Adam Milstead is now a UFC fighter. He's in the big leagues. But before that, before he got the call -- the life-changing call -- earlier this year, it was rough for him. The UFC heavyweight fighter lacked the motivation to train and prepare for fights because mixed martial arts is a very dangerous sport full of risks and sacrifices with little reward. He questioned if making those sacrifices and risks, considering how little fighters get paid on the regional scene, was worth it.
"There was a certain point going through my earlier fights where it was very difficult to get motivated to get into the gym," he told BloodyElbow.com's The MMA Circus. "You were unsure where your future was going to line up. Do I go in there, risk - for a few hundred dollars - injuries, the possibility of taking off of work, losing out on a lot of times in your life with your friends, family, and girlfriend? Is it worth going through all that?"
"I just want people to know that if you are at that point in your career, that is more or less just a wall. That is something that I believe is a point in our careers where, if we can make it passed that thought process, there's going to be something even greater on the other side. I've had knee surgery that put me out of work, that I really didn't need to go through because I was fighting for basically pennies on the dollar, trying to put on a show for people and make the big time. Was it worth it? Was it worth not having heath insurance and paying all that money out of the pocket? Was it worth it to lose girlfriends, and lose friends, and not be able to see your family because they just can't handle the lifestyle and you're caught up all of this?"
After questioning the consequences of chasing his dream, Milstead decided to take a break. Not just from training, but essentially from all of life.
"I was at a point where I was like, 'You know what? I need to figure out my life. I'm sitting here at 27, 28 years old, I don't own a home, I'm still working my butt off all the time. Am I ever gonna be able to relax?'" he said. "I decided to take a hiatus to get my mind right and see where I wanted to go from there. I was off for about six months, where I didn't do anything. Didn't talk to anybody, ended up quitting the gym, went to work elsewhere."
About half a year into his hiatus, however, Milstead had a change in thought. He had the urge to compete again.
"And then all of a sudden, I started getting this itch," he said. "You'd be sitting at the bar, and you see the UFC fights on, you see these guys fighting. People are talking about all the fights in the crowd. And you're like, 'I had a dream like that. I had something going for me right there. Do I just let it go?' And then next thing I know, I'm dreaming about this stuff, I'm dreaming about fighting. It just led me back to the gym, eventually."
But there was one deciding factor in the entire situation: a special needs child, who potentially saved Milstead's fighting career.
"It wasn't until a kid came up to me, who was handicapped," he said. "He came up to me, and he knew me from my prior fights. And he said, 'Adam, hey, how's a going? Do you remember me?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I remember you. Good to see you, buddy!' And he's like, 'Hey, man, I just want you to know that you really inspire me and that I really look up to you. And I was like, 'Ah, that means a lot.' And he says, 'I wish I could do what you did.'
"At that moment, I felt selfish for being able to quit something that I was on a road to getting, to be able to take advantage of the lifestyle. I didn't realize how shortly it could be cut. When you got a kid who isn't gonna be able to walk or isn't gonna be able to do what you do, to tell you he wishes he was you, it just made me feel selfish. It was at that moment that I said I'm just gonna go in, and I'm gonna do everything I can to win and keep going until I know it's time to quit, there's gonna be no questions about it.
"It was a combination of different things, but that was the biggest one. It provided a lot of motivation for me to push through the pains that I dealt with on a daily basis. My knee hurts all the time; my elbows are bad. I try to push through it, but there are times it's just like, 'Man, I don't know if I'm doing more damage or not.' Then I look up at this kid, and I'm like, 'You know what? I need to stop complaining and just push through it.' And it helps. It does. Unfortunately for the kid, he's not gonna be able to do this, but he helped inspire me and pushed me in the right direction."
Milstead made his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night 88 in Las Vegas this past May and defeated Chris De La Rocha by TKO. He says signing the dotted line on his contract and stepping into the Octagon for the very first time was the most significant moment of his entire life because of the struggles he endured before his UFC career.
"Absolutely," he said. "Everything that I've been through -- I had an engagement that was cut short because she just couldn't handle the lifestyle that I was living. My job status, and not being able to go to college. And basically starving and not having anybody to take care of me while I was going through these pains. When it all came down to the time I entered that cage that night on May 29, that was the point where I realized that everything was worth it. I'd [go through everything I have already] a thousand times more if I got that feeling again.
"Being in the UFC and having that title attached to me really helps give me the motivation to get in there, and it helps me to realize that my sacrifices prior to this fight and what I'm going through now and in the future are going to be worth it every step of the way."
Milstead, who works grueling 12-hour work shifts for MarkWest Energy Partners, wasn't financially ready to leave his full-time job quite yet after his debut victory. That said, being signed to the UFC was certainly a step forward to doing so.
Milstead was OK with returning to his full-time job directly after competing inside the Octagon for the first time because he believes everything he went through in Vegas -- fight week, the actual fight, and the fight's aftermath -- was "more or less a dream" and "a vacation."
"All it was was just me basically waking back up to reality," he said. "I didn't mind it because I looked back to my prior sacrifices in my life and how hard I worked. That moment (debuting in the UFC) was enough to carry me into the next set of sacrifices that I would have to make. So I had no problem going back. In fact, I took pride in going back to work and working for a living, because a lot of people don't realize what it takes to live this life as a fighter. A lot of people don't realize that there are sacrifices that we make on a daily basis, just to accomplish our dreams, which actually have not much reward for us in the end."