"Those woods are filled with black bears."
This was the tidbit of information Mike Miller decided to casually throw out there as I followed his son, lightweight standout Jim Miller, on a tour of the new training facility he is opening with his brother and fellow UFC veteran, Dan Miller, in their hometown of Sparta, N.J. I assumed it was a joke. It wasn't, but I was still several hours away from finding out just how truthful his statement was.
Jim added a few jabs of his own onto my obvious paranoia then walked me over for a proper introduction to his father. As we approached, I took notice of the Miller family patriarch's incredible stature—a mountain of a man if you will—and when we shook hands his firm but calloused grip told me where the two UFC staples had gotten their work ethic from. We exchanged pleasantries and the tour resumed, but damn, what a grip.
Although I came to Sparta as a stop on my MMA Road Trip Project, it was a hunch of something unseen that motivated my trip into the woods with Jim and Dan Miller. I had worked with both fighters on numerous occasions doing interviews and whatnot but always sensed there was another side that existed beyond fighting.
Anyone who has ever watched either Miller brother step into the Octagon knows both men give everything they have to give every time out. Their approach has been labeled "Jersey tough" and "blue collared" by myself and many others in the past, but there was always a feeling inside of me that so much more existed beyond their time in the spotlight.
Thankfully, that notion would turn out to be true, and all it took was one night in their world to discover who the Miller brothers really are.
Time in the outdoors is a common way of life in northeastern New Jersey, but the Millers take it to a different level. The same competitive nature that have made Jim and Dan successful mixed martial artists exists when they step into the Jersey timber outside of Sparta, and when sibling rivalry is piled on, their interactions nearly become theater. Out of the four Miller children, Jim and Dan were the two who decided to travel a far different path to chase their professional goals.
Granted, their other siblings faced their own challenges in pursuit of financial stability, but the brothers Miller sought out a unique path and one that came with an ample amount of resistance. Nothing had ever come easy for the salt of the Earth bunch, and Jim and Dan were willing to put every ounce of blood and sweat they could muster into becoming cage fighters.
They knew they were tough. They knew courage wasn't something they lacked. But they also knew they had the right mixture of brains and natural grit to turn their dreams into something tangible. Figuring out the technical aspects to complement their already solid wrestling bases was going to be the greatest task, and until those elements were brought up to snuff, their ingrained toughness would be enough to hold things over.
Throughout their combined 30 showings under the UFC banner, that very thing has surfaced on countless occasions and helped them build their reputations for being two of the toughest S.O.B.s in the fight business. Yet, that type of moxie doesn't come from out of the blue, just as it isn't something everyone has at their fingertips.
I honestly believe it comes from our dad," Dan Miller explained as he hacked away at the thick brush to clear a path. "We grew up watching him shake things off just to get the job done. When I'm talking about injuries, I'm not saying twisting an ankle or anything like that. My dad hit his leg with a chainsaw one time and fell off a ladder and blew out his knee, but refused to get help until the job was done. We saw that time and time again, and I think we just assumed that's how things should be.
And the awe Jim and Dan saw in their father growing up still exists when they speak to him years later. Granted, they do not miss many opportunity to bust their dad's chops, but the amount of respect and admiration they held for him as children still shines through. On the flip side, launching barbs at their respective shortcomings is a common thing when they are all in the same place, and it became clear in quick fashion that humor is a big part of their familial bond.
In watching this process firsthand, it became clear Jim is the character of the group. MMA fans have watched him go toe-to-toe with the best lightweights in the world for the better part of the past decade, but they haven't had the opportunity to see who he is in his everyday life. It may come as a surprise to some, but the youngest of the Miller clan is an '80s pop music fanatic with a deep appreciation for that particular time period.
While he's certainly all nails in the cage, it turns out he's also an above average dancer when the time is right. Just what that meant was never truly explained in great detail, but his brother and father both backed up the fact that Jim will cut a rug when the opportunity is given. For a guy who is all business when the cage door closes and pretty straight-laced in pre-fight interviews, it was fascinating to see this side of his personality come out.
In addition to being a woodsman, Jim also has solid comedic chops. From badgering Dan about him being the first in their family to successfully use a bow drill to make fire (an accomplishment Jim adamantly puts an asterisk by because his brother brought cedar wood to the camp site) to giving his father grief about not being able to keep up because of his knees, Jim prefers to keep things on the lighthearted side, and he's damn good at making sure the laughs stay rolling.
Throughout the night Jim continued to throw stories out, and while Dan always added his laughter to the tale, there wasn't one story told where he didn't have to step in to add some sort of correction. Except for the how he came to get the "Beefalo" nickname. That one went over without contest, and when I attempted to dig further into the genesis of such a moniker, Jim kept the true details in the Miller family vault.
