the center of the dingiest brick building in Wilkinsburg, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh," he writes. "The heavy bags were gray, duct-taped in spots and lumpy. The ring had flakes of dried blood on it and giant dents in the floor, so men circling would occasionally slip or falter, cursing and stomping the ground like animals as they chomped on their mouthguards. For the first time I felt what a real fight gym smells like."
It was then that Miller found the fight game. "You got some of that rage in you, kid, you let that out, this is where you come to let that out," a man tells him in the gym that day, seeing everything he needed to know on his "raw back" from the beating he took from his father.
Even though he was a Type 1 diabetic and was born with CHD, he had athletic gifts, and pursued kickboxing. He developed a right hand, which he describes hitting a Samoan Jason "Psycho" Suttie flush with in Pattaya, Thailand, only to watch him shake it off. These elements of the book are gold. In them, Miller brings the experience of fighting into a vicarious experience. In this setting, which "reeked of late-evening bloodlust and sweat," Miller hits Suttie so hard he can feel the reverberation down his body.
"I had landed a right hand that would have, with a butcher’s precision, taken the jaw clean off any other man…only to see the steely Samoan had straightened, adjusted his neck, and started to come forward again."
Miller can’t help but laugh at the futility between rounds. Just as he adjusts, accepts and eventually grows to love the insanity of the job through countless hours in the gym.
"Chris Leben once said, ‘Strippers and fighters, no one ever does those jobs because they are one hundred percent sane,’" he writes. "In a way he was right. At least about the fighter bit. No normal person wakes up thinking they can’t wait to get smashed in the face. We are all working something out in there. Every one of us."
It’s in such truthful detail that Miller tells his story. Everything else that happens, from the health problems and surgeries to the ultimate reconciliation and eventual loss of his family members, to becoming a father himself and the making sense of the most of the whole medley, Miller and Belfast tell a pretty unbelievable -- yet entirely true -- story.
"What you are born with is just that," Miller writes near the end. "Your beginnings, nothing more. You have no choice in that matter. It’s how you deal with it that makes you who you are. Everyone has demons; everyone has shit they have to shovel through. You find your ring, you pick your fights, and you work through it."
Now, of course, the memoir becomes its own chapter to the whole. He came back once, and he says he’ll do it again. If not to fighting, then to coaching -- to holding pads, to make something of another kid coming along who could use the guidance. He has some students in both boxing and kickboxing.
"I don’t necessarily feel terrible," Miller says. "The thing is my heart is once again shot, and they believe that it was a perfect storm…a combination of the drugs and the virus, having pneumonia, not only shut down my kidneys but it also shut down my heart. Really, what’s going on with my heart now has nothing to do with the original issue that I got the surgery for."
They are talking heart transplant now, to go along with the pancreas and kidney. Miller, as has been both a metaphor and a literal throughout his life, is rolling with the punches. He maintains an impossibly positive attitude about it all, whether his doctors are presenting him a Catch-22 or not. The game plan, he says, is to get back to "optimum health."
He says he will get the kidney, get the pancreas, and then see about the heart. The literal one. The metaphorical one, the one that fuels his will power, doubles as his chin and keeps expanding his threshold for pain, remains strong. He wants to continue to work in the fight game.
"Glory has taken care of me since I got sick, and the only thing I’ve wanted to see was this sport finally make it in this country," he says of the kickboxing promotion, which he fought on against Koichi Pettas at Glory 2 in Brussels in what was his last fight in 2012. "And this is absolutely the best chance we’ve ever had. I’m happy."
In a few days, he’ll show up at Glory 17, at the Forum in Los Angeles, wearing the patch over his right eye to protect himself from the glare of the ring lights.
"When he went to his eye doctor and the eye doctor went, your eye is full of blood, Mark went, ‘that sucks…that explains why I haven’t been able to see out of it for awhile,’" Belfast says. "I was like, what? Why didn’t you tell me you can’t see out of it? But that’s Mark’s attitude. It’s always, ‘well that sucks, how do we fix it?’"
In many ways, that question becomes the story of Mark Miller’s life. And his ability to fight through the things that he can’t is a story well worth knowing.