Long before the explosion of specialized MMA gyms across this country there was a racquetball court in Bettendorf, Iowa that made do. It’s still there, and it’s called, somewhat generously, Ultimate Fitness, which by the mid-1990s was really just a beat-up wrestling mat, a single heavy bag, some speed bags, and a weight room. The building sits in a non-descript part of town, across from an Econo Lodge and near a gas station that sells red rubberbaked hot dogs. All around this sad building is religion, convenience and mid-America resignation.
It’s the kind of nowhere you’d expect to find just about anywhere.
But somehow that converted racquetball court became a factory for world champion mixed martial artists by the early-aughts. Somewhere along the way Bettendorf became synonymous with industrial wrestlers with veins in their necks as thick as cables (Matt Hughes), with evil menaces in dervish form (Jens Pulver), with towering corn-fed lumberjacks of bumbling momentum (Tim Sylvia) and unnerving, icy bastards (Pat Miletich). It became an MMA hotbed (Monte Cox), a harnessing of spring-ready violence (Robbie Lawler), an iconic embodiment of its surroundings (Jeremy Horn).
It turns out warriors do not emerge from the bellowing belly of hell, but from a forgotten plot of commerce where nothing looks possible.
And the warriors at Miletich Fighting Systems, as it was called, were some of the winningest MMA has known in its young history. There were other good fight clubs during its heyday -- such as the Lion’s Den and Chute Boxe -- but Miletich’s was also a thing of geography. It emerged from the shadows of Iowa’s own Dan Gable, and carried the same pestle. Its fighters were one with what it represented. John Deere, the agricultural epitome of America, is a mile away in Moline. The Rock Island Arsenal, which supplies the U.S. military with ammunition, sits just off the banks in the Mississippi. Caterpillar Inc. at one time had a plant in town. There are silos every direction, ironworks, bridges, augers on the ice, toil.
The symmetry between man and place was poetic -- and that particular stretch of eastern blue-collar Iowa, patriot proud and steely, was narrated perfectly by its fighters.
"Throughout all the talks about how tough the gym was, nobody really ever focused on that fact," Pulver says. "I think we got in there and it was a work ethic. I think that’s what made us, especially in that ‘era,’ so tough. The fact that we just went at each other every day. We pushed each other."
Pushed each other through the thickets and into UFC titles. Matt Hughes held UFC welterweight title between 2001-2004, and again from 2004-2006. Tim Sylvia was the heavyweight champion in 2003-04, and again from 2006-07. Jens Pulver, the notorious "Lil Evil," between 2001-02. Miletich, the meanest free mason ever invented, was the welterweight champion between 1998-2001, which in those days was considered lightweight.
All of them Bettendorf men, who ended up managed -- and hurtled into the spotlight -- by Monte Cox, a newspaper man who seized an opportunity. Miletich manufactured fighters; Cox perpetuated them. It was the best one-two punch in MMA then, and maybe the best that ever will be.
But as the sport has grown, and the UFC has burst the seams of its niche, Bettendorf has shrank back to its actual size. Its champions got older, competition got better, the belts switched waists. For the last eight years, there hasn’t been a big-time champion in the Quad Cities. The great camps have migrated to Albuquerque and San Jose and Boca Raton. The game has all but moved on from the farmland on the Iowa-Illinois border.
All but one, really -- there’s still a single Bettendorf holdover who has the whole thing in his blood.
Robbie Lawler was just a teenager when he first showed up on Golden Valley Drive and tried himself against the monsters at Miletich’s gym. Though he does his primary training in Florida with American Top Team these days, he still calls Bettendorf home. He faded along the way with the others. But somehow, in 2014, he’s back, and he has a chance to bring the belt home.
Though Pulver, Sylvia and Horn are still active, Lawler’s the last of one of MMA’s storied lineages. And it is a lineage.
Without Miletich, there’d have been no Monte Cox. Without Cox, there’d certainly have been no Robbie Lawler. And Lawler, who fights at UFC 171 in Dallas against Johny Hendricks for the vacated welterweight title, was just a kid when all this ass-kicking got going.
In the salad days of No Holds Barred fighting in the mid-1990s, Miletich -- an Iowan who wrestled in his youth to stay in shape for football, and began cagefighting to help aid his ailing mother -- rented Ultimate Fitness for $700 a month. He taught classes in karate, kickboxing, grappling, the original medley of taboos that went into NHB.
