EDITORIAL | In Depth: The Dynamic past of Amateur MMA part 1
Amateur MMA is the hottest it has ever been. Fighters young and old are stepping in to the cage to test themselves every weekend in front of hundreds of people. Blood work, ringside physicians, sanctioning, and the regulation of events have become the standard for most, if not all events today. It wasn’t always this organized though. Before athletic commissions started paying attention to amateurs – it was a free for all.
Before the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, MMA was still seen as cockfighting in most states, and a lot of promoters treated it as such. Most fighters didn’t have the luxury of someone looking out for their safety in the cage. After a fighter was knocked out or choked unconscious you would often see the family bust in and tend to the fallen fighter risking serious injury by moving them around, or standing them up too early. If someone was seriously hurt you had to wait for an ambulance in most cases. I was at one of these events myself and it took an hour for the ambulance to get there. By that time the promoter himself had sometimes medically cleared the previously unconscious fighter to leave. It was a very dangerous time to be a fighter.
Fighters who had absolutely no training would fancy themselves capable of fighting someone who had been training a discipline or two regularly. Climbing in the cage in anything from bicycle to basketball shorts they would swing for the fences. This usually ended badly for the brawler who a lot of times just accepted the fight – that night. There were times that gloves were not required and it got messy.
Fighters did somehow manage to survive, and in cases like Dale Miller – thrive. Miller started fighting in the mid to late 90’s. He would travel as far as Florida to seek out what was then called “Ultimate Fighting”. There weren’t social media outlets like there were today to get the word out about the events. It was all word of mouth and according to Dale you had to be selective in who you got your info from.
“I would show up to events and they would sometimes misleadingly be called “Toughman”, or full contact karate events so as not to attract attention from people who wanted MMA banned”, Miller said.
Sometimes the setting wasn’t the most ideal to say the least.
“The events would have MMA rules but be in boxing rings. If I was lucky sometimes a facsimile of a cage. I fought in a five sided cage put together at the local hardware place. I am not kidding you a five sided cage. Have you ever fought in a five sided cage. If you have you feel my pain. There were no medals or belts at first until the promoters started figuring out that they could bring more fighters in that way. Once that happened it was like they were legitimized overnight. I was traveling as far south as Florida just to get to a reputable promotion”.
After winning a triple crown of traditional martial arts world championships in karate Dale started working his ground game, put on the 4 ounce gloves, and started competing in MMA. A lot of the events still had single elimination, ladder style tournaments when he started. Dale fought 4 times in one night, which was not uncommon back then. The winner would be awarded a large trophy or in bigger events -like Miller competed in – they would be crowned champion with a nice shiny belt. In his time fighting, Dale achieved the often elusive title of world champion.
“It was very hard back then. If a promoter had a fight drop out you could be fighting a heavyweight. I was fighting middleweight back then. On the other hand I could have been paired up with a lightweight. You never knew. I fought hard for those belts against some of the best amateur fighters of the time”.
Fake records were easy to amass back then because there were no checks and balances, records were not recorded for amateurs, and in some cases pros. There was no YouTube or media recording the events in most cases at that time.
“There are guys popping up everywhere now who claim ridiculous records like 39-0 or whatever from that time. When they are asked about where they fought they say the forgot or something. Look, if you were 39-0 I guaran-damn-tee you someone would have heard of you from each state. I had a record of 18-2 and guys knew about me in the states I fought. You could be a real bad ass back then without even stepping in to the cage. It was even worse when promoters booked fights off guys who inflated their record. Those guys were getting hurt and what not. It was a rough period for MMA.”.
The pitfalls of amateur fighting were not without rewards. Dale made the jump from MMA to films when he retired from fighting.
“Back then you could retire as an amateur. Becoming a pro just wasn’t worth it. You drive a few hundred miles and the guy wouldn’t even show. That was the worst. I got injured and decided it wasn’t worth it to continue. I got in to films. My most recent was a Lionsgate film Bad Blood: The Hatfields and McCoys. It was because of MMA that I was able to do this. I was a special guest at events and stuff so I got my name out there a little. Back then amateur belts meant a lot I think. Now they are everywhere. I’m proud of what I have done regardless of whether it is ammy or pro”.
The one fight that Dale participated in after amateur fights began being recorded was a loss. Looking back now Miller finds humor in it.
“I realized that the older you get the more injuries you get”, Miller joked. “I had retired and was making my comeback since MMA was becoming mainstream. I trained hard and went in to the fight thinking my shoulder was okay. I got hurt in training and continued to train anyways. I didn’t want to bow out you know. I had a ton of people coming to watch me fight. I acted like it didn’t hurt at all, and like an idiot I got in the cage and hurt it worse. It’s my fault. It’s a shame that this fight was the only officially recorded fight of mine. It is what it is, and that’s the way it was back then”.
Dale is an inductee of the Action Martial Arts Hall of Fame. He is a triple crown karate world champion and a former MMA champion.
(End Part 1)