Mark Miller and the Overhand Right Heard Around the Combat Sports World

Mark Miller returned from open-heart surgery and personal tragedy to knock out Nikolaj Falin on Saturday at United Glory World Series XIV in Moscow. Photo by John Remus III

Rocky IV. We all remember it. Rocky Balboa once again triumphs over adversity, defeating the Goliath Russian boxer Ivan Drago and uniting two nations. It may seem like a tacky storyline to today's youth, but the story still conveys a message that relates to everyone. Despite what life may throw at you, whether it be physical or mental obstacles -- we should never give up. The movie and its message were so profound during the time that a bronze statue was erected at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art of Rocky holding his hands up high in victory, an iconic scene from the original Rocky. Tourists often run the stairs as if they were in the movie, metaphorically rising to the challenge and overcoming whatever obstacle may plague them.

This past Saturday, combat sports had its own version of Rocky. No, not some horribly scripted Hollywood version of the movie, but a flesh-and-blood inspiration to the world. Mark Miller, once considered the Great American Hope in the early 2000's, returned to the kickboxing world at the Forum Hall in Moscow, Russia, fittingly the setting of Rocky IV's triumphant comeback from the brink of defeat. Miller's opponent wasn't a behemoth monstrosity of a man in a fictional character like Ivan Drago. No, his opponent was Russia's Nikolaj Falin, a heavily-favored fighter who many fans in the know felt would easily defeat Miller.

The match-up between these two fighters doesn't have a background story that stems from Cold War animosity between two nations or a personal vow to avenge the loss of a fallen friend. The true emotional investment from fans lies in the story of Mark Miller's life for the last decade. A story that should inspire anyone with a pulse that even life's most difficult curveballs can be hit out of the park.

Miller was told one fateful day by specialists at the University of Pittsburgh that his career was over. After discovering an issue with his EKG during pre-fight medical tests in Florida, it was determined that Miller's heart had only 20% cardiac output. A fighter at heart who loved the sport dearly, Miller sought out a second opinion in Pittsburgh, only to find out his heart was actually at 15% cardiac output and it was enlarged. 

His options were limited, but due to his physical condition from fighting -- he fit the criteria to have aortic valve replacement surgery, open-heart surgery that replaced the aortic valve with a healthy valve. In Mark's case, doctors used a cadaver valve that would give him the best chance to continue fighting before eventually getting a synthetic valve fifteen to twenty years down the road. The surgery was a success, but Miller's problems did not end there.

Fifteen weeks after his heart surgery and the day in which he was scheduled to finally return to the gym, Miller's father, Harry "Moose" Miller fell sick. He died on April 18th, 2008. A month later, Mark's mother, Helen Rose Miller, passed away. His brother, Colin, died due to drug overdose three months later. If that wasn't enough to mentally crush a man's will, Miller was involved in a horrific car wreck in the same timespan, putting him through rehab to repair the injuries suffered during the accident. With no immediate family left and more hospital visits in his future, Miller persevered and focused on fighting, the one true constant in his life that he knew he needed to be happy.

Calm and composed, Mark Miller stepped back into the ring in Moscow on Saturday, roughly five years after his surgery. For most people, Miller had already won. He had overcome a physical ailment that many athletes have ended careers over. But Mark Miller isn't an ordinary human being or fighter. Miller wasn't stepping into the ring to prove he could come back from open-heart surgery. He was stepping in the ring because he has a life long passion for fighting. Miller intended to win, not just pat himself on the back for all the hard work and determination.

Ding! Ding! Miller and Falin slapped gloves in the center of the ring as a show of respect for one another, then hunkered down and readied for the impending clash. Falin was the favorite heading into the bout, not surprising considering Miller's lengthy absence from the sport and Falin's status as a veteran. But any fan watching the vicious display of power by Mark Miller would have never bought it. As Miller backed up ever so slightly toward the ropes as Falin crept forward, he glanced a lead left off of Falin's incoming right, closed his eyes, and threw a massive overhand right that crippled Falin to the mat. Falin was flattened, and his attempts to get back to his feet were met with a refusal from his body. Mark Miller had won his return to the kickboxing world in under 0:10 seconds.

Mark's entire story sounds like a Hollywood movie. Almost unbelievable when you first hear the trials and tribulations that he's went through to get back to what he loves. Years of climbing a mountain that continued to get taller and taller, yet Mark kept on climbing, determined to reach the top. Miller reached the summit on Saturday, celebrating with a monumental knockout that should resonate with fans for years to come. 

We don't often hear about inspirational stories such as Mark's taking place in reality. Rocky is a fictional tale of overcoming adversity and personal tragedy. Mark Miller's story is real, and real stories resonate with fans on a completely different level. If Rocky Balboa is a cultural icon, the sight of Falin limp on the canvas as Miller raised his hands in victory should be on the side of a mountain. The mountain that Miller climbed relentlessly for five years simply to return to the sport he loves. 

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