The UFC Welterweight title will be on the line at UFC 278 when Kamaru Usman takes on Leon Edwards. In recent years, fans and media alike have started to argue whether or not Usman has overtaken George St-Pierre as the greatest 170lb'er in the history of the sport.
Many greats have held the Welterweight strap: Matt Hughes, BJ Penn, Robbie Lawler, Tyron Woodley - the list goes on.
Before there was glitz and glamour tied to the sport, before the appearances in blockbuster movies and on the cover of video games, nobody really cared for Welterweights. In fact, until UFC 17.5, the 170lbs weight class was known as Lightweight. And the fighters who fell within this weight class had no belt to fight for. The UFC was fixated on the middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight divisions as bigger weight classes almost always meant more ticket sales.
The UFC was living through its 'Dark Ages.' Politicians were campaigning against the sport while television executives were struggling for sane reasons as to why they should broadcast Mixed Martial Arts.
And so it's during the UFC's 'Dark Ages' that we meet the future champion of a division that didn't yet exist: Pat Miletich.
Welcome to the UFC
When Miletich joined the UFC, he was already a man. At 30 years old, Miletich already had an MMA record of 18-1-1. For context, most fighters back in the late 90s who were new to the UFC had just a handful of bouts to their name. The sport was still largely in its infancy and getting fights was not an easy task as many states in the US refused to host events.
Miletich hailed from Iowa - a prestigious wrestling state with its roots firmly planted in the world of combat sports. Despite taking his first professional fight at 26 years of age, Miletich ran the gamut of regional promotions in Iowa and managed to fight 20 times in the space of three years. His body would pay the toll for all of that activity a few years later.
In March 1998, Miletich accepted to join the UFC and fight at UFC 16: Battle in the Bayou. The UFC had rarely put on 170lbs fights up until this point but decided that they wanted to throw a one-night tournament for the weight class. There would be no belt on the line but the winner would become a "tournament" champion.
Although Miletich started fighting later in his career, his martial arts experience was practically unrivalled. He wrestled as a kid, boxed as a teenager alongside karate, and then picked up Brazilian jiu-jitsu as an adult. While most fighters were fixated on being specialists, Miletich was carving a career out of putting it all together and mixing the martial arts. This was relatively unheard of in the 90s. The UFC's entire gimmick - and certainly what gave birth to their popularity - was the obsession with styles. Every fight had to be X-style fighter vs X-style fighter. You needed the boxer against the jiu-jitsu specialist or the Greco-Roman wrestler against the karate expert.
A Night to Remember
Miletich's first UFC fight would be against Townsend Saunders in the opening round of the one-night tournament. The graphics alone spoke volumes of Miletich's mixed style. It may baffle today's audiences but simply seeing "strong striker" AND "good overall submission" was extremely rare.
Two years prior to their fight, Saunders had won silver in wrestling at the 1996 Olympics. This is what most of the graphics looked like:
They always focused on the fighter's speciality. Saunders was a wrestler so, of course, only his grappling would be mentioned as a strength.
Miletich was so proficient at blending a host of arts into his style that his strengths would, hilariously, shift per event. One night he was a "Muay Thai specialist" with submission skills, the other he was a "BJJ expert" with boxing combinations. Miletich's style befuddled commentators and captivated the interest of those obsessed with the technical aspect of a sport that was built on sheer savagery.
Saunders had never fought in MMA and would subsequently be taught a lesson by Miletich for 15 long minutes.
Miletich opened the fight with a few feints and double jabs to crowd Saunders and back him up against the fence. Landing a hook off the double jab, Miletich forced a panicked takedown attempt out of Saunders. To the surprise of many, the Olympic wrestler had his takedown stuffed. In the front headlock position, Miletich punished Saunders with knees to the head and body.
Saunders survived the onslaught and managed to end up on top of Miletich - an advantageous position for a wrestler of his calibre. Two elbows to the head and an armbar attempt later, Saunders relinquished top position and returned to his feet. Think of how demoralising it must be for an Olympic wrestler to have a fighter on his back and decide instead to return back to his feet.