"And after all that, I’d mop the floors," he says. "Times were a bit rough back then, but when you're hungry, you're hungry."
At that time, Cox, who promoted boxing matches on the side, was the sports editor of the Quad City Times. As a decent boxer in his day who "beat the guys I was supposed to beat," he caught wind that the local fighter Miletich would be fighting in a NHB tournament in Chicago. UFC 5 had just gone down, and the "no rules, no weight class" spectacle was still very much embraced as a way of selling tickets. The idea that somebody might die was no small allure; gawkers would happily pay for the privilege of seeing it. So he called Miletich to inquire.
"He called me up one day out of the blue and his words were, ‘Hey Pat, this is Monte Cox from the Quad City Times. I'm a sports writer and editor, and I wanted to ask you a few questions about this training you’re doing in Chicago. What is this ... some sort of glorified Toughman Contest?’"
"I said, ‘Come to the gym, spend an hour and learn a bit about the sport before you write anything about it. If you don't understand it, you're going to write something bad. It's not going to come out right.’ He goes, ‘All right, that's fair.’"
Cox already had the fight game in his blood. As a regional boxer, at one point he was scheduled to meet George Foreman in the ring, a fight that today he is happy never materialized. He graduated from Ball State with a journalism degree and spent many years at the Muncie Evening Press, so his two worlds collided when he paid a visit to Miletich’s gym.
"I go and they show me the wrestling, the boxing, and then the jiu-jitsu, which to me was like voodoo," Cox says. "I thought it was awesome. I said, I got to watch you compete, I’m not going to write anything, but can I tag along?"
This is when the whole thing started. Cox accompanied Miletich to Chicago, and sat ringside at St. Andrews Gym on Addison Street near Wrigley Field for the original Battle of the Masters. He ended up writing a big feature in the Times.
"Miletich runs through these three big guys in a minute each," he says. "I was like, how cool is this? We have to do a show in the Quad Cities. I was doing boxing, where I was putting on shows and then I’d fight on the card. We had Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho come in to The Mark [in Moline], did six thousand for that, and that was my last fight."
That was in December of 1995. By January of 1996, Cox promoted his first MMA event called the Quad City Ultimate, featuring none other than the local vanguard, Pat Miletich.
"There all kinds of stories with that first show," Cox says. "One guy showed up and, when we were announcing the fights, he got cold feet and ran out the back."
"We did that show ... and made $150,000, and I decided I ain’t much a newspaper guy anymore."
The event still did gangbusters. Miletich’s gym alone sold $80,000 worth of tickets for the show, as by this time he was already an area intrigue, in part aided by the coverage he got from Cox in the paper. Cox’s newly unveiled Ultimate Promotions was off to a fast start. The money was fast to follow.
"We did that show, which drew eight thousand people, and made $150,000, and I decided I ain’t much a newspaper guy anymore," Cox says. "I did a boxing show, I made $80,000. So I made a quarter-of-a-million dollars in two shows, a month apart. At that point, when at the newspaper they said ‘good morning,’ I said, ‘what the fuck did you say? I’ll quit!’"
A short time later he did leave the world of journalism, and entered the wild west of MMA as a promoter. Next would be the Quad City Ultimate 2 in May, which ended up pitting Jeremy Horn against Mark Hanssen in the finals. Then he went to Des Moines and did Extreme Challenge, which became his flagship promotion. Eighteen years later, Extreme Challenge is on its 163rd show -- the longest running promotion under the same owner.
"I’ve been shut down, picketed, treated like a carny," Cox says. "It was not easy. People these days bitch about it being ‘so hard.’ Try pedaling the thing when people think it’s human cockfighting and people are dying and there are no refs, and you keep saying no, this is actually a sport. Nobody wanted to listen. You couldn’t get sponsors."
But Cox, with Miletich and Jeremy Horn in town, was seeing big things on the horizon, and with a newspaper background, he knew how to attract attention -- a trait that would serve him well as he segued into management of fighters.
"I have picketed my own event," he says. "I have all kinds of tricks. But in Michigan, at Battle Creek we had Dan Severn and a bunch of guys fighting, we sold 1,000 tickets and they just weren’t moving. I couldn’t get the papers involved. So I decided to picket my own event. I had three of my own people who made up our own signs and went out there.
