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Adam Milstead celebrates victory in UFC debut with 12-hour work days

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Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

UFC heavyweight Adam Milstead is a blue-collar kind of dude.

When he's not smashing faces inside the cage, you can find him rippin' lips from his kayak, testing the accuracy of his Springfield XD-S, or crafting his latest country tune. You may even find him tossing back a cold one in between (and he might even invite you to join him).

But it's not all fun for Milstead, who recently made his debut at UFC Fight Night 88 with a second-round TKO of Chris de la Rocha.

Milstead embraced the grind to ascend to the UFC, and the grind beat him up along the way. He's endured a couple knee surgeries, student loan debt, past-due bills, and more. Getting to the UFC doesn't change his current situation – not yet, anyway.

"At the beginning of the sport, you get very little reward, meaning that you don’t get much money," Milstead said. "In fact, you put more money in than you get out... I’ve gone through areas where I would kind of let bills go because I needed to be able to pay for a trip to train somewhere. I did a lot of things, sacrificing for the sport of mixed martial arts."

Because he's in the hole, Milstead cannot give up his full-time job just yet. He works for MarkWest Energy Partners, where he toils on a pipeline for 12 hours a day. It's not that he wants to. He doesn't have a choice. After knocking out de la Rocha on Sunday, May 29, Milstead was back in the field Tuesday. His disclosed salary for the fight was $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win, but after paying managers, coaches, and travel expenses, Milstead said he "may have made $10,000."

"After the medicals were taken out, after the room and board as well as the travel expenses for my cornermen, I’m bringing home about $16,500," Milstead said. "Then you look into, now, I have to set aside a percentage for my manager, and I have to set aside a percentage for my taxes, so when it comes down to it, I may have made $10,000. Then you consider, maybe I’ll get the chance to fight three times per year, I guess it’s possible to live on, but, man, it’s going to be difficult."

That is to say, if he lost, he may have flown back from Las Vegas to Pittsburgh in the negative. That's why when the alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, he answered its call.

"Oh, man, let’s just take the [post-fight celebratory] tequila out of the picture," Milstead said. "It would’ve been just as a bad to wake up. It was rough. We flew back that Monday morning, got back in around four or five in the afternoon, kind of unpacked a little bit, went right to sleep, then at four in the morning, I woke up for work.

"I work about an hour away. So I wake up at four, leave at five, get there at six, work until six, and get home at seven."

Rinse and repeat for the rest of the week. Through it all, you might expect a professional athlete to become defiant, to loathe the fact he's not rolling down the Vegas strip in a Ferrari. Milstead admits he's felt this way at times.

"At first, when I wasn’t in the UFC, I kind of viewed it like, ‘What the heck? These guys are professional athletes," Milstead said. "They’re the most hard-working, dedicated athletes in any type of sport out there, hands-down. And these guys can’t afford to take time off work in order to become a full-time fighter?’ I thought it was pretty crazy.

"Then when I got in the UFC, I realized anything can happen in this sport. You have the UFC, who can invest so much money into you, who can invest into getting your fight out there and selling your product to the fans, and the next thing you know, you get knocked out in six seconds—which could happen to me at any moment—so I understand from a business standpoint that you can’t really invest in somebody this early into the game. It’s not like baseball or football where you have a union. It’s really hard to invest in these fighters, especially in mixed martial arts, where anything can happen at a moment’s notice, injuries, knockouts, submissions, all that type of stuff."

Where this conversation is concerned, it's all about perspective, and Milstead owns that in abundance.

Before making it to the UFC and before landing his current position with MarkWest, he was broke – for real broke. There were days he didn't eat. The $5 left from his paychecks after paying bills and debts went straight to McDonald's – a luxury to him at the time.

"Nothing tasted better than McDonald's on payday, man," Milstead said. "Those were like the best meals I ever ate."

It's because he's endured this that he understands the beauty of his current position. His eating real food now, and he's living his dream on the national stage. He's building a hell of a lot of character all the while, too. There are worse places to be, a fact he knows all too well.

"I just don’t want to go back to eating peanut butter out of a jar, man," Milstead said. "Once you live that life, you’ll do anything you can to not go back to it. Even for this camp and working as much as I was, and the money I was putting into all my coaches and myself and a lot of the rehab stuff I was doing to keep myself healthy, at one point, I was down to $2.30-some-odd-cents in my checking account. It was rough.

"This sport has very little reward financially. But you don’t do it for the money. You do it for the simple fact that you’ve put a challenge on yourself, and you’re going to do everything you can to accomplish that and one day be able to sit on your deathbed and not be surrounded by the ghosts of your dreams and goals, not let them die with you. That’s what I’m trying to keep myself from doing."

After his knockout of de la Rocha at UFC Fight Night 88, Milstead looks toward his future with giddy anticipation. Going 1-0 in the UFC is great. Going 2-0 is better, and he hopes to add that second victory soon, potentially in September, when the UFC comes to Cleveland with UFC 203.

"I want to get on that Cleveland card, hint-hint, wink-wink," Milstead said. "I’m only like two hours away, and you wouldn’t necessarily pay for travel expenses. I got places to stay, people out that way."

A frequent training partner of UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, Milstead relishes the opportunity to fight alongside a friend, who will defend his title on the biggest stage of his life. Until the ink's dry, though, Milstead will do what Milstead does: He'll work. He'll balance training with the pipeline, and he'll sprinkle in some leisure when he can.

Just as the UFC provides an opportunity to advance his profession as a mixed martial artist, his work with MarkWest gives him the chance to forge a long-lasting career – and he's not ready to give that up any time soon.

"I’m making $20 an hour [at MarkWest] so it’s not that bad, especially for a person who doesn’t have a college education," Milstead said. "It’s like, if I give that up, and me not having an education, will I ever get that back? Let’s say I give it up and I go into the UFC and I do good, [but] eventually things are going to fall off. Maybe I have five to 10 years left in my career, what will I have after that? Will I ever have that opportunity [at the pipeline] again?

"So it’s one of those things, it has to be a big opportunity. I have to be able to see that door open into mixed martial arts, that door open into the UFC, where I can see I’ll be able to sustain myself financially for a long period of time for me to give up that job, because with no college education, it’s rough out there."