With impressive performances in his first two outings, Miller made it clear he was where he belonged. For his third bout, the UFC pitted Miller against fellow up-and-comer Gray Maynard, and rather than impose his will as Miller typically had done up to this point, he found himself on the business side of a unanimous decision defeat – his first loss in three years.
“I made some mistakes leading into the fight,” Miller said. “It was a big step up, and Gray is a very talented fighter. He really had my number that night and it just made me realize I have to train a bit smarter. There were some things we changed in the last couple weeks leading up to the fight that, looking back, were mistakes. I learned you don’t make those types of drastic changes with only three or four weeks leading up to the fight. Since then, I’ve learned how to train smarter – and it’s a mistake that I haven’t made since and vow to never make again.”
Where defeat has the power to derail some athletes, the loss ignited a fire inside of Miller. Over the next few years, Miller steamrolled his way through seven consecutive opponents. It didn’t matter whether the fight was on short notice or if the matchups didn’t make sense rankings wise. The only thing Miller wanted to do was fight, and he did so with near flawless results.
“I definitely felt things beginning to click over the course of that run,” Miller said. “I was fighting tough guys and coming out on top. It was doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to fight the best and stay active, and that’s exactly what I was doing. During that stage, I was fighting a lot. I was easily the most active fighter on the roster during that time frame. It was a lot of fun.”
Constanino also shared his thoughts on the streak Miller had put together.
“The thing that happened was he lost the fight beforehand,” Constantino said. “He went 2-0, lost to Gray Maynard, and after he lost to Gray he went on that crazy streak. One thing Jimmy does not like to do is lose. We switched a few things up in training, put more attention into different areas and the product of it was an amazing run.”
Despite Miller’s ability to knock off the opposition in impressive fashion, there was little attention coming his way. As Frankie Edgar and Maynard began to climb toward the top of the division, it seemed as if Miller’s work was largely being overlooked by the powers that be in the UFC. Regardless, Miller continued to stay focused on the road ahead and refused to alter his approach – believing his work inside the Octagon would eventually shine through.
“I think I flew under the radar because I’m a bit quiet and I just come in and fight,” Miller said. “It’s just who I am and I don’t like the idea of changing who I am to please people. I don’t like giving that impression to other people. In life you should just be yourself and be happy with it. If someone might not like you for who you are, then they don’t mean anything and you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s the kind of attitude I’ve always had. If someone isn’t interested in me because of the person I am, then it doesn’t matter.
“Really as a fighter, the only thing that matters is what happens inside the Octagon. I’ve had the respect of other fighters for a while now, and that is what matters to me. That is what means something to me, and these guys are the experts and the ones stepping in there and fighting, making the same sacrifices I make – and they were holding me in high regard. That made me know I was still doing it right, even though I wasn’t in the headlines every week. I still knew I was doing it right and doing it the way I should be doing it. Now it’s kind of funny because people want to know who Jim Miller is. It’s really funny the way things have kind of panned out.”
As his manager and trainer, Constantino watched as one of his prized pupils answered every challenge thrown his way. Where other fighters in the division appeared to gather acclaim with every victory, Miller continued to remain a step or two away from becoming a major draw and failed to grab the recognition from MMA fans and media alike.
“The funny thing is that we are always used to being the underdog,” Constantino said. “It doesn’t matter who Jim fights – the media and the fans never seem to give him his proper due. Even if you look back to that Charles Oliviera fight, here was Jim in the middle of this amazing run, and the talk was on Oliviera. The kid was a purple belt, Jim was a black belt, and Jim was an underdog going into that fight. There were a lot of factors that went into that, and the Oliviera fight really started to open peoples’ eyes when he came in and submitted Oliviera quickly. Then he put a few more wins together after and then we ran into the Ben (Henderson) fight. Since then, we’ve refocused our training, submitted Melvin (Guillard) in the first round, and we are really looking for the same results in this fight against (Nate) Diaz.”
With seven consecutive victories under his belt and talk of a long-awaited title shot hovering, Miller squared off with former WEC lightweight champion Henderson in Milwaukee. From the onset of the bout, Miller appeared to be at a disadvantage as Henderson’s size and durability overwhelmed him in every round. When the final bell sounded, Henderson had the unanimous decision victory and Miller’s streak had come to an end.
“The Ben fight was a weird one,” Miller said. “It was the first time, immediately after the fight, where I came into the back and was actually satisfied with it because I was completely spent. I had no energy left. I ended up throwing up in the back because I was so exhausted and then I had to go to the hospital to get a CT scan because I threw up. I knew why I vomited and was content with the effort I put in.