"I called the TV station and complained, ‘Listen, we’re picketing tonight -- this is not something we want in our community, this has to go!’ Of course, I sent out my press releases that same day, so they all had my number. They could call me for comment, and I answered the calls and said, ‘No no no, they’re crazy. This is a legitimate sport.’ And every TV station, every newspaper, showed up down at the picket, and I sold 3,500 seats."
And Miletich, who scouted talent as well as he fought, first laid eyes on Matt Hughes while refereeing a fight of his.
Dan Severn and Pat Miletich (Photo courtesy of Monte Cox)
"He nearly killed the guy that night," Miletich says. "And I told Matt afterwards, ‘Dude, if you come to Iowa I guarantee I'll make you a world champ.’ And one day out of the blue he called me and said he was coming. I’ll never forget our first workout, either. That day I had bronchitis, and it was like I was breathing through a straw. But we went at it.
"I got him in like 40 submissions and I couldn't finish any of them, he was so strong. I actually put him in a guillotine, lifted him off the sheet, and ran him into the wall. He went limp and was unconscious for a second. I let go of the choke. He slumped down to his knees, woke up, and fricking power-doubled me all the way across the room, slammed me on my back, and kept going.
"Afterwards I said, ‘Okay, what are you on?’ Because there’s no way anybody can be this strong and not be on steroids. And he goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I said very bluntly, ‘What kind of fucking steroids are you taking?’ And he turns to me and gets angry and says, "That's an insult. I've never been on drugs in my life. Don't ever say that to me again.’ That's just the way he was. He was a naturally cock-strong farm boy with killer instincts."
By the early 2000s, with Horn, Pulver, Hughes and Miletich (and others like Nate Schroeder and Mark Hanssen), Bettendorf had become a powerhouse for fighting. And Monte Cox, who had control of the puppet strings, was making tall stacks of cash as a manager/promoter.
Not giving a damn
As the Miletich fighters began to carve out a reputation as the baddest men on the planet, there was a chord of sadism being thrummed through Bettendorf. Though some pockets of the country were beginning to catch up with these early MMA forerunners, the Midwest -- Monte Cox’s theater for promoting cards -- was a land littered with casualties.
To level the playing field at least a little bit, Cox and company would begin to impose restrictions on fighters heading into bouts, just to keep things interesting. Fighters like Horn, who himself exists as an active anthology of fight game lore with 116 professional MMA bouts, were subjected to this kind of whimsy and experimentation.
"I would corner Jeremy Horn with Matt Hughes, and we’d be sitting in a corner and Matt would go, ‘Monte, what should we not let old Jeremy do today?’" Cox says. "And I’d say, ‘Well, this guy’s not that good, we can’t give him everything. And Hughes says, ‘I agree, what if the first round he can just do kicks?’ And Jeremy, who’s just about to go out there says, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ We shake our heads. ‘Nope, first round, just kicks.’"
This was in 2001, when Horn fought Dan Theodore at Ultimate Wrestling Minnesota in just his 66th professional fight. Two months earlier, he’d fought Ricardo Arona in Japan. Before then he’d already fought the likes of Randy Couture, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Chuck Liddell, whom he choked out at UFC 19 in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Theodore, in other words, was a potboiler.
"So Jeremy’s holding Theodore in the corner, kicking him the entire round, and when it ends he comes back and says, ‘Come on guys,’" Cox remembers. "Hughes says, ‘Maybe we should give him something else. We can’t just let you punch him, because that’ll end it right away -- but what about knees?’ Jeremy just mutters, ‘You bastards.’ So he turns around, goes back out and fights a little bit, kick, kick, gets him in a Thai clinch and knocks him out with a knee. Over."
There are endless stories like this one from those glory days, when the axis of power belonged to Bettendorf.
"The funny thing was that Theodore goes on the Underground afterwards," Cox said. "He writes, ‘You know, I did a lot better against Jeremy than I thought. The first round was back and forth, he didn’t really land anything, my defense was good,’ and all this. And we’re sitting there like ... you dumb ass."
Earlier that same year, Matt Hughes, fresh off a loss to Dennis Hallman at UFC 29, traveled to Kuwait to fight the Cuban-Brazilian fighter Jose Landi-Jons, better known as Pelé.
