Ladarious Jackson gazed across the courtroom at the muscular man in shackles. It was like looking at himself.
He thought about their happier days, young brothers diving off furniture, playing like pro wrestlers. They escaped their sad reality, if only for a while, imagining themselves stars in a sport that celebrates illusion.
Anthony Jackson, 24, had once been among Pasco County's most promising high school football and basketball stars, dazzling with speed and agility. Now he shuffled in chains, baby steps on his way to state prison for selling drugs. Ladarious wiped his eyes. He repeated a promise to himself that he would be different.
He hugged his mother, who had driven from Georgia, and they cried together. He forgave her, which will seemed strange to those who know the family's story.
"She's still my mother," he said.
On Jan. 8, two months after that courtroom scene, Ladarious turned 21. His mother didn't call.
"That's okay," he said. "I didn't expect anything."
Lawanda Jackson had 10 children with 10 different men. She was serving time in state prison for selling cocaine when she gave birth to Ladarious. He grew up around violence and suffered from learning disabilities and neglect. His tantrums got him thrown out of mainstream classrooms. But when he entered Gulf High School in New Port Richey, he found salvation in the form of Travis DeWalt, the wrestling coach who took a special interest in Ladarious, turned him into a model student and two-time state wrestling champion.
The Tampa Bay Times told that story on June 5, 2011, as Ladarious earned his diploma and prepared to head off to college.
Much has happened since. Ladarious accepted a scholarship to wrestle at Indiana Tech University but lasted only one semester. "I really struggled in math," he said, "and I hated the snow and cold. I really needed a friend. I didn't have a Travis."
Ladarious returned to New Port Richey and moved in with a cousin. He bagged groceries at a Publix briefly and cleaned the kitchen at Arby's. He rode his bike several miles at 3 in the morning to work part time on a garbage truck. As much as he loved Travis DeWalt and his family, as close as they had been, Ladarious stayed away, afraid he had let him down by leaving college.
He missed the attention, the applause and cheers that came with dominating his sport. He missed the physical contact. He stopped into a gym in Port Richey.
"And the rest is history," Ladarious said with a broad smile.
• • •
More accurately, the "rest" is just beginning. At Gator MMA, it didn't take long for owner Daniel Blevins to realize what kind of talent had just walked through his door.
"He's a freak of nature," Blevins said. "How else do you explain him? He's just unbelievable. Most athletes have to work extremely hard to even scratch the surface where he is at. Ladarious can do anything physically. And he has what you can't teach — heart and drive.''
MMA stands for mixed martial arts, a combat sport in which competitors employ a variety of fighting skills such as jujitsu, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. Local gyms develop young fighters who work their way through amateur associations with dreams of one day making the big time, professionals in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"Ladarious can make it there," Blevins said. "No doubt."
At the gym on Leo Kidd Avenue, fighters stop training any time Ladarious enters "the octagon," an eight-sided canvas surrounded by a cage, standard for MMA matches. He's had six fights, mainly around Tampa Bay, "and he has not even lost a round," Blevins said.
Ladarious is impatient. He wants to go professional, make some money for fighting. "I'm tired of riding a bicycle," he said. Blevins wants him to wait.
"We want him to be the best he can be,'' Blevins said. "He still needs to develop his skills.''
While he does that, Blevins and his wife, Christine, give him free shelter at the gym. They feed him and wash his clothes. Ladarious, who fights in the 170-pound class, considers this pro fighting thing might not work out. He still wants to be a cop some day. He laughs when he confesses another fantasy. "I want to be a singer," he says. "No, really. I can sing."
Meanwhile, Ladarious has reunited with his old coach. DeWalt went to one of his fights.
"He's like a snake," DeWalt observed. "He seems docile and then he strikes so quick. He was a great high school wrestler, but now he's even stronger. He's such a paradox, a kid who is so gentle and has such a big heart hits the ring and becomes a vicious attacker."
Ladarious has been helping DeWalt get his Gulf High wrestlers ready for the postseason. Last week, as DeWalt made his athletes run laps around the football field, Ladarious stood by the fence and watched.
"Why aren't you running?" DeWalt demanded.
"I don't want to run," Ladarious replied. "I'm wearing my wrestling shoes."
DeWalt pushed him some more. "I'm glad I'm not training you anymore, you've gotten lazy. You probably can't run with these high school boys."
Ladarious, without stretching, without changing into track shoes, lined up for a quarter-mile race. He blazed around the track, coasting to the finish line with the closest runner more than 100 yards behind.
"That good enough for you?" he said to DeWalt, grinning.
"Now he won't shut up," DeWalt said. "I almost wish I hadn't shamed him into running."
They laughed and locked arms as they headed to the wrestling room — "where the legend began," Ladarious said, his voice rising with all the theatrics of a pro wrestler.