In the kickboxing ring, Mark Miller goes by "Fightshark" — a name he chose, he says, because when he smells blood, he attacks.
The legendary super heavyweight kickboxer first made his name in fighting in the early 2000s.
"In the early part of the decade, I was 6'4, 230 [pounds], and I was small for heavyweight kickboxing," he tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "It's a lot of speed and power involved."
The fights are intense, and even just the noises coming out of the ring can be brutal. "Bone on bone is — not that I'm trying to amp it up — is pretty horrifying," Miller says.
His interest in martial arts began in his childhood, when he was growing up in Pittsburgh. As a teen, he spent a lot of time around professional athletes: His father was a former NBA player.
Miller played baseball in college, but kickboxing was his real passion. In the late 1990s he decided to start training for professional fights. He would later become the only professional kickboxer to return to fighting after undergoing open-heart surgery.
But that isn't the only uphill battle he's surmounted in his life. In his memoir, Pain Don't Hurt: Fighting Inside and Outside the Ring, Miller details his initial rise to fame as a kickboxer, his return to success after his heart problems and his recovery from struggles with drugs and alcohol.
On learning about his heart problem during a routine physical
They found that there was something off with my heart — their whole thing was, "You shouldn't be able to walk up a flight of stairs." And I was training for a fight, and I was supposed to be training for the fight in Austin, Texas. So guess what I did? I went to Austin, Texas ... to train for the fight ... instead of getting the surgery.
One day down there, I was training. I went into the locker room and I literally was the color blue. So I called my cardiologist and he's like, "Yeah, we need to get this taken care of." I had major heart surgery.
On his return to the sport after the surgery
I got an offer to come back to fight kickboxing in Moscow against an opponent that at that time I had no business fighting. By that time I had not been in a ring for almost six years and nobody thought I had any chance. And I ended up knocking him out in eight seconds. So that kind of just threw me back into it.
On how his life changed after the sudden death of his father, mother and brother
I was at a bad place and doing a lot of drinking. My mantra of "go big or go home," unfortunately ... I really took to it. ... I kind of made the decision: this has to stop. I know it's a bad example for my children.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When Mark Miller came to our studio he had a pretty cool situation going on - pinstriped pants, plaid tie, fedora, the words lead pipe tattooed on his knuckles. Miller has another name - it's Fight Shark. He says he chose this same because when he smells blood he attacks. See, Miller is a legendary super heavyweight kick boxer who made his name in the early 2000s. But a few other things have happened along the way - a few things Miller's written about in a new memoir that's out next week. The book is called "Pain Don't Hurt." I asked Miller what it was like when he first started kickboxing.
MARK MILLER: In the early part of the decade, I was 230, and I was small for heavyweight kickboxing. It's a lot of speed and power.
MCEVERS: So what does it sound like when somebody like that's...
M. MILLER: Bone on bone. It's not that I'm trying to amp it up - it's pretty horrifying. Even people that have trained when there have been at actual fights and they hear what it sounds like because there's a lot of force obviously involved here, you know. Anybody that knows physics can figure that out pretty quickly. It sounds pretty nasty.
MCEVERS: So tell me when you started kickboxing.
M. MILLER: In the '80s when it was on ESPN.
MCEVERS: And the notion of being a professional athlete was not totally foreign to you, your dad was an athlete.
M. MILLER: Absolutely. He played actually in the first NBA game - he was a multiple sport star in both high school, college and basketball professionally.
MCEVERS: So then you decided to go pro. So tell us, like, how did that work? What do you do to go pro?
M. MILLER: The first time I heard was in '93 after first happened was a new organization in Japan called K1, one of my kickboxing idols, Marie Smith, fought in it. And I called him, said, I'm going to come train at your gym and he was like, OK you're going to get your ass kicked. You're going to find out what, you know, you're going to get tested and you know that. And that's how it started as far as that journey.
MCEVERS: And you kept fighting and then in 2006 you went on a kind of a routine medical check.
M. MILLER: My medicals they found that there was something off with my heart. You know, their whole thing was you shouldn't really be able to walk up a flight of stairs and I was training for a fight. And I was supposed to be training for the fight in Austin, Texas, so here's what I did I went to Austin, Texas.
MCEVERS: To train for the fight?
M. MILLER: To train for the fight.
MCEVERS: Instead of get the surgery?
M. MILLER: Instead of getting the surgery. One day down there when I was training I went into the locker room and I literally was the color blue so I called my cardiologist and he's like, yeah we need to get this taken care of. I had major heart surgery.
MCEVERS: So you recovered pretty well, pretty quickly.
M. MILLER: Very well.
MCEVERS: Faster than they thought you would, but still you were laying there in that bed for weeks.
M. MILLER: That does not feel good. So my goal was, I'm coming back to fight.
MCEVERS: Tell us what that first fight was like after the surgery.
M. MILLER: I got an offer to come back to fight kickboxing in Moscow against an opponent that at that time I no business fighting because by that time I had not been in a ring for almost six years. And nobody thought I had any chance. And I ended up knocking him out in eight seconds. That kind of just threw me back into it.
MCEVERS: I mean, I feel like if you were sitting down to write the book, like, it could end here. You could be like I went through this hard time and I had this come back and the end. But that is not how it worked out for you, is it?
M. MILLER: Not at all. My father got sick and ended up passing in 2007 and then a month later my mother unexpectedly passed as well. And and then my brother ended up dying of an overdose soon after that. So I was just in a bad place and doing a lot of drinking. My mantras of go big or go home, unfortunately, really - I really took to it.
MCEVERS: How'd you get out of it?
M. MILLER: I kind of made the decision - this has to stop. I know it was a bad example for my children.
MCEVERS: You have three sons. I'm curious, do they fight?
M. MILLER: No.
MCEVERS: No. Do they want to fight?
M. MILLER: They enjoy it but my thing is my father pushed me, constantly.
MCEVERS: Well, he didn't just push you, right? I mean, he abused you.
M. MILLER: Yeah. He had a very - I like to explain this to people - he had a very "Boy Named Sue" idea that the world sucks and if I make you as hard as possible it won't be able to crumble you.
MCEVERS: So you try to not have that approach with your sons?
M. MILLER: Absolutely. You know, I try to do completely opposite. I am not going to push you into doing anything.
MCEVERS: If they came to you and said they wanted to fight what would you do?
M. MILLER: There is a part of me, I'm going to be brutally honest, there's a part of me that wouldn't want them to do it.
MCEVERS: That wouldn't want them to do?
M. MILLER: No, no because it's a tough sport - that's the truth. But if they wanted to do it, I would give them the guidance to do those things to the best of my ability and give them the best people to train with.
MCEVERS: That's Mark Miller, otherwise known as Fight Shark. His memoir is called "Pain Don't Hurt: Fighting Inside And Outside The Ring." Mark, thanks a lot.
M. MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.