"Hughes got kneed by Pelé and knocked out late in the first round," Cox says. "And every minute or so afterwards, he’d go, ‘What did he hit me with?’ And I’d say, ‘He got you with a knee.’ ‘And how long did it go?’ he’d ask. ‘About four-and-a half-minutes,’ I’d say. Then a minute later, I’d see him look at me, and he’d ask the same thing. This was repeated about five times, he was so out of it. So the next time Hughes looked over, I said before he could get a word out ‘with a knee.’ When he turned puzzled, then looked at me for a follow up, I said, ‘About four and a half minutes.’ And he was like, ‘how the hell did you know what I was going to ask?’"
"Hughes was such a badass in his day. ... He just had a crazy desire to win."
Everyone can laugh now because normally Hughes didn’t lose. In fact, he usually won dominantly, against all levels of competition, no matter what discipline his opponent specialized in. Eight fights after Pelé, still in 2001, he won the UFC’s welterweight title from Carlos Newton at UFC 34 via that now-famous double slam in the second round.
"Hughes was such a badass in his day," Cox says. "After we beat Newton with the double-slam, and we got the rematch for London, I’m on the phone calling him because he’s not showing up to camp. I get him on the phone, and what’s he doing? He’s putting a roof on [his twin brother] Mark’s barn. I said, ‘Matt, what the hell? You think Carlos is fucking roofing right now? And he said, ‘Don’t worry, buddy, I got this one. I didn’t know what to expect last time, this time I know what he’s got.’ This was two weeks before the fight.
"He shows up one week before he leaves [to London], totally out of shape, works for a week, then beats the shit out of Newton to defend the belt. He didn’t even have to train. He just had a crazy desire to win."
By the time 6-foot-8 Tim Sylvia arrived, on an invitation from Miletich whom he’d met in Atlantic City while attending UFC 30, Bettendorf was already a nationally celebrated den of butchers. To the point that a clumsy sasquatch from Maine didn’t make the best first impressions.
"I never saw him early on, because he was always leaning over the garbage can puking," Cox says. "He was a fat tub of shit. He was 350 pounds, unathletic. I said, ‘What are you doing with that guy, Pat?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ Him and Tony Fryklund were tied together, and they were like, please manage us. I avoided it for as long as I could. I thought, I can take Tony, but what am I going to do with that big sack of shit? He’s horrible."
Sylvia had only a couple of fights at the time, and suddenly found himself in the deep water with country’s elite team. Nevertheless, he hung around and took his cues from Miletich, continuing to harp on Cox.
"When I showed up to Miletich’s, I was star struck, obviously," Sylvia says. "Get in the room and the first person I see was Jeremy Horn. I see Jeremy come walking in, and Matt Hughes and Nate Schroeder. And Pat was there running around. I was definitely star struck at first, and then just got used to training beside those guys every day. It was cool."
Try as Cox might to avoid it, he ended up managing Sylvia in the end. Right after 9/11 happened, and all the flights were cancelled across the United States, Cox was stuck at a show down in Lake Charles, La. In a pinch, he asked Sylvia to drive his car down from Iowa with Fryklund.
"Tony, Monte and I all went out and that was probably the last time I had a drink," Sylvia says. "We got really, really shit-faced on Bourbon Street, but it was weird. We all got into like six or seven hurricanes."
At the end of the episode, Cox found himself managing Sylvia, and of all the champions to emerge out of Bettendorf, he never saw this one coming. Cox began throwing Sylvia -- who had slimmed down enough to meet the heavyweight maximum -- into fights. He fought Ben Rothwell at Extreme Challenge 42, and won a decision. He won another fight before Cox entered him into an eight-man tournament he was running in Orem, Utah. Somehow Sylvia beat the three guys and won the tournament.
So Cox put him in the Superbrawl card in Honolulu, in which surely his 6-foot-8 frame would crash through the canvas. Nope. Sylvia beat Mike Whitehead, Boyd Ballard, Jason Lambert and Whitehead again the next day to win the tournament. Either the Miletich guys were rubbing off on Sylvia, or hell was freezing over.