“A day and a half later, I found out I was sick and everything started coming out. I was hard on myself because I should’ve known. I should’ve known something was wrong. I should’ve been smarter because I’m a professional, and this is my job. I should have caught it and was upset with myself that I didn’t pay enough attention to my body to recognize what was going on. I made the changes I needed to make. I train a lot smarter than I did then and I feel great because of it. I feel refreshed, eager to get in to train and I’m doing a better job of learning and evolving as a fighter.”
Where some fighters allow a loss to get under their skin and push them into reevaluating everything about their training and preparation, Miller found it best to jump right back into action. Rather than take a lesser name to rebuild his confidence, he sought out the one fighter no one wanted to face in Guillard. The two fighters collided in Nashville as the main event of the first UFC on FX event, and staring down the barrel of one of the division’s most powerful strikers had Miller amped up to find out what he was made of.
“I was excited to fight Melvin,” Miller said. “I was excited to fight a top guy, and he was right up there with me when I was on my run. We were both knocking on the door of a title shot and the title picture just got jammed up. He was one of those guys who were in limbo waiting, and what happened to Melvin happened to me. He had a bad night against a tough opponent and you can only fight so many times before you lose one. It happens to everybody. I knew going in Melvin was still a top guy, and I also knew no one else wanted to fight him.
“That excited me and made it a fight that I wanted. More importantly, it was a win that I wanted. I got into fighting to compete against the best and like I said before, I wanted to fight BJ Penn after my third fight. I wanted to see how I would fare against the top guys in the world. Melvin is one of the top guys in the world, and I was excited to get the chance.”
The first-round submission victory over Guillard launched Miller back toward the top of the heap in the competitive lightweight division. Where the weight class was previously jammed up with the Edgar vs. Maynard title fiasco, the ladder was now clear for Miller to make his climb. As he reclaimed his position as a contender in waiting, another fighter on the rise in former TUF winner Diaz was also making waves – and the UFC fittingly paired them up as the main event for Saturday’s UFC on Fox card in Miller’s home state of New Jersey.
“I feel great about the matchup,” Miller said. “He’s a tough guy, and it’s another situation where I’m excited to get in there and fight him. He is a dangerous opponent, tough for anybody in this weight class, and I’m fired up just to step into the Octagon against him. With being at the top of the division, I’m not going anywhere. I know what I’m capable of and I know when I’m at my best I can not only beat these top guys, but put them away. This is where I belong, and I’m looking to fight these top guys and get the toughest fights I can.”
“I see wrestling being one advantage. I’m comfortable anywhere, and that seems to have been the downfall for some of these guys – that they are tentative to go to the ground with him. They are not fighting as complete fighters. I fight with reckless abandon, too, and while the ground is a dangerous place to be with Diaz, as long as I’m being the aggressor then I’ll get after him and beat him up.
“I’m comfortable with my striking and have come a long way over the past year. I really haven’t had that much of an opportunity to show it with these past couple of fights, but I’m comfortable on my feet. On the mat, I’ll roll around with anybody in the world. I plan on using my wrestling. It’s definitely a weapon I have, and it is something he has fallen victim to in the past. But I’m going to use a lot more tools, as well. I have a whole toolbox full of them and plan on breaking them all out for this fight.”
For a fighter who has managed to keep his personal life and professional life separate, the days of Miller getting by in the shadows may be coming to an end. A victory over Diaz likely would result in a long-awaited title shot, which will put a long-pursued goal within reach. But even then, what truly matters to Miller isn’t a title belt, it is being remembered as a man who gave his very best each and every time out.
“What’s really important is the attitude I approach it with,” Miller said. “Being a champion is for me. That is what I want to do. That’s what I know I’m capable of doing, and I won’t be satisfied until I accomplish that. As far as being remembered – I just want to be remembered as somebody who went out there each and every time and fought hard. A guy who wasn’t afraid of anyone, stepped up for every fight they put in front of him and put 100 percent effort into it.”
As his friend, manager and trainer, Constanino has shared Miller’s hard-fought journey to the top of the sport. While accolades are nice, Constantino is positive he knows what ultimately matters the most to Miller.
“I don’t think becoming a champion in this sport means as much to Jim as becoming the best in the world at something,” Constantino said. “I know the driving force around Jim, and to have a belt around his waist is secondary to being the absolute best fighter in the world at his weight class. That is definitely what he wants.”