PLYMOUTH — A mixed martial arts cage is hardly the place most people would describe as “an oasis”.
Being locked in a roughly 20-foot space with someone who wants to either beat or choke you unconscious or else wrench your joints out of socket hardly seems to fit the definition.
Nevertheless, that’s exactly how 19-year-old Plymouth native Ricky Miller described entering the cage for the first time, a 170-pound bout at the Century Center in South Bend December 11.
“This was my first fight, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Miller. “It was coming up to the fight, I was getting more anxious, and I was the second fight of the night and the first fight just went by so fast. I remember coming out at the Century Center in the Colosseum Room, and all the seats are up and everybody is looking down. When you’re coming out you can hear everyone, and you’re just pumped. When they called my name, right when I walked out I just felt amazing in there. It was my own little get-away when I walked into that cage. It was my own little oasis.”
Miller went on to win the fight in less than a minute via head and arm choke, an experience that left him hungry for more, he said.
“It happened so fast. I felt so awesome, I was beating my chest, and what’s weird is I just kind of stood in the cage. When the fight was over, my trainer said, ‘Ricky, get out of the cage, what are you doing?’” Miller chuckled. “I wasn’t tired, no heavy breathing at all. I just wanted to keep going. I felt like I could fight again.”
Miller will get his chance this Saturday as he fights once more at the Century Center, this time in the 180-pound class in an event called the Michiana Fight League SuperBrawl Bash.
For the few people left on the planet who haven’t yet heard of the sport of mixed martial arts, its a fighting sport that traces its roots to the ancient Olympic sport of Pankration, blending numerous striking arts such as western-style boxing and muy thai kickboxing with grappling arts like wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. MMA came into existence in 1993 contemporaneous with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, originally an eight-man tournament showcasing fighters of various styles to resolve the hypothetical question of which fighting style is the best.
Since Dana White and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta took over the UFC in 2001 from founders Art Davie and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pioneering Gracie family the UFC has undergone numerous developments, and with the company’s television deal with Spike TV in 2005, it has become a household name and the biggest in an ever-growing array of MMA promotions companies around the world, broadcast in over 130 countries and in 20 different languages worldwide. Fighters now train in a variety of styles rather than just one and weight classes and the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have been instituted to keep the sport safe and competitive.
Just three years ago, Miller had no idea what mixed martial arts was. Through the invitation of a friend to a makeshift fight gym in Plymouth, the former Plymouth High School wrestler became fascinated with it, eventually making the move with trainer Travis Smith of Knox to the Bulldog Fight Team in Osceola run by pro light heavyweight and UFC veteran Todd “Bulldog” Brown.
“I had a buddy one day say, ‘Hey, you want to go to a wrestling mat?’ and I said sure,” Miller said. “It was kind of in the back of Plymouth, a torn down, weird-looking place. I go in the back of this building and one half is a workout area and in the other half there are the mats. I’d go in there while everybody was training and practicing and hit the bags or whatever. They were doing MMA, and at the time I had no idea what it was.
“Over those two years I got into it... but I had not fought for two years because I didn’t have the stand-up, and the gym kept changing — new people came in and out,” he continued. “Not many people stayed with it like I did and a couple of the other people from my gym. Then recently, about not even a half-year ago, my trainer had us stop training at his gym and we started going up to a real official gym called Bulldog Fight Team in Osceola, which we drive up to religiously, and that’s where I really got my skills.”
For Miller, the transformation from a high school wrestler to a 1-0 cage fighter has been dramatic. He attends training five days a week at his Osceola gym, where fighters drill muy thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu throughout the week and MMA on the weekends, and after never having heard of the sport less than three years ago, he says he now can’t imagine life without it.
“When I was 16 I was a wrestler and I really didn’t have anything else,” he said. “With wrestling there was just wrestling... with MMA you’ve got stand-up, wall, takedowns, slamming and everything in between. I wanted to explore that and get more versatile. I wanted to learn all about the sport. Even if I get to the highest level, there’s still more to learn. It’s non-stop; the game changes so much.
“The sport just amazes me. Everybody asks why I do this. Me, I just love the sport. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what else I would have.”
Miller hopes to stay active in the sport and eventually to go pro one day, not for love of fame but for the love of the sport.
“I want to go pro. I want to get big one day. It’s not for the fame, it’s just to become better,” he said. “I want to achieve the highest level that I can and be the best at this sport. That’s a long way from now, but I don’t see myself falling astray from this sport because I’m so into it.”
His next stop is Saturday as he fights at 180 pounds at the Michiana Fight League SuperBrawl Bash Saturday at the Century Center in South Bend. Tickets start at $20, and parking is $5. Doors open at 4 p.m. with fighting scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Call 574-968-4181 or go to www.mflmma.com  for details.