"Would you look at that, my sack of shit’s the UFC champ." Tim Sylvia winning UFC 59 in 2006. (Photo by Getty Images)
"Suddenly, Tim’s 12-0 and won seven fights in the two tournaments, and he’s getting better," Cox says. "So [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva calls, and says what about Tim Sylvia? And I’m like, you’re fucking with me, right? I said you’re crazy, but he adds, ‘Well, what if we let you pick your opponent?’ I said, hmm, he was supposed to fight Wesley Correira in this last tournament, but that lying fucker said he had a broken hand and backed out, not wanting to face Tim. So what about ‘Cabbage?’"
Sylvia fought and beat "Cabbage" Correira at UFC 39 in September 2002.
"Then Joe calls me and says, ‘I know you’re going to think I’m insane, but what about Tim for a title shot? I said, shut the hell up…but then I thought about it, and it occurred to me that we actually match up really well with [then heavyweight champion] Ricco Rodriguez. I just didn’t want to fight Pedro Rizzo for two fights, because Rizzo was a league above at that point, and I wasn’t going to send Tim in there to get decapitated. But Ricco? Okay. So Tim goes in there and knocks out Ricco and I’m like, would you look at that, my sack of shit’s the UFC champ."
Sylvia became a cash cow for Cox. He had to forfeit his belt after testing positive for the steroid Stanozolol in his first defense against Gan McGee, but he recaptured the heavyweight title in 2006 by knocking out Andrei Arlovski. He defended the belt two times before losing it to Randy Couture at UFC 68. By the time he fought his last UFC bout against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 81, he was getting $100,000 to show and $100,000 to win.
By this point Cox was full-blown into the management game. Knowing that the UFC had no intention of renewing his contract, he worked out a deal with Joe Silva to cut ties.
"I said Joe, how about this -- how about you just release Tim from his contract, keep the $200,000 you’d spend, and instead of the embarrassment of having to say we were laid off, we say we elected to go our own ways?" Cox says. "So he calls [UFC president] Dana White, and Dana says done, good for him."
Two days later, it was announced that Sylvia would fight Pride legend Fedor Emelianenko in Affliction’s inaugural show in California. Instead of getting $100K/$100K for his final fight in the UFC, Sylvia made a cool $800K/$200K. Cox, who also had Rothwell and Whitehead on the card, raked in his percentage.
"We made 1.3 million on that show," he says. "To this day I am endlessly persecuted for supposedly ruining Tim’s career. For me, this is one of the greatest moves I’ve ever made."
Sylvia doesn’t disagree.
"I wasn't making a million dollars fighting in the UFC," Sylvia says. "It is what it is. I didn't win that fight, and I had some bad luck afterwards. But it had nothing to do with Monte. He just gets me the fights and for that I'm thankful."
But Dana White had long been calling Cox the worst manager in MMA long before that.
The Rift, the Remedy, and the Ruthless One
Though Cox maintains a close relationship with UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Joe Silva, he hasn’t been on speaking terms with White for a decade. It all stems from a contract dispute he had with White over Jens Pulver, who’d signed a deal before pay-per-view dollars began rolling in under Zuffa.
"When the UFC added that little division, the 155ers, they thought here’s a way to add a division of a bunch of cheapos," Cox says. "They didn’t expect somebody to take over the division like Jens did. He won six in a row. So we signed a contract, and it’s a shitty contract, it’s 5/5, 6/6, 7/7. He starts winning, and then things change -- they get PPV and all this other stuff.
"Now he fights Caol Uno for the title, and Uno’s making more than him. Then he fights Dennis Hallman, and Hallman’s making more than him. Then he fights BJ Penn, and BJ’s making more than him, and I’m calling Dana saying, ‘Dana, this is bullshit.’ I go, ‘We signed an early contract, this makes no sense.’ He said, ‘Monte, if we don’t honor the contracts, why have contracts at all?’"
Cox told Pulver to just keep winning and he’d be rewarded down the line. After Pulver beat Penn, in a fight where Penn was being paid $20,000/$20,000 while Pulver was getting $11,000/$11,000, Cox knew there was an option in his contract, which the UFC could exercise so long as it notified Cox in writing within 30 days.
"I told Jens to hold tight. Thirty days go by, 35, 40 days go by -- we’re safe, but they’re really bugging Pulver about booking his tickets to London," Cox says. "So I called Joe, and said we’re all in for that London fight, but we need to get Jens a new contract. And he says, ‘No, we’re going to do the option.’ And I go, "No dude, you would have had to notify me in writing within 30 days for the option."