In the striking department, Miletich continued to land jab after jab and control Saunders in his world-class clinch game. Knee after knee landed to the body for Miletich as Saunders would, again, shoot for a takedown out of desperation. Outmatched on the feet and surprisingly outmatched on the ground, Saunders would find himself almost caught in the following submissions: two armbars, a Von Flue choke and a triangle. No matter where the fight played out, Miletich had him beat.
The fight continued at a gruelling pace with Miletich grinding Saunders out against the cage or actively elbowing and striking off his back. Although Miletich spent a good portion of the fight on his back, it was contested there because he wanted it to be. Saunders was mounting little offence and routinely getting hit.
Miletich would be awarded the win via the judges' scorecards which secured his position in the final of the tournament.
On the other side of the bracket was Mikey Burnett who knocked out the infamous Eugenio Tadeu in spectacular fashion 9 minutes into their fight. In fact, Miletich was the only fighter in the opening round to not win via finish. Alternates Chris Brennan and LaVerne Clark managed victories via submission and knockout respectively.
Despite Burnett's brilliant outing, he was prevented from fighting in the final due to a broken finger suffered in the fight with Tadeu. In stepped Chris Brennan, known as The Westside Strangler, to face off with Miletich in the final. Brennan submitted Courtney Turner in the very first fight of the night and had far longer to recover than Miletich who had gone a hard 15 minutes just a couple of hours prior.
Despite Brennan being the alternate, it proved to be the perfect finale for the tournament. Despite Brennan only having six fights to his name at the time, he had already fought Miletich twice. The two had history on the regional circuit in Iowa, having fought twice in 1997. The first fight saw the two men fight to a draw after 30 minutes; 3 months later, Miletich would get his hand raised in the rematch. Brennan had his best chance yet at beating Miletich who was likely exhausted and bruised from his fight with Saunders.
Brennan was a BJJ specialist who had competed in Brazil a few times prior to entering the UFC ranks. In addition to that, he had also spent three years training under Royce Gracie. If he had a path to victory against Miletich, it would certainly be on the ground.
Miletich started the fight with a couple of front kicks, a head kick and a couple of calf kicks. Perhaps knowing that he was the only fighter in the tournament who had not finished his opponent in the opening round made him want to open up on the feet. Brennan had other ideas, though, immediately tackling Miletich to the ground and attempting to submit him with a guillotine.
Miletich survived the submission attempt, ended up on top and started to land strike after strike. He was comfortable in Brennan's guard and proceeded to dominate the fight for minutes on end. Despite being on his back, Brennan was neutralised by Miletich's pressure. With a handful of minutes left in the fight, Miletich angled his shoulder into Brennan's neck and began to drive his weight into the choke. Seconds later, Brennan had tapped and Miletich was the tournament winner. It was a crafty and unusual submission from Miletich but, with it, he became the first person to submit Brennan (he would only be submitted two more times in his entire 36-fight professional career).
Not only had Miletich won the 170lbs one-night tournament, but both his performances were so dominant that the UFC had no choice but to create a belt for the division. Miletich would be one half of the first ever title match, opposite Burnett - his original opponent in the final of the tournament.
Seven months after submitting Brennan, Miletich was back in the UFC and fighting abroad for the first time in his career. UFC 17.5: Ultimate Brazil would also mark the first time that the organisation stepped foot in Brazil.
Despite there being seven months in between UFC fights for Miletich, that didn't mean that he wasn't competing. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the UFC didn't have the money or power to block their fighters from competing in other organisations. Shortly after winning the one-night tournament, Miletich returned to Iowa and competed twice in two months. He defeated Al Buck Jr. by submission in June before fighting to a draw in August against MMA legend Dan Severn.
It was now October 1998 and Miletich was primed for the biggest moment in his career, sharing a card with a star-studded cast that included: Frank Shamrock, Tank Abbott, Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva, Pedro Rizzo, Tsuyoshi Kosaka and Jeremy Horn.
Burnett hadn't fought since he knocked out Tadeu but significant hype had built around the 4-1 fighter for his knockout power. For those who had been excited for the Burnett and Miletich showdown at the one-night tournament, this was the perfect fight. And there was an actual belt on the line for the first time ever in the weight class.
