By the time Dec. 20 rolls around, 21 months will have passed between fights for UFC veteran Dan Miller, the older brother of lightweight warhorse Jim Miller. Certainly the elder Miller is no stranger to miracles -- his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Dan Jr., persevered through a kidney transplant to survive polycystic kidney disease -- but for dad, this latest comeback is no small miracle itself.
Much like record-breaking NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, escalating neck issues forced Miller to undergo spinal fusion surgery in July of last year. Heading into the operating room, Miller's fighting future was far from guaranteed.
"Going into it, they said there is a chance (I could never fight again)," Miller explained on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "They were saying that once opened me up, if they had to do two (fusions), my career would be done.
"Pretty much that was the first question I asked my wife when I saw her: ‘Did they do one or two?'"
Miller's surgery was necessitated by what had, at that point, been nearly two years of mounting neck and shoulder problems caused from the wear and tear of a lifetime in athletics. To hear him explain it, doctors ultimately fused a pair of Miller's vertebras together, replaced his disc with a sliver of cadaver bone, then stabilized the region with a titanium plate.
The procedure is considering to be more than a little harrowing, especially for an athlete embedded in such a contact-heavy sport. But for Miller it ended up being a success.
After a year of rehabilitation, Miller said he is now feeling better than he has in a long, long time.
"Of course there were a little bit (of nerves), a little bit, but it's the same thing as anything else, I got over it real quick," Miller said.
"I feel great. I train now and I feel really good. ... I miss [fighting] so much. I want to get in there so bad, especially watching Jim and being in the corner with him, man, because it was always like he would fight, I would fight, he would fight, I would fight -- so going to his fights and experiencing them always made me want to do it more, but I was able to. Now it's like, it's just been burning, man. I want to get back in there."
Miller is slated to reintroduce himself to fight fans at UFC Fight Night 58 against Daniel Sarafian, a former finalist of The Ultimate Fighter Brazil who has dropped two straight contests. It's a favorable match-up, even if it happens to take place inside Sarafian's native Brazil.
Notably, the bout will be Miller's first back at middleweight following a rocky 1-1 stint at 170 pounds. The run saw Miller submit Ricardo Funch to earn his first post-fight UFC bonus, only to lose his sophomore effort in emphatic fashion to Jordan Mein.
"I tried welterweight just to see if I could do it, if it was something that would just better my career," Miller said. "But I did it twice, I had kind of a rough time making the weight, and I just felt like I could fight a lot better at middleweight, that I could perform way better.
"I decided that I'm not the biggest and strongest middleweight, but at least when I walk into the ring, I can feel 100-percent."
Surgery and a return to an old division would be big enough life changes for most fighters, but the 33-year-old Miller has one more surprise in store for the next time he steps foot inside the Octagon: he'll also be a newly-christened gym owner.
In a joint venture years in the making, both he and his brother Jim are scheduled to open Miller Brothers MMA in their hometown of Sparta, NJ on Nov. 1. The facility will function as a public gym, of which the pair largely built with their own hands and the help of their lifelong construction worker father, and both Miller brothers intend to make it their home base for fight camps in the future.
"Every month we'll fight (for the revenue check)," Miller joked. "We'll fight it out. Whoever wins gets that month's. We got a cage, so we're just going to open up the garage door -- it's in front of the cage -- and fight it out, and anyone's welcome to come."