The hotbed for grass roots mixed martial arts in the 1990s was the Quad Cities on the border of Iowa and Illinois. And the biggest star of that scene was Pat Miletich.
The wrestler and kickboxer went on to become the first Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion (the 170-pound division, since renamed welterweight). His 30-month title reign from 1998-2001 is the second longest of any title run in the history of the company, trailing only Tito Ortiz's record 41 months as light heavyweight champion. But in recent years, he's become more well known as the trainer of champions, from Matt Hughes to Jens Pulver to Tim Sylvia to Robbie Lawler.
Neck injuries caused Miletich to retire in 2002, but on Thursday night at the I Wireless Center in Moline, IL, not far from the cultural center of midwestern MMA at his gym in Bettendorf, Iowa, the hometown fighting icon scored his first win in seven-and-a-half years.
Miletich, 29-7-2, put journeyman fighter Thomas "Wildman" Denny, 26-18, down with punches, scoring a knockout win at 0:50 of the second round. If it is his last fight, it allowed him to go out on the highest note possible.
Not that Miletich, who turns 41 in March, was talking about retirement. After the match was over, he talked about two specific opponents that came out of left field, boxing stars Winky Wright and Antonio Tarver.
"When you're old, they say the last thing to go is your power," said Miletich after the fight. "I was looking to land hard strikes and hurt him. I boxed for a lot of years. I know I hit hard. If I connect, people will get rocked."
Miletich's last win was on June 29, 2001, at what is now the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., winning a UFC match over Shonie Carter with a head kick. The win would seemingly have given Miletich a shot at regaining what by that point was known as the welterweight title, which he had lost seven weeks earlier to Carlos Newton.
But UFC officials made the decision to give the title shot to Miletich's top protege, Matt Hughes, which was the first in a series of moves that caused a bitter falling out between Miletich and the organization.
Hughes beat Newton and dominated the weight class for the next several years. Miletich made an attempt to move to middleweight, but after losing to Matt Lindland, retired due to two bulging discs in his neck.
When Miletich began coaching in the International Fight League in 2006, in the now-defunct league's first season, his Quad Cities Silverbacks were the flagship team. That was the final straw in breaking the relationship, as UFC decreed Miletich's name wouldn't be mentioned on broadcasts, and when his fighters were featured in hype for big matches, his name was never used, nor was he shown training them. Miletich also gave a damaging deposition against UFC in the midst of legal battles between the two organizations.
The bout was his second attempt at a comeback, as two years ago Renzo Gracie spoiled the return of Miletich by submitting him with a guillotine in 3:37 of the first round.
Miletich dominated Thursday night's fight, hitting Denny with a left hook and taking him down at the start of round one. Most of the round was Miletich on top, throwing body punches, but not doing serious damage.
At the start of the second round, Miletich put Denny, to one knee with a right, and as soon as Denny got back up, Miletich hit an overhand right.
Denny went down hard and it was called off after a few hard shots on the ground.
The scene was similar, with a long standing ovation, including fighters like Hughes, Pulver and Jeremy Horn who had been there almost from the start.
"The young guys motivated me all gave me the strength to get through this," said Miletich, who said that before the match, he thought that just getting back into the condition he did satisfied him.
The other top match on the card saw 265-pound heavyweight Ben Rothwell, who had a 14-match win streak ended in one of the year's best heavyweight bouts, a loss to Andrei Arlovski on the first Affliction show, get back on the horse and ride through an overmatched Chris Guillen.
Rothwell, 30-6, sprawled out of a Guillen takedown and got top position delivering punches and elbows. After getting a mount and thinking about doing an armbar, he changed focus, and connected with three hard elbows to the side of the head. Guillen, 13-12, then tapped at 3:40 of round one, and began holding his rib.
The show, promoted by Monte Cox's Adrenaline group, was not only a homecoming regarding the big stars of the Miletich camp, but also of the stars of the Silverbacks themselves as Rothwell, Mike Ciesnolevicz and Ryan McGivern, three of the team's five starts all won in undercard matches.