The Notre Dame College wrestling squad is inching closer to taking the MMA world by storm. Four-time national champion Joey Davis is leading the charge in Bellator MMA at 5-0 as a pro. Former teammates Garrett Lineberger and Cobey Fehr have begun successful amateur careers while Jeffrey Pelton is now sitting at 6-2 as a professional. Set to make his pro debut on August 3rd is the Falcons’ three-time All-American Mo Miller, fresh off a perfect 6-0 amateur career.
Now training out of Strong Style, made famous in MMA by former UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, Miller feels he’s in the right environment to take his career to the top.
Check out this in-depth interview with the credentialed and humble Canton, Ohio native Mo Miller. He was kind enough to walk us through his life as a wrestler, attempt at international wrestling, and the progression of his MMA career.
Undefeated Amateur and 3x All-American Mo Miller
When you hail from a wrestling power state like Ohio, exposure to the sport is a near certainty. Although Mo Miller didn’t start wrestling at five or six years old like most successful college wrestlers, it eventually found its way into his life.
“My older brother wrestled in middle school when I was still in elementary school. I used to go to all of his matches. My dad did a little wrestling in his day as well. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend had wrestled the year before, and I saw flyers up around school. There were a few reasons for me to try it out.”
While many kids are likely to try wrestling at some point in their life, very few stick with it for the long haul. Grueling practices, the potential for personal defeat in front of crowds of people, and no tangible incentives after college make folkstyle wrestling seem particularly unattractive to some. But wrestling spoke to Mo Miller as a competitor.
“Growing up my brothers and I played all sports, but we really gravitated toward the individual sports, we all did taekwondo growing up as well. I was always so small, so entering high school I was only 85 pounds as a freshman. In other sports, I would always have to compete against bigger guys my age, so getting to go against someone your same size really caught my attention. The best part was that in terms of winning or losing, I always got to determine that, so it was the perfect sport for me.”
High School Ups and Downs
“In youth league, I was good. Me and my little brother went on a run around then, we were athletes. Back then you didn’t need much technique, we were winning a lot of matches based off our athleticism.
High school…I kind of struggled. One thing that I kind of didn’t understand was wrestling as a whole. I didn’t understand everything you needed to do to be good in wrestling, like right away as a freshman. I wasn’t going to camps, I didn’t have Olympians or NCAA champs coming in to my practices. I was never around that level, I never knew about it.”
That freshman year of high school at Canton McKinley High, Miller’s father objected to him starting the season. The lowest weight class in high school was 103 pounds, Miller would be drastically undersized at only 85. Halfway through the season, Miller’s brother reported that their team had to forfeit 103 pounds to another team, and their 103-pounder was undersized. Just like that, Mo Miller’s father changed his mind and allowed him to start, midway through the season with no training.
“I think I went like 10-16. That felt like a big accomplishment to me, coming in halfway through the season and wrestling older, bigger guys. That was good for me.
Sophomore year I got a little bigger, I was like 95 pounds, I did a little better. I became a district qualifier. I probably had 20-something wins, like 10 losses.
Junior year, I started to catch on. I wrestled 112, weighing about 114. I still didn’t understand weight cutting, I just wrestled what I weighed. I did pretty well again, made it to districts.
Then as a senior, I had a real good year. I won almost every tournament, but then I got to districts and it was loaded. I couldn’t get past that. But throughout that year, I beat the #2 ranked kid in Ohio’s Division 1, I beat a lot of ranked kids my senior year, so I knew I was good. I just had a difficult district bracket.”
Mo Miller finished high school making first team All-Federal League two times, he made All Star matches, he had a successful career by most metrics. However, that type of performance does not typically earn looks from college coaches. But fate intervened.
“There’s a guy that goes by the name of Dante Rini, he’s from Massillon, near my area, he wrestled for Notre Dame College. He came home to watch the district tournament and thought I had the potential to wrestle in college. He put in the word to Anthony Ralph, who was the assistant coach at Notre Dame at the time. He’s now the recruiting coach at Ohio State, so I think he knows talent when he sees it.
He gave me a shot.”
Realized Potential at Notre Dame College
The year Miller was recruited, the Notre Dame College Falcons had just won the NAIA national championship, capping a dominant run from the past few years. Anthony Ralph’s unique recruiting method of casting a wide net had paid off, they were able to develop the right athletes and become a power program in a short period of time.
Due to their dominance in the NAIA, Notre Dame was promoted to the Division 2 level. After Miller’s redshirt season, Notre Dame had to sit for one year of transition, meaning they were only eligible to compete at the NCWA level.