Miletich is announced by Bruce Buffer as a "freestyle jiu-jitsu expert" - a few months prior, he had been a "Muay Thai and submission specialist." This was a testament to Miletich's blending of styles. Nobody could quite put a finger on what it was that he was doing, and how he was managing to mix things together. Every time he fought, he was suddenly a different fighter.
Miletich started the fight in a dominant fashion, landing a few calf kicks and immediately bullying Burnett up against the cage with knees and punches to the body. When they eventually disengaged, Miletich landed a jab and roundhouse to the body. He was investing in shots to the body early in an attempt to wilt Burnett down.
Unable to get a footing in the fight, Burnett was able to take Miletich down. He was unable to mount much offence against Miletich who had a dangerous guard and was constantly active off his back with strikes and submissions. Eventually, Burnett opted to return to his feet.
Although the fight lasted 15 minutes + 2x3 minutes of overtime, it was far from eventful. The majority of the fight was contested up against the fence with Miletich and Burnett pulling each others' shorts to gain leverage for knees to the body. It was a gruelling, ugly and tepid fight where Miletich respected the power of Burnett a little too much and opted to nullify his game instead.
Miletich's best trait as a fighter was that he excelled in negating everything that you were good at. It made for some generally uneventful fights but it also made him appealing to the purists - those interested in the technical side of the sport as opposed to sloppy brawls.
Burnett certainly gave as good as he got and, despite getting outworked for a large portion of the fight, looked better toward the end and dominated the overtime rounds. As the final horn sounded, the arena in brazil was filled with boos and whistles. It was one of only two fights to go to a decision on the night and fans were not best pleased.
Miletich was awarded the win on the scorecards via split decision, a result that is still contested today as one that should have gone to Burnett - this seems to stem from the fact that Burnett dominated the latter portions of the fight but neglects all of Miletich's work for a larger bulk of the 15-minute round.
Either way, Miletich was now a mighty 21-1 and made history as the first-ever 170lbs champion in the UFC.
Defending the Throne
Less than three months after winning the belt, Miletich was back in action under the UFC banner and eager to defend his throne for the first time. It was the first event of 1999 and Miletich was tasked with being the headliner for the first time in his UFC career.
His opponent was 26-year-old Jorge Patino, a three-time Vale Tudo champion in Brazil with a record of 18-3 with 15 finishes by way of submission or ground and pound. He was by far the most experienced fighter that Miletich had encountered in the UFC. On top of that, Patino was a southpaw - a stance Miletich had rarely seen in his storied 23-fight career.
As Miletich walked out, Mike Goldberg proclaimed:
"The Croation Sensation, discplined in so many categories that it would take too long to list them."
Bruce Buffer announced Miletich now as a "jiu-jitsu expert and mixed martial artist." It was incredibly rare that any fighter would be dubbed a mixed martial artist despite it being the sport that they're competing in. Miletich was slowly beginning to open the eyes of those in the West that it's possible to blend styles effectively and win.
Miletich opened the fight as he usually did, leaning on his boxing combinations to tag Patino a few times and press him up against the fence. In the clinch, Miletich dominated with knees and punches, controlling Patino with ease. The Brazilian decides to pull guard but Miletich, wise to the grappling skills of his opponent, walked away to get the fight restarted on the feet.
Within five minutes of this 21-minute bout, it was clear that Patino was entirely out of ideas and woefully outmatched in all facets of the fight. Miletich was faster to every single punch, jabbing to the body and head while mixing kicks to the lead leg of Patino. The Brazilian's southpaw stance did little to stifle Miletich's game or give him any pause on the feet.
Back in the clinch, Miletich landed more knees and punches to the body of Patino. When exiting the clinch, Patino raised his hands to cover his head and Miletich punished him with a crush roundhouse kick to the body that forced a panicked takedown attempt. Rolling for a heel hook, Miletich escaped with ease and gave Patino a shake of the head.
His whole career, Miletich was averse to flashiness. He wasn't the hardest hitter or the slickest grappler, he rarely threw a spinning attack or pulled guard. His blue-collar approach to fighting produced workmanlike performances whereby he mainly outworked and out-thought his opponents. Miletich was a technician, unlike many others during that period. In a time when fans just wanted to see sheer violence in the cage, it took them a while to warm to Miletich's measured approach to fighting.
