Trying UFC for the first time.
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
There are few rules in Ultimate Fighting. Once a fighter gets knocked down the fight just continues on the ground, and that's what gives MMA its extra kick, the terror and claustrophobia and desperation of being pinned underneath a man trying to hurt you.

I wanted to learn how to fight in the MMA style, so I asked around and learned about Pat Miletich. A former MMA champion, he now runs Champions Fitness Center in Bettendorf, Iowa, and his stable of fighters is one of the strongest MMA teams in the country. I got Pat's number and called him up; he said, "Sure, c'mon down and train with us and we'll get you a fight."

Wednesday nights are infamous at Pat Miletich's gym. Wednesdays mean full-contact kickboxing with headgear and shin guards and no screwing around – it's hard sparring, and you'd better be ready. There are knockouts on Wednesday nights, not to mention bloody noses and cut lips. Somebody is always dashing to the paper towels, blood spattering the mats in heavy drops. I saw experienced pro fighters go down like sacks of potatoes from head kicks: boom, lights out. I broke my nose at least once and fractured a rib while training at Pat's, both on Wednesday nights.

On my first Wednesday night I could feel everyone's eyes on me, coolly assessing the new kid in school. I sparred with a few people, and felt as if I was doing okay for a beginner; my time in Thailand had given me a foundation in "stand-up" fighting. But toward the end of the night Pat grabbed me and said, "Hey, Sam, c'mere, spar the heavyweight champion of the world." Sure. No problem.

I found myself staring up at Tim Sylvia, the former Ultimate Fighting Heavyweight Champ. He's about 6' 8" and 250 pounds, and much, much quicker than he looks. Every time I threw a rear-leg kick he trapped it and dumped me. He was so tall his head was miles away from my jab, and hitting his body was like hitting a tree. His hands were like sledgehammers; if he had landed a hard body shot I would have died.

I found myself sparring with him again and again over those first few weeks. I would get hit hard, stagger, and then get blasted again, desperate for the round to end, nose running blood. People would laugh, yelling, "Clean up your mess!" and Tim would crow, "Sam can't hold his mud!"

A few days after my first Wednesday night session I was having coffee at the local Denny's with Pat and some other guys when he looked at me and said, "You broke your nose. You know that, don't you? It's crooked."

"It is?"

"Yeah," he said, and everyone started to laugh.