“I redshirted my freshman year and stayed up there all summer to catch up with everyone else. We had like 35 guys in that incoming class and I was the only one who didn’t go to my state tournament. I wasn’t projected to start.
After that year I got injured, but I still made the lineup at 141 and had a pretty good year. I took 4th at the national championships and became an All-American. That year club [NCWA] nationals was actually pretty tough, people don’t really take it seriously but a lot of the top teams were also in transition, so they were there too. It was a real national tournament.”
A tough room at Notre Dame made for quick improvements. Mo Miller cited a number of training partners as keys to his success, including Marty Carlson, a multiple time state champion from Virginia, Sam White, another credentialed high school wrestler, and three-time national champion Eric Burgey.
“I rolled around with Joey Davis a lot, I liked the way he moved, we could flow real well together even though he was bigger than me. In the summer, I worked out a lot with Tywan Claxton, who is in Bellator right now. He’s from the area near Notre Dame, so he would come up all the time. I really had guys from 125 all the way up to 157 that I could roll with. There were always tough guys, a lot of different people in the room, so I could never slack.”
The returning All-American Mo Miller made an immediate impact on the Division 2 level in the program’s first year, taking fourth at NCAAs and winning the Division 1 Michigan State Open tournament. With two years of eligibility left, Miller seemed destined for a national title.
Where did this growth come from? For Miller, success at the highest level was always something he knew was within his grasp.
“I didn’t want to waste time, when I came up to Notre Dame, I literally never went back home. I knew I had to stay every summer and get better, I had to catch up. Luckily, I had good training partners, great coaches, Sonny Marchette, Anthony Ralph, I was close with those guys. Sonny Marchette helped me with the mental aspect a lot, I think that’s what I needed. I knew I could compete physically, I never took bad losses. By my junior year I was never out of a match, I attribute that to my coaches.
Junior year, I was wrestling really well. I was the #1 or #2 ranked wrestler in the country all year. I got to nationals and…I had a bad tournament. I had a pretty bad first match, and I think that kind of threw me off for my next match. I went 0-2.
I looked at the podium that year, and I had beat every person up there. All eight All-Americans, even the national champ.
I felt bad. I didn’t get to perform the way I thought I could.
Senior year, I came back strong and had a really good year again, probably only lost two or three times. Two of those were close matches with D1 kids. I took third that year, I lost in the quarters, you could look at it as an upset. I think I was the #1 seed. I lost by one point. But I fought back and took third, I was pretty satisfied with that.”
Hearing Miller’s story, it’s easy to assume that he would be largely disappointed with his college career. Knowing he was the top wrestler in the country for at least two years straight and coming away without even getting the opportunity to wrestle for a title must have been crushing, right? But Miller doesn’t see it that way.
“In terms of my own expectations I underperformed, but I came to college and got way more than I should have. Not many people who never made it to states get to college and become a three-time All-American. It’s not that I don’t think I could have gotten more, but looking back, I think I had a very successful career, coming from where I did.”
Making the Transition
Given his growth in a short period of time, it truly seemed like Miller could continue to improve and make a run at the international level in either freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling. MMA was in the back of his mind, but Miller wasn’t done with wrestling.
Unfortunately, financial barriers and the lack of training available near his home town made chasing his international dreams a losing battle.
“I knew that if I got around the best guys and was able to train on a consistent basis, I could get it done. But I didn’t have that, and training was costly. I didn’t have sponsors, I was paying to go train. I couldn’t keep up financially. So I thought, well, I’m gonna start fighting, let’s make money instead of spending it. I never looked back.”
Miller moved back to Canton, Ohio and started training at local gyms. Instead of looking for one central MMA gym, Miller sought on individually specialized gyms in jiu jitsu, boxing, and muay thai.
“I wanted to get a foundation in every aspect first. If you go to most MMA gyms, they start teaching you a little bit of everything. They don’t really dive deep into each martial art, because you need so much.
I trained for probably like a year on my own. Then I had a friend, Alex Poinar, who knew a local matchmaker in Ohio. He got me her number and she got me a fight.
I won in 18 seconds. I got back to training, took another fight, and won that one. So I was 2-0 as an amateur on my own.”
As luck would have it, former college teammate Jeffrey Pelton was on that same card.
“He was training at Strong Style. I knew to make it far I would need a gym, I couldn’t do this on my own forever. I knew Strong Style was close and that they were top notch. I talked to Pelton before and after our fights, he said he would put in the word. They told me to come up whenever.
I came up, and I sparred that first day. They said, ‘Hey, keep coming back!’ I moved up there in June of 2017 and I’ve been there ever since.”
The Mo Show
UFC champion Stipe Miocic’s record-breaking success is evidence enough that Strong Style is one of the premier camps in North America.