White caught on to what Cox had done, and became livid.
"Dana calls me back, ‘You motherfucker, you’ll never do business again in this sport again, you think you can fuck with me? And I go, ‘Dana, if we don’t honor the contracts, why have contracts at all?’"
Pulver didn’t fight in London, and that iced things over for good between White and Cox.
"I shouldn’t have probably done that," Cox says. "But I told Dana, all we really wanted is the money that the last guy we fought, BJ, got. We want 20/20, instead of 13/13. After that, he wouldn’t do it."
Pulver took an offer to fight in Japan in UFO, where he’d make $50,000 flat to fight Takehiro Murahama. That’s when Cox ran a big picture of Pulver dumping the UFC lightweight belt in the garbage can, showing that they would not be bullied.
"I probably shouldn’t have done that either, and there were a few things I shouldn’t have done," Cox says. "But we were the first ones to walk away."
Back then, though, with his stable of fighters holding elite spots in four of the five weight classes, Bettendorf didn’t miss a beat. Pulver went to Japan and beat Murahama via split decision at the Tokyo Dome, which in itself became one of Cox’s favorite stories. Even through all the butting of heads in the business, through all the egos, broken agreements and poachers, Cox has found more levity in the fight game than just about anybody.
"Horn and I were cornering Pulver, who was supposed to go fourth on that UFO card, and I was starving before his fight," he says. "And Horn turns to me like, ‘I’m going to die if I don’t get something to eat.’ And Jens was like, ‘yeah, me too.’ I said, ‘Do we have time to run up there?’ We all looked at each other and agreed that we did.
"So we ran up to the mezzanine, and we’re getting stopped by everybody for autographs. I’m standing in the mezzanine looking down, and see a guy in the cage. I said, ‘Hey Horn, what does Murahama look like?’ And he’s chewing, and he goes, ‘You know, short, stocky, kind of crazy hair.’ And I said, ‘Does he look like that?,’ pointing down to the cage. And he goes, ‘Holy shit! Jens, you’re up! So we go running down the mezzanine as fast as we can, Jens grabbing his gloves and mouthpiece, going down the walkway putting shit on. Jens looks at us on our way and says, ‘Nice warm-up, jack-asses!’"
Pulver says the rolling with the punches attitude was the way things were. Everyone was laughing as they threw fists.
"Jeremy Horn was a champion to me, period. Belts or no belts, I looked up to that guy," Pulver says. "I think one of the things was when it came to that time, we pushed each other. There was no, ‘you're a champ, I'm coming after you.’ We just went hard. That's the thing, we tried to melt each other. Everything that could go wrong in a fight, we first made happen in that room, putting each other through hell, so you knew how to cope with it."
To the point that it became a relief to face a stranger rather than the bashers who gathered regularly in Bettendorf.
"It was a day off to be able to fight somebody else finally, and to be able to harness all that aggression and anger and have it be somebody else," Pulver says. "To face somebody else was heavenly."
And in the commotion of all those championships, a 17-year old junior in high school named Robbie Lawler, who went to the same Bettendorf High School as Miletich, showed up at the gym one day.
"You're training with the best in the world, so you're not too worried about anybody else." Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
"My former wrestling coach, Paul Castro, was Robbie's coach also and he asked if Rob could come and train in the offseason, just to help keep focused and hopefully get something out of hanging out with the guys on the team," Miletich says. "My initial thought was that he was quiet and a hell of an athlete. I had watched him play football and wrestle and knew a bit about him before he showed up."
One thing that was evident right off was that he had unusual power in his hands.
"I grew up in Bettendorf, so I knew who Pat was," Lawler says. "When I was in high school he used to bring fighters into the wrestling room to work on skills during our high school practice. I did martial arts growing up, a lot of martial arts. When I found out you can pretty much wrestle, box and kick box all at once, just like what Pat was doing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do."
Cox put him into the regional shows in Springfield and Davenport, while Miletich and company built him up from scratch.
"You're training with the best in the world, so you're not too worried about anybody else," Lawler says. "You’re just showing up. You didn’t care who it was in front of you. You just knew it wasn’t the guy you’ve been training with, so you’re going to be fine."
