It was supposed to be one of the happiest days of Dan Miller’s life. Instead, March 19,2009, turned on a dime into the worst day for the affable UFC fighter.
A month removed from Dan Miller’s third consecutive win in the UFC, his wife Kristin went into labor with the couple’s first child. Like the pregnancy, which was a healthy one by all accounts, the delivery went according to plan. However, soon after baby Alexis made her long-awaited entrance into the world, the obstetrician noticed that there was a problem with her temperature and vital signs. Alexis had gone septic during the delivery and would battle an infection that her tiny body couldn’t fend off. Seven hours after she was welcomed into the open arms of her overjoyed parents, little Alexis passed away in the early hours of March 20, 2009.
Blindsided by the death of his little girl and unsure how to handle the sadness that consumed him, Miller immersed himself in training to try to cope with his grief. Two months later, he was back in the cage, squaring off on May 23 at UFC 98 against Chael Sonnen. Miller’s original opponent was Yushin Okami, but the Japanese fighter hurt himself during training and was replaced by the durable Team Quest fighter less than one month out from the scheduled bout. In hindsight, Miller shouldn’t have taken the fight, considering his fragile psychological state and the short-notice change of opponent, but Miller isn’t one to turn down a fight—a quality that would get him through the next few months and, ultimately, years.
A ray of light pierced through the pall that hung over the family since their devastating loss. One month prior to the fight with Sonnen, a home-pregnancy test revealed that Kristin was pregnant again. The news provided joyous relief for the couple, who were supporting each other through the grief of losing their first child, but it also raised concern about the well-being of their unborn child. Their worries were substantiated during the 20-week ultrasound, which revealed their baby had some abnormalities with his kidneys.
Daniel James Miller, Jr., was born six weeks premature on January 6, 2010, and he was immediately diagnosed with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (PKD)—a condition that caused his cyst-riddled kidneys to swell to four times their normal size and function at a fraction of what they should. Soon after taking his first breath, Danny was put on daily dialysis treatments.
Although the diagnosis weighed heavily on Miller’s heart and took a mental and emotional toll on his family, he had a fight coming up one month later against Demian Maia at UFC 109, and he refused to pull out of it. So, he did what he did best—he fought.
In spite of the fact that his mind was at home with his sick little boy, he pushed his latest personal tragedy aside for 15 minutes and did his job. Nobody outside of his teammates and coaches knew about the turmoil he was going through, and to this day, he doesn’t attribute the loss—or any of the previous or subsequent ones—to his tribulations outside of the Octagon.
Late last year, doctors determined that by his second birthday in January, Danny would be ready for his long-awaited kidney transplant that would improve his health by leaps and bounds and, aside from the daily doses of anti-rejection medication, would finally let him live the life of a normal child. The operation and prescriptions he would require far exceeded what the family’s health insurance would cover, which prompted his coach, American Martial Arts owner Mike Constantino, to begin raising funds to help give the Millers a much needed helping hand. The MMA community immediately stepped up in a big way and raised thousands of dollars through various campaigns to aid the family in its time of need. UFC owners Dana White and Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta quietly wrote a check to cover the cost of the entire operation. The outpouring of support they received helped the couple through one of their most trying times.
“It was definitely overwhelming for us to get the support we did from the MMA community,” says Miller. “My wife and I were in awe of the love and support. It felt fantastic to know that so many people who had never even met us cared so much about Danny and our family and gave up what they could to help us. We’ll never forget what people did for us.”
By December 2011, Danny had a January date for his operation and a kidney donor in Dan’s aunt Kathy. In fact, 2011 was a good year for the Millers, who welcomed a healthy baby girl, Katie, into the family that spring.
2012 was shaping up to be equally promising.
Just two weeks before the big day, however, Danny fell ill and was rushed back to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Complications from the disease had made him sick before, but this time it was even more serious.
“We were so excited that the surgery was so close, but Danny ended up getting very, very sick,” says Miller. “It was bad. It got to the point where I started to think that maybe I needed to reconsider what I did for a living. I thought, ‘What if I get hurt really bad and I can’t be there for my kids?’ I seriously thought about taking a regular job, but then I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I’m a fighter. I fight.”
Weeks turned into months as Danny’s condition finally saw improvement. As his son began to get better, Miller used Danny’s will to survive as motivation to get back in the gym and train.
“It was a little tough to get there in the beginning—to leave the hospital,” says Miller. “I actually had Phil and Ricardo Migliarese [Relson Gracie black belts] offer to train me at their gym [Balance Studios] in Philly. They are wonderful guys, and it really helped me get back into the swing of things. It had been months since I trained. Their gym was within walking distance to the place I had been staying, so it was easy to walk down, walk back, and go to the hospital. As Danny got better, I started coming home and easing back into training at AMA.”
Confident that the family’s latest health crisis was behind them and that Miller was mentally prepared to get back into the cage, he made his welterweight debut against fellow BJJ black belt Ricardo Funch on June 22 at UFC on FX 4. The decision to drop down in weight was not a long time coming. In fact, it culminated from a moment in his previous fight against Rousimar Palhares at UFC 134.
“There’s a picture of Palhares holding me upside-down in the air about to slam me on my head, and that was pretty much the exact moment I made the decision to drop down to 170 pounds,” says Miller. “I was like, ‘I’m just not big and strong enough anymore.’ I think the move should have come earlier. Now that I’ve done it, I know it was the right decision. I was always kind of afraid of doing it. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I always told myself I was going to get into the gym and put on some muscle and compete at 185 pounds, but I just don’t think I have a big enough frame to compete at middleweight. I knew something had to change. I had to get in there and string some wins together, and if I wanted to do that, something had to change.”
The change was just what Miller needed.
He looked impressive against Funch, but he admits it took some time to get used to fighting with his more slender frame. Nonetheless, he was able to finish the Brazilian in the third round with a guillotine that earned him a $50,000 Submission of the Night bonus. The money couldn’t have come at a better time for the Millers, as Kristin had taken a nine-month leave of absence from her job to look after Danny.
Looking ahead to the remainder of the year, Miller is optimistic that Danny’s transplant will come by the end of the summer and that he will be running around the house with Katie this Christmas…without the tether of a dialysis machine holding him back. And as far as his new lease on fighting as a welterweight goes, the 31-year-old former IFL champion plans on taking it slow and working his way up the ranks like he did as a middleweight.
“I’m hoping the operation happens by August,” says Miller. “We’re still in the planning stages and are coordinating schedules and doing tests, but I think it will happen soon. I just want him to be happy and healthy. The kidneys do a lot more than just filter the blood. They produce hormones and regulate vitamins and minerals in the body. When he has a normal kidney, it’s going to make him a completely different kid.
I want to keep fighting. I’m done with only fighting two times a year. I want to fight at least two more times this year and as many times as I can next year. I don’t care who it’s against—I just want to get some fights under my belt at 170 pounds before I worry about rankings or belts. I’ll fight anyone. I don’t care.”
It’s no wonder, given the resilience and resolve of his family—including his durable brother, UFC lightweight Jim Miller, and his born-fighter son, Danny, who the family calls “the toughest Miller”—that Dan is a fighter who doesn’t back down from anyone or any fight. It’s in his blood.