14 minutes into the fight, a desperate Patino finally gets his takedown but Miletich scrambles his way to a front headlock position and rains down punches and knees.
The remaining seven minutes of the fight saw Miletich continuously punish Patino for lazy takedown attempts. At one point during the overtime rounds, Miletich ducked under a lazy right hook from Patino and slammed him on his back. He sat in the guard of one of the most prolific finishers he had ever faced and rendered him totally ineffective.
As the fight ended, the arena was once again filled with boos. There had been no finish and Miletich had cruised to victory. He was now 22-1 with a title defence to his name.
Pat the Entertainer
In true Miletich fashion, less than three weeks after defending his belt, he was back fighting. This time, however, it wasn't MMA. Miletich took a professional boxing fight on short notice and won. Two weeks after that, he was back in the cage. It wasn't the UFC he was fighting for, however. Miletich got the call to headline a Superbrawl card in Hawaii and accepted. His 9-fight win streak would come to an end as he suffered only the second loss of his career to Japanese veteran Jutaro Nakao.
Losing to Nakao made Miletich realise that it wasn't the scariest and worst feeling in the world. He had been fighting cautiously in previous fights because he was afraid of exerting himself too much and losing. He would mention as much in the excellent Blood in the Cage written by L. Jon Wertheim.
"I had lost before but after losing to Nakao, it made me realise that I only lost because I didn't knock him out when I had the chance. Just because I'm the champion of the UFC doesn't mean I can't go out there and put a hurting on people.
Miletich got back to winning ways on the regional scene in Iowa, submitting Clayton Miller 40 seconds into the first round. Miletich returned to the UFC July of 1999 at UFC 21 in order to defend his belt for a second time. It would be a special night for Miletich who not only headlined yet another UFC card, but did so in his home state of Iowa - the first time the promotion had ever stepped foot in the state.
In front of his home crowd, Miletich outboxed and outstruck Andre Pederneiras - a relative newcomer to the sport who had gained notoriety for beating one of the best fighters in Japan in Rumina Sato. Pederneiras is now commonly known as the coach of José Aldo and former coach of BJ Penn and Renan Barao. He never claimed a belt as a mixed martial artist but certainly saw his fair share of gold as a coach.
After a dominant first round, Miletich continued pouring the pressure on Pederneiras and landed a sharp right cross that rocked the Brazilian and immediately opened a nasty cut above his eye. Miletich's timing and speed was terrifying as his right cross was thrown to counter a lazy calf kick from Pederneiras. Seconds later, referee John McCarthy waved off the fight due to the blood pouring into Pederneiras' eye.
It was an underwhelming way for the fight to end but Miletich had shown an instinct to finish the fight and claimed his first stoppage as a champion. The home crowd went wild for Miletich, a stark contrast to all of the booing he was subject to in his prior title fights. Miletich was starting to cement himself as one of the best fighters in the organisation.
At the turn of the century at UFC 26, Miletich went for title defence number three. The UFC enjoyed the first time in Iowa so much that they decided to return for this event. Although Miletich wouldn't headline this time around, he garnered the biggest reaction from the crowd and put on the most entertaining performance on the card.
At just 20 years of age, Canadian John Alessio was the youngest fighter to ever compete for a title in the UFC. The submission ace was 7-3 and already had fought in Pancrase and Superbrawl to boot. Miletich showed him no mercy.
The aggression that Miletich had shown in the Pederneiras fight had not been a one-off. His mentality had shifted and it was never going to revert back. He was still an intelligent and measured fighter but there was no more stalling against the fence or on the ground. Every action was made with the intent to finish the fight.
In the opening round, Miletich landed his patented left hook with the first strike of the fight. Alessio immediately looked to grapple and Miletich concurred, taking the 20-year-old down and landing strikes to the head and body with ease. Alessio attempted a guillotine choke but Miletich moved into side guard to escape and punished the Canadian with short elbows. Alessio was billed as a BJJ specialist but Miletich negated any threat he posed off his back.
In the second round, Miletich landed two overhand rights that startled Alessio and allowed Miletich to shoot in on him and initiate a huge slam takedown. Miletich transitioned effortlessly from half guard into mount, landed a flurry of strikes, isolated Alessio's arm and cranked on it. Title defence number three.