Lawler began as a middleweight. After collecting the heads of a few "bums" on the circuit, he debuted in the UFC at just barely 20 years old against Aaron Riley at UFC 37 in Bossier City, Louisiana. He developed one of the most lethal left hands in MMA. He fought a who’s who in the UFC and Strikeforce, with many ups and downs.
In 2012, after losing three of four in Strikeforce, it looked like Lawler was set to join the rest of his once glorious brothers (as Matt Hughes was fond of calling them) in the darkening night.
Yet in 2014, revived as a welterweight, it turns out there’s still a light on in Bettendorf.
Wind in the trees
When I visited Bettendorf in February it was negative 10 degrees. There was a snowstorm rolling in that was threatening to cancel Miletich’s Free Mason lodge meeting. The Mississippi River -- which is cited in Matt Hughes’ walkout song "A Country Boy Can Survive" -- looked miserable and on the verge of freezing over. Occasionally a bald eagle could be seen soaring over it.
The man at the rental car place at the Quad City International Airport said that the area is full of two things: chiropractors and MMA gyms. The original Miletich Fighting Systems, along with the rise of the UFC, has triggered a boom. Smash your spine in the gym in the morning, then have it aligned that same afternoon.
And there really are seemingly fighters everywhere, fighters who’ve fought for Monte Cox. In fact, at the HuHot Mongolian Grill, our waiter once fought on a Cox card. So did the hostess. As the writer Jake Rossen once said, cagefighting is like the new skydiving -- thrill-seekers can’t stay away from it. Everybody has to try it at once, or so it seems in eastern Iowa.
There’s been plenty of opportunity for it, too, as Cox has promoted more than 500 fight cards, mostly within the region. The names are so many that even he forgets them all -- there’s of course Extreme Challenge, the Extreme Challenge Trials, Cage Combat, Gladiators, XFO, ICE, the Brawl at the Ballpark, and larger dabblings like Adrenaline.
He was involved in some of the King of the Cage events, and with the early pre-Zuffa UFC shows that came through Cedar Rapids, like UFC 21 and UFC 26. In fact, he helped get MMA sanctioned in Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Utah and Wisconsin, by pushing his circus through. His biggest year happened in 2007, when he was the acting as the president/CEO of M-1 Global for those nine months and put on the Yarennoka! card in Japan, featuring the 7-foot-2 "Techno Goliath" Hong-Man Choi and Fedor Emelianenko. That year the former newspaper man made more than three million dollars.
"We even did strip club fights. Two naked girls fighting. Just debauchery."
"We even did strip club fights," he laughs. "Two naked girls fighting. Just debauchery. Everybody was so into it for the novelty, and I was thinking, if you just stick around an hour the women will all be naked. It’s a strip joint!"
It’s been a good racket, the fight game. That it fell in his lap in Bettendorf, and he had the smarts to do something with it, is in evidence today. Cox lives in a 10,000-square foot house in Le Claire, in the same neighborhood where a John Deere executive calls home, and another from Alcoa. He has 10 flat screen televisions throughout the house, and a $50,000 Sonos system to dial in music to every room and his sprawling deck.
His game room has a pool table, a 1980s video game arcade with 250 games and a foosball table. The next room is a home theater with huge leather recliners and popcorn machine. There’s always one itinerant fighter or another living with him. For a "slumlord," as Chael Sonnen once called him, he is more than hospitable.
In his office, among his KISS memorabilia, there are relics of the past. There’s a poster of him boxing in the ring looking a little like a stockier version of Tommy Morrison, delivering a right hand. He says that he was almost bamboozled into a fight with one of the Klitschko brothers way back when, but had the good sense to turn it down.
"My manager at the time, Fred Berns, said, ‘You have a 50/50 chance -- a 50 percent chance I end up in a coma, and a 50 percent chance I end up dead."
Berns taught Cox to be a promoter, yet over the years Cox became more of a manager. He has managed fighters in 43 UFC title fights, the latest being Sara McMann in her bid for the women’s bantamweight title against Ronda Rousey at UFC 170. Of those 43, he’s won 28. He has managed seven UFC champions -- Miletich, Pulver, Hughes, Sylvia, Sean Sherk, Dave Menne and Rich Franklin -- and Lawler can make it eight.
"I trust nobody now. I’d put my son under contract now."
