In mixed martial arts it’s not a term of endearment. It means you’re either not champion material, or you were one in years past but no longer have the ability to climb back up and do it again. I suppose a fighter labeled as such could find solace in knowing he has a place in an organization. In a sport that’s growing so fast with an ever expanding list of hungry up-and-coming contenders, to be a gatekeeper is to provide value and have some semblance of job security.
Nobody would, or at least nobody should, confuse current UFC lightweight Jim Miller as being a gatekeeper. He entered the UFC more than three years ago and has since enjoyed a meteoric rise to place himself among the elite fighters in the division.
“I guess it’s better to be a gatekeeper than not be in the UFC anymore,” Miller recently told Bleacher Report in a telephone interview. “Everyone wants to be champion. Everyone started fighting because they want to win. My head is on beating everybody up and cementing myself at the top.”
Still, for all his accomplishments in the UFC, Miller is yet to have his shot at the top. He was close for sure, most recently losing a decision to the current No. 1 contender, Benson Henderson, in a fight Miller came close to finishing more than once, and perhaps no closer than when he had Henderson in a standing arm-triangle.
“I made a mistake,” Miller said. “I got a little overexcited, I ended up jumping for it and it was a mistake. I should have pulled him down to the ground, and I’m confident I could have finished it on the mat”
Miller now has three losses on his total MMA record: to Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard and Henderson. No shame in having those three hand you your only defeats, but it begs the question: If Miller is continually unable to best the best, is he destined to make his place just under the top rung and serve as the gatekeeper for other lightweights looking to prove themselves?
“It motivates me,” Miller said of losing those fights. “I lost every one of those fights, but I know I could have won every one of those fights. They were the better men those nights. I know I could catch them and it actually gives me confidence the guys that have beaten me have been extremely successful.”
To be a champion, a fighter must have an X-factor, so to speak. Champions walk into any fight armed with the ability to pull off a win at any moment. They are a cut above the rest because their physical and mental preparation for the biggest tests of their careers are unrivaled by the opponents they put down. An element of excitement surrounds a champion because his ceiling is unknown and sometimes it’s seemingly limitless.
In his prime, Chuck Liddell made your heart beat faster as he circled his prey, waiting for the right moment to sling his famous overhand right. As the premier light heavyweight in the sport right now, we’ve yet to see where Jon Jones’ abilities end.
Gatekeepers are labeled as such because they are seen as nothing more than litmus tests for those looking to make the jump from just another fighter in the division to a fighter ready to run with the big boys and possibly headline a fight card.
For as endearing and composed as Kenny Florian is, he lacks the X-factor that might separate him from an entire division. He’s likely to never hold a belt at this stage, but his talents are still on an elite level and he can serve as a gatekeeper for others looking to break through.
Which brings us to Jim Miller. Only 28 years old, Miller is certainly too young to be passed off as only a gatekeeper at this stage, something he is well aware of.
“I don’t think I’ve been relegated to that position yet," Miller said with no hint of sarcasm. But even more, the fighter in him doesn’t appear to be headed for that status anywhere down the road.
As a known hard-worker and focused family man, Miller still has leaps to make in his fight game. A scary prospect considering he once reeled off seven straight victories in the UFC over a two-year span before dropping the decision to Henderson last August. What’s more is his knack for finishing fights. Miller makes no secret of his desire to submit his opponents, and has gone that route plenty of times already, subbing four of his opponents in the UFC.
Therein lies Miller’s own X-factor. Though his standup, and specifically his boxing, is not likely up to the level of current champion Frankie Edgar’s, his submission game is unquestionably among the best in the division. With that aura surrounding him, he presents a danger to every opponent who steps in the cage with him and has the potential to end any of his fights quickly.
“Of course, that’s always my goal,” Miller said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than making another man quit.”
All this without mentioning that none of Miller’s three losses ended with him being finished, and that he seems to have an endless gas tank filled with premium aggression when he enters the Octagon.
Miller’s next test comes against another tough veteran of the fight game in Nate Diaz on May 5 at UFC on FOX 3. Though both are highly skilled submission artists, Miller feels good about his chances heading into the fight.
“It’s a very tough fight, matchup-wise, [but] I feel I have an edge over him in wrestling…It’s just a matter of making him fight my fight, he’s been beaten be wrestlers before.”
Surely no fighter wants to be tagged a "gatekeeper" or "potential gatekeeper" before he's even had his shot at the top of the mountain. For Miller to avoid this, he must continue on his path and find a way to outduel Diaz in May. Watching Miller fight, I believe he’s more champion than also-ran, but as with any fighter who doesn’t hold a belt, another loss will only bring more questions than answers.