By Brian Paglia
Chris Campbell was looking to become a rodeo clown, but really, he was looking for something that his construction job couldn't offer.
He was looking to rekindle the feeling from a youth spent chasing extreme sports before it faded into maturity and obligation. He was looking to become "The Champ," that part of him that reveled in entrances with grim reaper outfits and Rod Stewart songs. He was looking for something to spark his adrenaline.
He found mixed martial arts, or MMA, a combat sport blending a variety of fighting techniques.
"It's like nothing I've ever experienced," Campbell said. "It's a euphoric feeling. It's better than any kind of drunk feeling or any of those experiences. It's just a great feeling."
Campbell said he enjoys that euphoria win or lose, though he has won far more than lost. In his five years in the sport, Campbell has a 7-2 record and holds two title belts in the 155-pound weight class, one of which he'll defend for the first time next Saturday in Alabama at Strike Hard 13.
While MMA continues to grow exponentially in popularity, Campbell toils in the amateur ranks. Crowds at his fights are usually around 2,000. Campbell's title bout -- which will take place in a mall -- could have up to 3,500 spectators.
And Campbell has much to juggle as he prepares.
"It's rough," Campbell said. "Life gets in the way. You've got a mortgage and you've got a job you've got to go to. I've got a little girl at the house that I've got to provide for. Got to sacrifice relationships."
But by the end of Campbell's first fight, after he had been pounded for three rounds by a more experienced opponent before finding 15 seconds worth of an opening to do his damage, he was hooked.
"It's definitely like a drug," Campbell said. "It'll hook you quick."
Campbell, a native of Gumbranch, Ga. -- population 273, according to the 2000 United States Census Bureau -- took up the sport after he moved to Fayette County, where he graduated from McIntosh High School in 1994. His first trainer was Byron Stone, and they trained out of Griffin. Now, he trains out of Team Genesis MMA in McDonough.
As Campbell spent more and more time at Team Genesis MMA, owner James Viars, a member of the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame, sensed Campbell was a natural, but that he also possessed something intangible.
"What makes him unique is heart," Viars said. "He's got what it takes on the inside. He's definitely got the work ethic. And all the other stuff falls into place."
When Campbell trains for an event, his regimen is arduous. He trains twice a day, five days a week, weights in the morning, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai training, sparing and then swimming to duplicate the full-body exertion of three-minute or five-minute rounds of a fight. His manager, Frankie Parkman, is there by his side for every workout and in his corner for every fight.
It is a serious commitment, Campbell says, but also an art. Campbell bemoans the moments when friends introduce him as "a fighter." Campbell said he would never take his skills onto the streets.
"I'm not a fighter," Campbell said. "I test my skills. I test that if everything that I've learned is effective. I really feel like we're martial artists. Look at Bruce Lee. I don't see him as a brutal guy at all. He was a martial artist. He had a philosophy on life."
As Campbell goes into his first title defense, he carries with him a philosophy a fellow fighter shared with him: "Hard work beats technique when technique does not work hard."
Campbell will turn 35 this year. That's getting up there for a fighter, he said.
But if the professional ranks never come calling, Campbell can accept that.
"My main goal is to see how far it takes me," Campbell said. "I'm going to train as hard as I can, train with the best coaches that I can and see how far it takes me. If I get picked up, great. But my main goal is to be a martial martist for the rest of my life."