"I can't get into all of that," he said as he tossed another log in the fire. "But I will tell you 'Beefalo' is not a nickname you get by accident. Just look at him. He's a Beefalo."
Naturally, upon hearing this information, I turned to look at Dan, and Jim was right. He is a large human being, much bigger than he looks fighting on TV, and he possesses some awesome natural strength. Watching him split wood with a hunting knife and work the bow drill he made from scratch are no easy feats, yet Dan pulled them off with minimal effort.
Jim would jump in to help from time to time, and it was watching their interactions in those moments that showed a bit more of who they are as people. A hunch that would get blown wide open the day after the camping trip as I sat with Mike on his porch overlooking the Jersey woods.
"They think I'm tough but I can't say I could make it through what they've had to endure."
Mike Miller's words about his sons fell heavy on that October morning as he held onto the railing of the porch. The smile I had seen for most of the past 24 hours fell away, and his eyes became glassy as he prepared himself to reopen some memories he preferred to keep put away.
While the tragedies Dan Miller and his family have been forced to endure have played out in public because of his status as a professional athlete, sitting in his father's house and listening to him retell what his son has gone through was as bare bones and gritty as it gets. Back in 2009, Dan and his wife lost their first child, and in 2012 the couple's son, Daniel Jr., was born with a kidney disease that required a transplant.
All of this information was in the public domain, but watching Mike Miller talk about how his son battled through and how the family gave their support was awe-inspiring.
People know about what Dan has been through but they don't understand," Mike sighed as he grasped the wooden rail. "He's a fighter and that's what they see, but he's been through things that would have crushed lesser people. After Dan lost his daughter, he took the Chael Sonnen fight because that is his job and his family needed the money, but it was something he probably shouldn't have done.
He got beat up pretty bad in the first round with Sonnen, and when he came back to the corner, he told Jim that he didn't have anything, and Chael was just too strong. But then he told Jim to tell him what to do to just get through the fight because he wasn't getting finished. That's how much heart this kid has, and win, lose or draw, I'm always going to be proud of both of them.
As the topics on the table were somber, there was something of a fire burning in Mike as he discussed the things his sons have overcome together. When the UFC cameras caught both of them crying in the back locker room at UFC 128—a night where the younger brother defeated Kamal Shalorus and Dan lost to Nate Marquardt—the larger public opinion was that the brothers were lamenting Dan's loss at the event.
The truth of the matter is that the fight card took place on March 19, 2011, a day short of two years since Dan and his wife lost their daughter.
What cameras caught was a moment where both Jim and Dan broke down from the emotional weight of the moment, and it's something that never would have ever been truly clear in this writer's mind had it not been for their father setting the record straight.
A moment where two brothers, bound by blood, made it through the storm together.
And things of this nature have unfortunately been a part of the Miller family's lives for the past four years. From Dan battling through losing his daughter to the uncertainty that lingered over his son's health while they waited for his transplant to come.
Mike described how Dan would leave Dan Jr.'s side to go train and spend the entire drive crying because he couldn't help his son. He would then cry on the drive back but shore up his tears before he entered the house because he didn't want his son to see him be anything but strong.
Those are hefty tolls for a man to pay, but it became clear during my time with them that everything one endures, the entire family endures together. That's the true dynamic of the Miller family and an amazing thing to see up close and personal.
My objective in spending a day camping with the Millers was to find out more of who they really are beyond fighting, and I'm happy to say that mission was accomplished.
Beyond the camouflage and hunting, they are two brothers who enjoy every aspect of the life they live. They brew their own beer together and smoke meats for their respective families to enjoy. They are each other's harshest critic but the first one there to offer praise when a goal is accomplished.
While they aren't the only pair of brothers fighting on the sport's biggest stage, they are certainly the definition of what it means to be a fighting family.
Yet, they do it with smiles that have been earned in the harshest environment. Success in fighting may be keeping the win column filled and the loss column low, but the Miller brothers understand more than most how just giving everything you have to give is a victory unto itself. Some say they leave it all in the cage, but that's how the Miller brothers live their lives.
They put everything they have into everything they do because that's the way their father showed them way back when things were first starting to matter. Both watched with a keen eye as the man they strove to become showed them what it meant to be an upstanding, hardworking individual. There is not a shred of doubt those lessons became entwined in the fabric of the men they grew to be, and that diligence and heart would be instrumental in their rise to become UFC fighters.
Jim sings, dances and fights his ass off. Dan is quick to a laugh while doing the same. With everything they've been through, it's amazing they can still find a reason to smile, but they are men who prefer the path of most resistance, because it is there where you find out who you are and what you are truly made of.
The Miller family is made of a thing not easily found and impossible to replicate—unconditional love. And that is something everyone should aspire to find.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.