Pat Miletich was scowling again, sitting on a blue balance ball in the center of his gym’s wrestling room. His elbow rested on his knee and he supported his chin on his fist. Behind him, sitting on the floor against the wall, were two former UFC Champions the giant Tim Sylvia and lightweight legend Jens Pulver. Pulver who was always a ball of nervous energy, fidgeted next to him. Pat’s gym had been a pioneering powerhouse in MMA from the early days of the sport and there were a number of other prominent fighters in the room. Brad Imes, who is a big a man as Tim, was sprawled on the floor. Another good heavyweight fighter, Ben Rothwell, who was on a run in the International Fight League, had captured another balance ball. UFC veteran Spencer Fisher was present and some others.
In addition to the fighters, white haired businessmen, farmers, community leaders, and a man, now retired, who has just sold his business for a fortune, were also in the crowd. They all sat lined up against the walls of the gym. Many of the older men’s blue dress shirts were stained with sweat from the sweltering heat.
They all met here every Wednesday at 11:00 for Bible study. In the early days, only four people showed up. Now, at times they’d get as many as a hundred. The day I attended there were about twenty.
“I think we can all have voids in our lives,” Pat said thoughtfully. “And to fill those voids we can sometimes choose the wrong things, whether it be money, or chasing women, or drugs, or whatever…”
The subject of the meeting was temptation and after a talk that lasted about 30 minutes the young pastor moderating the meeting opened up the group for a discussion. I was surprised at how freely the men in the room spoke and how sincere they were. Ben Rothwell and Brad Imes are good friends and they took it upon themselves to lighten the mood if it got too heavy, sharing a funny story or self-effacing observation.
The atmosphere was relaxed and trusting. You didn’t have to say anything but if you do it had to be from the heart. Everyone was a straight shooter, or at least they were from 11:00 to 12:00 on Wednesday mornings. The meeting ended with the pastor asking if anyone had requests for prayers; several people make did. I started to make one but didn’t and then later wish I had.
I’d been doing a lot of thinking on the Christian experience since coming to the Faith five years before and I didn’t feel out of place. I was still struggling with how to use the influence of my new job at Fight! without engaging in the sort of in your face evangelism that I knew often turned people off to the message. I felt that an issue that Christians faced when trying to get the Message across was how to communicate what they felt intuitively and accepted about Christ and with the language of the much Christian Faith which was couched in terms of meekness and surrender, that while representing eternal truths about mans place in the Universe, most of western society recoiled from. The longer I worked as a journalist and as I began to open myself to what was around me and meet more people like Miletich, who as a formerly great fighter and a dominant coach was assertive and strong but who recognized what it was to lean on God, I detected a synthesis. I didn’t try to explain it but only present examples, when and where I could, and as honestly, because at the end of the day the Christian experience is a mystical one and cannot be explained its way into. It is a mystery fathomed only from inside itself.
Later that night, Jens Pulver showed up for sparring but forgot his mouthpiece. He went to the bathroom and got a couple of paper towels from the dispenser on the wall, which he then wadded up and stuffed in his mouth and then got into his headgear and gloves. Jen was one of the early stars of the UFC and the first small man to break out as a top tier attraction thanks to his charisma and the deadening punching power in his left hand.
My enthusiasm had gotten the better of me earlier in the day and I had asked Pat if I could take part in his gym’s legendary Wednesday night sparring session.
“You want to spar?” he asked incredulously.
“I couldn’t come all the way up here and not do it. I’d never be able to live with myself. I used to box a little,” I said. Wednesday nights at Pat’s are notorious.
“Now I’m excited,” he said.
Everybody spars at the same time, so it is wild. I had to be conscious not only of the guy in front of me but of what was going on around me as well, so I didn’t get hit with a wild punch or kick or run over another pair of fighters. It was a crazy scene, with all sorts of mayhem. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a guy get dropped with a body shot. He groaned and writhed on the floor, spitting out his mouthpiece but nobody paid any particular attention. Expect no quarter at Pat’s on Wednesday nights. If you get knocked out, you get knocked out.
As everyone began paired off, I waved to Jens to spar with me. Jens always seems like he is surprised at something but this time he looked a little more so than usual. He gave me a look that said, “All right…if you insist.”
I knew, or thought I knew, that since Jens was a southpaw and I’m right-handed, I should step to my left and tag him with a straight right but every time I tried this, he moved either to the right or left so that my punch ended up where he used to be. Then he’d hit me three or four times for good measure before I could reset.
After one round, Jens knew I was tired. His eyes narrowed and the killer in him took over. He started to bounce, and his punches got harder and faster. He became a blur of rights and lefts. I discovered to my chagrin that he had a little man’s speed and a big man’s power.
Luckily for me, we weren’t throwing kicks and we were using the big 16-ounce sparring gloves. With those big gloves, all you really have to do is keep your chin tucked behind your shoulder and keep your right glove planted on the side of your cheek and this will usually deflect your opponent’s blows up to the top of the head where they’re easier to take. A hard puncher like Jens can still shake you up though.
After we finished, I was exhausted but relieved I didn’t go down. Jens and I only went two rounds but I felt like Sylvester Stallone at the end of the first Rocky (the only good one by the way). I had that strange giddy feeling that is the product of adrenaline and getting punched very hard in the head. I couldn’t really explain why but somehow getting in there and banging with Lil’ Evil, even though I got the worst of it, was the most fun I’d had in a long time.
Is your forehead all sore from yesterday?” Pat asked. I’d come by early to tell everyone goodbye before leaving Iowa.
“No, not really,” I said. I won’t start to ache for another day or so. I told Pat that I considered the whole thing an exercise in my spiritual growth because nothing teaches you humility like getting beaten up by a guy you outweigh by 50 pounds. He seemed to like that. Then again, with Pat you can never really tell. We went outside to my car, shook hands and said our goodbyes.
I watched him lumber back into the gym, hands in pockets, out of the rear view mirror as I pulled away. I thought about what Pat said to me before I went to the Wednesday morning meeting.
“This is probably going to be the first Bible study group you go to where there’s cussing,” he’d said cautiously, peering up at me from beneath his unreadable frown.
“Well, if it was a tea party none of the guys would come,” I replied.
Pat had suddenly lit up, his frown disappearing into a sunny ear-to-ear grin, “Yeah, Jesus didn’t come to preach to the righteous, he came to preach to the shitheads like me that need it.”