–Kenny Rice

On May 28 Mark “The Shark” Miller will fight Nikolaj Falin at United Glory in Russia. He will take off his shirt and proudly reveal a nine inch scar stretching from collar bone to stomach. For this fight isn’t about the  opponent or the venue for the Pittsburgh native who now resides north of Los Angeles. It’s about being alive.

Four years ago at age 35, Miller had open heart surgery to replace a malfunctioning aortic valve, a congenital disorder that finally caught  up with an athlete so rounded he almost pursued a professional baseball career. For ten years he had fought professionally, nine in K-1 and one in MMA. That almost ended in the worst way.

“I had known since I was a young child I would have to have this someday,” Miller recalls. “I put it off, put it off. I had a fight in Florida and while applying for my license and taking the physical the EKG went off the chart. Immediately I went to see a cardiologist.”

But growing up in an athletic home–a son of Harry “Moose” Miller who played for the Toronto Huskies in the first ever NBA game November 1, 1946– he let the competitive spirit overrule the mind and more important his heart. He left Florida and went to Texas instead to train. During a session in the ring Miller was finally dealt a decisive figurative blow that put his career on hold.

“I had been told (by doctors) that I was going to fall over dead if I didn’t have the operation. But there I was training as hard as ever, and I could train that hard which made me feel I could just keep going. But after the first round, my sparring partner said enough and backed away. He said ‘You’re blue. You look blue.’ I went to a mirror and my color was off, way off. I called the doctor and he said ‘Thank God you finally came to your senses.’ That was a real wake up call.”

Not that having this involved surgery was going to be easy, but adding to the difficulty, Miller is a Type 1 diabetic. “The recovery if all went well was a concern. Complications were a real concern from the diabetes.”

His heart also had enlarged to compensate for the strenuous daily training over the years. “It had elasticized and the doctors told me it might not come back down even after the surgery.”

His cardio output was hovering dangerously around twenty percent, at least forty percent below any semblance of normal. But “what choice did I have?” And so he went to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic where a cadaver value was connected to the heart replacing the weaker value during an eight hour operation.

Miller smiles now about his only regret during the operation. ” I wished I could’ve seen them take my heart out of my chest and set it aside while they worked on me. How cool would that have been to get up and go look at your heart?” The mental image as his smile grows, explaining many things about the psyique  of the man who “just wants to fight.”

He came out of the surgery beyond what the doctors had hoped for and tackled rehabilitation with a vengeance. He was going so fast, so strong they had to bring in another treadmill to accommodate his rapid progress.

“Their treadmills wouldn’t go over seven miles per hour. They had a governor on them. I would be going and stop and grab my chest and the nurses would panic and then I would start laughing and just take off as fast as I could,” said Miller still laughing over the experience. “They would yell at me but finally they decided I needed a real treadmill to run on.”

His heart had not only gotten stronger after surgery, it had reduced to normal. “A freak of nature is what the doctor called me.” Within three months Miller was training in the ring again, ready to return to fighting within the year as he had promised himself.

A series of events would prove to be heartbreaking to the strong willed Miller, derailing any quick comeback. Within months his father, mother and brother died. He had a car wreck that resulted in another surgery to repair damage to his knee. The “tunnel vision” he had guaranteed himself was blown wide open to a different kind of hurt from anything he had felt from his heart procedure.

“It took a toll. I didn’t want to hear I couldn’t ever fight again as I had been told could happen before the surgery and that gave me such determination, such focus afterwards, and then,” he pauses. “But life can change so fast in so many ways.”

So with the pain of loss still around him, Miller has revved up his fighting motor, new and as good as ever for this comeback at last. He is taking on Falin but he is really fighting for himself. “All I thought about was this moment as I pushed through rehab. An opponent is an opponent, it is what it is. But it is about being able to do this again, that’s always been the motivation.”

He knows in fifteen years or less, when he is in his early to mid- 50’s he will again have to undergo heart surgery to change out the valve in use now,  that is not uncommon for any aortic replacement. It is his fate being born with a heart condition. But while fate has thrown almost every possible punch and kick his way, he will handle the inevitable when it comes time, deflecting and fighting all the way.

It is Miller’s destiny, and he will put all his heart and mind into something he and perhaps only he was sure of as he laid on the operating table in 2007, he is a professional fighter again.

Watch Miller on Inside MMA tonight, and watch his comeback fight June 3rd exclusively on HDNet.

Copyright © 2020 AXS TV - All Rights Reserved.