Yet as he drives me around the Quad Cities, pointing out the spot where he’s developing condominiums in his latest venture, he sounds weary of the fight business. After nearly 20 years of handshake deals, he has lost trust in many fighters. He says there are a dozen people who owe him money now, ranging from five-figure debts to, in some cases, six. He says there are poachers more than ever in MMA, fast-talkers at fighter after-parties. This, he says, is where the fight business leads. It’s clear that the game has worn on him.
"I trust nobody now," he says. "I’d put my son under contract now."
And even Lawler, whom he’s managed for 12 years and his wife accused him of having a "bromance" with because they hung out so much, has become a bittersweet topic. Cox says now that Lawler has found his way to a UFC title shot he’s begun haggling over fighter/manager percentages and bonus money. There’s a loyalty breach that is hurting him, after many years of close friendship and representation.
"It’s almost like, if I do my job too good I get in trouble," he says. "It doesn’t make any sense. And Robbie was an actual friend. Not a fighter, a friend. We’d go out to eat wings at night. He was the best friend I had here, twice a week we’d do things. It wasn’t a fighter thing. He was the only friend I had."
People are still around. Pulver lives in town, and he continues to fight abroad, having lost 13 fights since 2006. "Believe me, he’d quit if he could," Cox says. "But he can’t, because he needs the money." Sylvia continues on, and has a fight in Poland. He’s lost three in a row. Hughes has long since retired, having last fought at UFC 135 in 2011. Horn now runs a gym in Utah, and after 116 pro fights he still has more to give. He has a fight set up for April in Illinois.
Cox drives by Miletich’s house, only a couple of miles from where he lives. Miletich gave up coaching a few years ago, wanting to spend more time with his daughters. He’s still doing television work in the sport, as an analyst and commentator.
"Pat’s the reason we did what we did," Cox says.
"I almost lost all of them. That changed everything for me. It was an eye-opening experience."
And he drives by the place that changed his life, a spot on a rural road in which his three kids were involved in a car accident one snowy night in January four years ago. A friend who was driving them home from a dance tried to pass a snowplow and slid off the road at 40 miles per hour, running into a telephone pole, splitting the car in half.
Cox’s friend on the police force, who arrived at the scene first, took one look at the car and assumed fatal. Turns out all three of Cox’s children, and the driver, survived -- though his two daughters had to undergo extensive surgeries for internal injuries.
"I almost lost all of them," he says. "That changed everything for me. It was an eye-opening experience. I quit traveling at that point, stopped going to all the UFCs, and started going more to my kids. When you come that close, it’s like someone telling you, hey, this can end at any time. I was building something, but at the same time I was spending more time running around going to shows than with my kids. That changed everything."
Everything has changed.
But the guys who made Bettendorf the toast of the fight game will always have their stories. And Cox, who is a natural born storyteller, will always be one of the authoring voices. In fact, he says he’s writing a book about it all.
"The funniest thing was a show that we call the Sioux City Slaughter," he says, remembering the carload of killers he drove out to Plymouth County. "I brought up Matt Hughes, Mark Hughes, Jens Pulver, Nate Schroeder, all good guys. The guy I was partnering with out there didn't even advertise the show. There was like 32 people in there. I am pleading with my guys to take it easy on theirs.
"First fighter comes out, Mark Hughes. Picks the guy up, body slams him, over -- eight seconds. Next fight was Jens. I go, ‘Jens, I need time. Help me out.’ Jens kicked the guy in the head, broke his nose, dropped him, done in 25 seconds. The next one went 17 seconds. We’d literally been gone for five minutes, and I only had four fights left.
"I told my wife, ‘Go get the car, take it around back, and get all the shit. We’re gonna get out of here!’ The next fight went 30 seconds. The one after that went about 50 seconds. During intermission, the next fighter comes to me and he says, ‘I don't think I want to fight.’ He's watching his guys get killed. I go, ‘You’re the smartest guy here.’ My guys just slaughtered them. Matt Hughes got paid 100 bucks for that. To this day, whenever I see him, he says, The Sioux ... City ... SLAUGHTER."
The good old days in Bettendorf. Cox has a million stories. They all do.
"Look," Cox says, pointing to a cluster of five or six large silhouetted birds on a tree. "Those are bald eagles that live right here. You can see them all along this stretch of the river." There are others soaring over the water, too. Cox is used to seeing them, but knows visitors might find some awe in it. "For whatever reason, they love this area," he says.
And here he just sort of shakes his head.