Redemption in Japan
After defending his belt for a third time, Miletich didn't rest on his laurels. A month and a half later, he flew to Japan for the very first time and competed in the prestigious promotion Rings. Such was the appeal of Miletich's name and style that he headlined the card against veteran Kiyoshi Tamura.
Miletich fought well against Tamura, both fighters grappling and scrambling extensively. Tamura's size clearly troubled Miletich as Tamura was a natural Middleweight and both men had agreed to fight at 200lbs. In the end, Tamura was awarded a majority decision as one of the judges scored the fight a draw. Miletich had lost in his first appearance in Japan.
4 months later, on the cusp of a new year, Miletich returned to the UFC for another title defence. To Miletich's surprise, the event would be held in Tokyo - a chance for the champion to put on a show in front of a Japanese crowd and right his wrongs from the Tamura fight.
Kenichi Yamamoto would be Miletich's dance partner for his 4th title defence. The Japanese Welterweight didn't have the most impressive record but he earned his shot at UFC gold by winning a one-night tournament at UFC 23 the year prior.
The fight would be far from competitive as Yamamoto was insistent on trying to take Miletich down despite not setting up his shots. Every telegraphed takedown was stuffed by Miletich and punished with knees to the head on the ground.
Yamamoto was visibly uncomfortable on the feet, fighting out of a bizarre karate stance that allowed Miletich to beat up his leg and body with an onslaught of kicks. In the second round, Miletich delivered a calf kick that drew a grimace out of Yamamoto's face and forced the Japanese fighter to begin to hobble. Miletich worked his way into a collar-tie position in the clinch and dropped Yamamoto with a crushing left hook. Following the Japanese fighter to the ground, Miletich expertly cinched up his neck for a guillotine choke.
Yamamoto tapped early into the second round. Miletich had recorded title defence number four and found redemption in Japan. Not only had he won title fights in the US, he had now won them in Brazil and Japan too. Miletich was unequivocally one of the very best fighters in the world.
The Final Years
Miletich took six months out to recover from some niggling injuries - it was one of the bigger lulls in his career without a single fight. At 33 years of age, his body started to catch up with the mass amount of activity and trauma.
Still, the show had to go on. At UFC 31, Miletich was tasked with defending his title for a fifth time against Canadian Carlos Newton - a veteran of the Pride FC ring making his UFC debut.
The fight was competitive through three rounds and Miletich had certainly met his match in the grappling department. Newton was strong in the clinch and on the ground. Miletich's aggression had turned him into a fan favourite with three finishes in a row in title matches but it was inarguably his downfall too.
Instead of using his technique to escape from underneath Newton in a grappling exchange, Miletich tried to explode off his knees and found himself caught in a choke. Carlos Newton squeezed until Miletich could sustain the submission no longer and tapped. Anguilla and Canada had their first ever UFC champion - and Newton became the first fighter to win via bulldog choke.
Miletich had fought flawlessly in his entire UFC run but all it took was one momentary lapse in concentration - a move fuelled out of aggression and a desire to keep the pace of the fight entertaining - for the belt to change hands.
Injuries would continue to plague Miletich's career and after two more fights in the UFC - a knockout win over Shonie Carter and a loss to Matt Lindland - Miletich called it quits and retired from the sport.
As a coach, Miletich continued to experience UFC gold, however. His protege Matt Hughes would go on to beat Newton for that very same belt a year later and become, in his own right, one of the all-time great fighters in UFC history. Jens Pulver and Tim Sylvia would also win belts in the UFC with Miletich in their corner.
He may not have been the first fighter to mix his martial arts, but he was certainly the first to do so effectively and win titles along the way. He set the blueprint for what the sport would later become as fighters continue to stray away from being specialists and focus instead on being well-rounded.
Miletich never saw big money like Kamaru Usman or reigned supreme for years like GSP, but no other fighter can ever say they were the first UFC Welterweight champion. Without Miletich's early successes, who knows if we ever even see the UFC persist with a 170lbs weight class? He paved the way for future Welterweights in the US. An undeniable pioneer of the sport.