Trying UFC for the first time.
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

At 33, Tony is one of the older guys, and he's been down a long road to get here. He was a coast guard rescue diver and EMT, a safety officer on the Big Dig in Boston, and a movie stuntman before his constant training in martial arts eventually took over his life. Being on Team Miletich is an integral part of his identity, a tremendous source of pride. "A lot of these fighters are from broken homes," said Tim Sylvia, who lives with Tony in the apartment above the gym. "Team Miletich is their family."

Tony will play the philosopher if given the chance. "The martial arts are about respect and discipline and knowledge," he says. "Fighting is different. Fighting is about ego. When we're fighting, it's 'I'm going to fuck you up. Prove me wrong. Prove to me that you're tougher than me.'" He doesn't mean ego in the negative sense – the "Oh, look at me" ego. He means self-knowledge and dedication, testing and pushing oneself as far as possible. There is a famous image of Tony where he is covered in blood, raging. He took an elbow to the forehead, and it bled so badly the ref stopped the fight. Tony went temporarily insane from the emotional dam-burst. He blacked out, and doesn't remember rampaging around the ring until Pat and Matt Hughes dragged him down into his corner and covered his face with a towel, like an animal. "I could fight fine; if I had trouble seeing, that was my problem, you know? It was cosmetic, a scratch on the hood. You don't throw away the car just because a windshield wiper is busted." Tony had also been running a fever of 103. "Now I can understand a temporary insanity plea," he says. Fighting, for him, is a way to know himself.

Whoever wins an MMA cage fight, the unspoken significance of victory is: I could have killed you. If we were alone, in some back alley or on some desert island, and we fought without all these people and this cage and its rules, then I would have killed you. That's the appeal of Fight Club: It's the siren song of violence, the ancient urge to dominate, and in my heart I want to understand that emotion.

One day Tony asks me rhetorically, "How can you know anything about yourself if you've never been in a fistfight?" I didn't want to tell him that even though I'd fought in the ring, I'd never been in a real street fight.

I've got to learn to move my head, to make it less of a target. I can still feel the stinging impact that jars my world, the rushing in my ears as if I'm underwater, and then the gushing from my nostrils, the droplets spattering my gloves and shirt. I rush outside to the paper towels, and the gym rats, lifting weights, stare with pity. I joke with Pat that I'm going to bleed all over my opponents to scare them, but then I mop up the blood, put my headgear back on, and try to get back in there, until I get popped again and repeat the whole process. Sam can't hold his mud.

I don't talk to Jens Pulver much, but he is one of the fighters I most admire. One day I'm on the sidelines holding paper towels to my nose and he leans over and says, "You got to find a way to survive in here. We all did."

So the following Wednesday night I stay away from the heavyweights and decide instead to spar with the "little" guys. Because I'm tall I always stood with the heavyweights, but they outweigh me by 20 or 40 pounds, and punch quality is changed drastically by even a slight difference in weight.

I tower over the lighter guys, but when I spar with them I survive and my nose doesn't bleed. I start keeping people on the end of my jab, where Pat wants me to, too far away to hit me back.

After eight three-minute rounds we all jump rope together, and for the first time I feel a little bit as if I belong here, as if I could stay and train forever. It's a warm wash of contentment, of virtuous exhaustion, and of true camaraderie.

After weeks of nonstop training, including weight-lifting, circuit-training, roadwork, and sprints, Pat got me the fight he promised, in Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. I spoke to Monte Cox, the promoter, and everything was set to go. I would be fighting at 185 pounds, the perfect weight to give me a reach advantage. I am 6' 3", and most 185 pound guys are well under six feet.

Pat started working with me personally, and my stand-up fighting began to feel really strong. I still got car wreck-itis, but at least I was staying away from the heavyweights. Then, on a Wednesday night about two weeks before the fight, I was sparring with some kid (never seen before or since). We were just boxing because he couldn't kick, and I had him bleeding into his mouth guard when he landed a hard body shot and knocked the wind out of me. We stopped for a second so I could catch my breath. I signaled I was okay and we started sparring again, but a secret part of me was saying, "Oh, shit."