Jim Miller is poised to make the walk again on Saturday, squaring off with UFC newcomer Erick Gonzalez in a main card matchup that will once again elevate the veteran lightweight into sole possession of first place on the “Most UFC Appearances” list with 38, one ahead of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
It will also be the 50th professional fight in the career of the man more frequently referred to by his “full fight name” — Jim F****** Miller — a moniker bestowed on him by former UFC matchmaker Joe Silva out of respect for how quickly and enthusiastically the New Jersey native accepted each assignment put in front of him.
“I never planned it out; that’s never been my thing,” the 38-year-old said with a laugh. “I’m focused on what’s right in front of me, not what’s down the line, to my detriment.
“I never thought about getting to 50 fights. I remember when I was coming up and had a handful of fights and there are these guys that were beyond 50 and it was crazy — the Jeremy Horns and guys like that. It was never part of the plan.
“The crazy thing is that when I get to 40 in the UFC, that will be my 52nd fight, so that’s a year’s worth of fight weeks, a year’s worth of cutting weight,” added Miller, one of two competitors, along with Brock Lesnar, to compete at both UFC 100 and UFC 200. “It’s pretty crazy when you think of it like that.
“It’s a year of my life in Fight Week, getting ready for a fight. One of my coaches put it like that the other day and I was like, ‘Holy s***! That’s crazy!’”
I had the same reaction when Miller framed it that way to me during our call as he did when his coach lined it up for him earlier, and while it’s the kind of thing that gives you a very different perspective on how much these athletes give of themselves to this sport, it’s also one of those things that just feels like it makes sense knowing the career trajectory and gritty resolve of the tenured lightweight.
It makes sense that he’s spent nearly a full year in hotels across the United States, with the odd trip to England, Canada or Brazil mixed in along the way, sweating out the final few pounds, making the lightweight limit (he’s never missed weight), and giving everything he can muster once he steps into the Octagon because this is a guy who fought Benson Henderson while battling mononucleosis when they were both on the brink of challenging for championship gold.
Bonus Résumé: Jim Miller
Bonus Résumé: Jim Miller
Henderson got the win and eventually fought for and won the UFC lightweight title; Miller got knocked back a place or two in the rankings and a kidney infection.
It makes sense because as he’s fond of saying, “There is a difference between ‘fighting professionally’ and being a ‘professional fighter,’” and Miller is the walking embodiment of the latter.
“I’m a fighter, so my job is to fight,” he said when asked about this latest foray into the Octagon. “The names that come across, through email, it doesn’t really matter to me; it never has. There are other fighters that take another approach and really want to pick their fights and stuff like that, but I feel the body of work that I have behind me shows that I’m game and I’ll fight anybody, and for the vast majority of them, it’s a fight that you want to see.
“I’ve never really cared about whom I’m stepping into the Octagon with,” Miller added. “It’s a fight — it’s an opportunity to show off my skill set, and it’s another dangerous guy; they all get me excited.”
But when you’re 38 years old, the positive results are harder to come by, especially when you’re competing in one of the most talent-rich divisions in the sport and maintaining a pretty impressive strength of schedule.
Miller enters Saturday’s pairing with Gonzalez on a two-fight skid and having split his last six fights, matching victories over Jason Gonzalez, Clay Guida, and Roosevelt Roberts with decision losses to Scott Holtzman, Vinc Pichel, and Joe Solecki.
“It’s like Indiana Jones said, ‘It’s not the years; it’s the miles,’” he said with a laugh, explaining the challenges of readying to compete when you’re closer to 40 than you are to 30. “I’ve been feeling it and now it’s trying to figure out the best ways to do it and continue to be sharp when I get in there.
“I’m trying to figure out how to train the way that I need to as a 38-year-old that has 50 professional fights because it’s different than a 25-year-old with half as many. It’s another nut to crack.
“I can’t go head-on and try to solve the problems the way I used to, by saying, ‘F*** it — train harder!’” he added, a chuckle chasing his words. “It’s about being smart, getting in good reps, and having a really good core of guys around me, and I have that.
“I think I’ve got everything that I need to get my last few fights in and do it in a way that I’m satisfied with.”
As much as he still loves to compete and enjoys getting in the gym to train, Miller can see the end of the road off in the distance, and has thought about making that one final walk many times.
“I was almost there in 2016 when I was training and getting ready for UFC 196,” admitted Miller. “It was like, ‘I’m going to ask to be on UFC 200 and that’s going to be it.’”
At the time, Miller was stuck in a rough patch. He lost to fellow veteran Diego Sanchez at UFC 196, dropping him to 1-4 over his previous five fights, and felt like his time was up, as he couldn’t train with the intensity, pace, and push that had defined his approach in the Octagon as he constantly felt run down and beat up.
He chalked it up to the impact of an 11-year career. It turned out he been bitten by a tick several years earlier and contracted Lyme disease, which, left undiagnosed, wreaked havoc on his body.
He rebounded with a win over Japanese legend Takanori Gomi to kick off UFC 200 and a three-fight winning streak, and has remained omnipresent in the lightweight division and the Octagon ever since, racking up two or three appearances each year, something he’s done each of the 14 years and counting that he’s been on the UFC roster.
But even with the finish line on the horizon, Miller isn’t quite ready to call it quits just yet.
“I want to know going into it and it’s going to have to be one that’s in front of fans, too,” said the highly respected veteran. “It’s a moment in time that I’m excited for because it means something new after that. There will definitely be closure.
“I’ve thought about ‘I’ll know, but I won’t tell anybody,’ but naw — f*** that! We’re going to party all the way to it. Give me my Harley Davidson!”
For now, he still wants to make that walk a couple times a year.
He wants that 40th UFC appearance. He wants to keep challenging himself in the gym and in the Octagon. He wants to still be a professional fighter and not become “someone that used to fight professionally.”
“Experience is a weapon and it’s something you can use to save yourself a bit too,” the sage veteran said, discussing the differences between past and present training camps. “When I was younger and coming up, I’d have a bad day once a camp. Once every three months or so, you’d have a day where things weren’t clicking, and there are a lot more of those days nowadays, but even back then, it was always about how you deal with it.
“I’ve trained with a lot of really talented guys that would have that bad day and let it get to them, and it would lead into another one, and another one. There are guys that had the potential to make it further into the sport than they did simply because they couldn’t handle that stuff.
“It’s a lot easier for me to say, ‘Today we’re not firing on all cylinders, so we’re going to take a step back,’” continued Miller. “I can say, ‘I’m only going to do this many rounds, as opposed to that many rounds.’ There’s no ego yelling at me to do more, and that comes with experience.
“There are more bad days scattered throughout camp now, but on those good days? I would f*** up me from 10 years ago!”
More than anything, that’s what continues to pull him back to the gym, back through another training camp, and back into the Octagon once more.
“Lyme disease stole my athleticism. It stole my ability to train to my strengths, which was my f***ing go — it was gas pedal and that’s it; no brakes — and I wasn’t able to do that for a few years. But throughout that entire time, I’ve been making gains in my technical abilities, and I’m a more dangerous fighter today than I was 10 years ago, from a technical aspect.”
He paused, collecting the right words.
“I know I can still go.”