Trying UFC for the first time.
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
I walked into the bathroom and looked at myself and laughed; it was some serious horror-movie shit, blood everywhere. Brandon was wide-eyed and pale, as if he wanted to beat somebody up himself.

While I was getting dressed one of the promoters came by and offered me a pro fight. It turned out I was something of a crowd favorite, basically for bleeding all over the place and standing in there and taking my licks. People kept telling me it was the fight of the night. As my eye started to swell shut I thought, Yeah, well, great. I still lost. I had brought my Team Miletich T-shirt to wear after the fight (Brandon and Ryan, my other corner, had theirs on), but instead I put on a regular T-shirt. I didn't want to associate the team with losing. I was too embarrassed.

I drank beer out of a plastic bottle, balanced ice on my eye, and chatted with my opponent, Jason, while we watched the rest of the fights. He was a nice guy. He had been fighting muay Thai and kickboxing for four years, with a record of 9-1, and this had been his first MMA fight, too. He hadn't wanted to go to the ground at all, and neither had I, because of my rib. My one muay Thai fight was four years ago. I had trained only about two months, and I gave up 20 pounds and still fought a decent fight. That's what training with Pat's guys can do for you; it can make up for a lot. But I had fought stupidly and not dodged or slipped a single punch as I had been trained to. Instead, I'd come straight at him. Those little gloves aren't like boxing gloves; they cut you quickly and easily, and though there was no pain at all, I was bleeding enough for the ref to get nervous and call it.

Watching the crowd react to the later matches I realized that these weren't just fights; they were celebrations of courage. The crowd lives vicariously through the fighters and even loves the losers as "honorable warriors." The fighters revel in both the ordeal and the crowd's attention. Brandon had told me to pause on my way out, to "soak up" the crowd's attention, but I didn't care about the crowd.

What surprised me was how much fun it had been. Being in there, bouncing around, pasting him, getting blasted, whatever – I had enjoyed it. I didn't feel any pain at all during the fight; adrenaline takes care of that. Sure, you know things are bad – like, "Oops, that shot was bad" – but it doesn't hurt.

The crappy part would be coming back to Pat's with a loss and looking as if I'd gotten my ass kicked. I looked terrible, my face was all swollen up like a Halloween monster mask; driving back we'd stop at gas stations and people would fastidiously avoid looking at me, as if I were a burn victim.

No matter what people said about how it was a good fight and how I gave nearly as good as I got, I dreaded walking into the gym. I had let Pat down, and he was going to take one look at my face and know I'd fought a stupid fight.

On the way back to Iowa, I thought about how I could make excuses – the extra 20 pounds, for example. But that stuff just happens, especially at the amateur level in MMA. Pat and Tony had both given up 20 pounds or more in fights, and they still won. And the injured rib hadn't really bugged me at all, except mentally.

Instead, I avoided the gym altogether. I just packed up my stuff and got out of town as quickly as possible. I was embarrassed. I had some good new friends there, but I didn't want to face them. I had let Pat down.

Driving home to Massachusetts, I got a call from Tony Fryklund. He'd lost a decision to Lindland in Hawaii that same night (but had gone the distance and fought well) and we commiserated.

"It just sucks to lose," I said.

"Yeah," he said, "but there's a lot more to it, to doing what we do, than just the fight. If the fight was all there was to it then it wouldn't be worth it."

I thought about what Brandon and I had talked about, the meaning of clout. It's not really about the admiration or respect of others; it's about self-respect. We all have an innate hatred of fear, and some of us climb into the cage to prove to ourselves that we aren't afraid. I've heard Pat compare his boys to soldiers – how they don't fight for an ideal, they fight for one another – and it's true. I made some lifelong friends, guys I would invite to my wedding – although I might have to keep an eye on some of them.

After I got home Pat sent me an e-mail. He said, "I just wanted to let you know you can fly our colors anytime you want. You showed a lot of heart and 90 percent of the fighters who come here do not last as long as you did." He closed by saying, "You are without a doubt a fighter."

Pat Miletich said that about me.