When Chris Conley left Ashland about 16 years ago, he had a passion for baseball.
That was as a third-grader.
It’s all he dreamed about, all he thought about. It consumed him day and night.
Conley chased that dream much of his young life.
“Baseball was my whole life,” he said. “When I got into high school, I lived at that baseball field.”
All was going well, too. By the end of his sophomore year, at Fernadina Beach High School in Florida, college scouts were raising their eyebrows in Conley’s direction.
But his junior year wasn’t as good — he batted under .300 — and the scouts turned their attention to other players.
“By the end of my senior year, I had a bunch of JUCOs interested but nobody else,” he said. “It hurt my feelings really bad.
“I took the game too serious. I tried to perfect baseball.”
His love for the game faded a little but there was another obsession waiting around the corner. Older brother Brandon, a police officer in Jacksonville, Fla., introduced him to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA).
Now that’s all he thinks about.
“Once I started doing it more and more I loved it every day,” he said. “I wanted to start competing.”
Chris, an MMA amateur, is off to a 3-0 start and he has designs on signing as a professional fighter. He has been training with the American Top Team Legacy in Port St. Lucie, Fla. His goal is to do 10 amateur fights and then try the professional circuit.
Conley graduated from St. Fernadina Beach High School in 2007 and he has been training for MMA ever since with his brother. They work out together in a garage gym they call “the shark tank.”
Chris gives all the praise to his brother whom he says is good enough to fight professionally as well.
He said he likes the action and disciplines of MMA. The workouts are grueling, he said, and the fighting can be unforgiving. Conley suffered a knee injury in his last victory that has sidelined him briefly. It’s not anything that requires surgery but does need time to heal, he said.
“It takes awhile to work on the technical aspect of MMA,” he said. “The sport has grown so much. We’ll work 4-5 hours a day.”
Conley has been in Ashland visiting his mother, Lee Ann Conley. His parents, Lee Ann and Ronnie Conley, have been a source of support at whatever he wanted to do. His best friends are still his cousins who live in the area, Seth Rakes and Tanner Crump. “I talk to them practically every day,” he said.
While he was in on this trip, he took them through a typical MMA workout.
“Seth wants to be a firefighter and Tanner is going in the Army,” Conley said. “Tanner was throwing up after the first minute.”
Conley said the seriousness of the training became evident to them.
“They were like, dude, this is crazy,” he said. “They had never been through anything like it. I was kind of laughing at them a little because it’s what we do every day.”
Conley has a degree in criminal justice and psychology from North Florida University but the intense training regiment has his focus.
He is a waiter at Red Lobster, which allows him the time he needs for MMA training.
“All in all, the gyms have been so amazing and taken me to the next level,” Conley said. “(But) If it wasn’t for Brandon, it wouldn’t even be close. For the first three years, my brother trained me.”
Conley also trained two years with Billy Mitchell at the Ludus MMA in Jacksonville Beach.
While he’s in town, he plans on bending the ear of Spencer Fisher, the former UFC fighter who recently retired and is currently teaching MMA here.
“I watched all his fights,” Conley said. “I hated that he retired. I know he won that last fight. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Conley, 25, weighs 160 but wants to fight at 135 pounds. He is left-handed and his quickness was always an asset in baseball.
It’s the same for MMA.
“There are pro organizations all around the world,” he said. “It’s like playing the lottery. But you have to get your name out there.”
In the meantime, the training will continue for Conley. Mariah Vos, his girlfriend of five years, is a professional model for BMG Modeling. Like him and his cousins and friends from Ashland, they all also have a passion for video games — especially “Call to Duty.”
“Me, Seth, Tanner and Clay (Reynolds) are obsessed with ‘Call of Duty,’’’ Conley said.
He says on “zombie” mode that Clay is the best but Seth ranks at the top on the regular mode.
Of course, the competitive Conley will continue to try and conquer them with practice and hard work — just like he’s doing with MMA.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.