Besides excellent training partners, the gym boasts some of the highest quality boxing instruction in the world, their program headed by Joe Delguyd and Alex Cooper.
“I definitely like to use my hands more than before. I’m not a boxer, but I’m willing to throw. I already had good kicks from my taekdowndo background, but Strong Style got me really comfortable with my hands. They taught me good technique, good habits.”
After another quick first round knockout (his third in a row), Miller took on a more experienced opponent, 7-3 Tyler Mees. Mees was a tough high school wrestling in Ohio, and a huge featherweight at 5’9. Never one to cut much weight, Miller was happy to compete as an amateur up from his natural class of 135. He defeated Mees via unanimous decision to make it 4-0.
Miller’s style was starting to develop before the eyes of the local Ohio crowd.
“I think I’m pretty well-rounded, even as a debuting fighter. I’m comfortable everywhere. I know what to look out for with jiu jitsu, I’m pretty good at boxing and muay thai, taekwondo, wrestling. I would say I’m a freestyle fighter. I take what’s there. I like to get a feel for my opponents then go from there.”
You can watch Miller flow on his feet and on the ground in a hard-fought win over Kanyon Tackett in his fifth amateur bout.
Miller’s undefeated streak put him in line for a shot at an amateur title. At WFC 99, Miller faced another stud wrestler in Yohe Rojas, who was 8-0 at the time.
What made the difference in the battle of the two wrestlers?
“There are a lot of techniques in wrestling, and MMA wrestling is a little different than collegiate wrestling. It favors my style. I was an upper body guy, as well as being quick, fast and strong. I think there’s a shortage of upper body wrestling in MMA, not many people use it. I think if people can’t get a double or single, they cant take anyone down. You see it a lot, if they get tired they lower their level and go straight in on a shot, and they’re stuck.
With me, I feel like I can take you down from anywhere. I’m really good from upper body positions, so if that shot isn’t there I can get an underhook or a bear hug, or a front headlock, whatever, and feel comfortable.”
Miller put it all together against Rojas and had the belt put around his waist by his teammate, Stipe Miocic.
Stipe vs. DC and the Future
Ahead of his professional debut, Mo Miller can see his future.
“I wouldn’t say I’m pretty confident in this because everything is so unpredictable, but in five years I see myself in a major organization, in the sun somewhere, doing well. I think I can, I think I’m on the right track, I think I have the skills to live the life I want, I just have to put it all together and make the right decisions, make the right moves at the right times.
I would like to stay around North America first and see all my options. UFC, Bellator, PFL, I would definitely look at those first. If I didn’t see any opportunities there, then I’d probably look elsewhere, like to Asia and ONE Championship, things like that.”
For now, Miller is focused on improving his craft. The coaches at Strong Style are helping him continue to “mix his martial arts” and help everything run together smoothly.
The team at Strong Style has a huge summer ahead of them.
Before Mo Miller’s pro debut, teammate Aleksa Camur fought on Dana White’s Contender Series and earned a UFC contract with a thrilling knockout.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) July 31, 2019
Later on in August, at UFC 242, team leader Stipe Miocic will fight for the heavyweight tile in a rematch against Daniel Cormier.
“Stipe is gonna knock him out. I’ll say second round. I think it will be a tough fight again. I think Stipe needs to be smart, he needs to use his range, and he needs to feel confident. He needs to know he’s the baddest man in the world, and he needs to go in the ring feeling like that. I think he’ll have a good night and get what he wants.
I feel like he’s ready. He’s strong, he slimmed down a bit, he’s quick. He’s got a good mindset. Everything is focused, right now he’s not joking around as much as he normally is. That’s what I like to see, I know he really wants this and I know everyone in the gym really wants this, everyone is behind him.”
Mo Miller vs. Greg Spearman
At Ohio Combat League 2 on Saturday, August 3rd, Mo Miller will take on a familiar opponent in Greg Spearman. The experienced Spearman is responsible for the only amateur loss of Miller’s teammate Cobey Fehr.
The main card will be streamed live on FloCombat, make sure to tune in or check the archives to watch a future featherweight star in action.
Until then, Mo Miller is just grateful for the support in his life.
“I’ll give a shout out to the Notre Dame Wrestling team, we’ve been in a slump the past couple years, but I think we’ll get back to it this year under Coach Sonny Marchette, it’s his first year as head coach with the team.
From my gym I’ll give a shout out to Aleksa Camur, he had a tough opponent there. We’ve got another guy in the UFC from our gym.
I want to shout out all my training partners, I’m feeling good this camp. I think they prepared me the best they can, same as my coaches. That’s it man.”