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Martial artist strikes a balance in life

BROOKSVILLE

The story tip says only that a Brooksville resident is competing in one of those suddenly trendy mixed martial arts fighting leagues. Immediately, the images percolate.

Going nose-to-notebook with a leathery face outlined in scars and scowls. Tattoos, elaborate ones, perhaps covering an entire limb. Guiltily, you also wonder if responses to your questions will emanate from a cerebrum so damaged by kicks and counter-punches, they arrive as grunts.

Then you enter the dojo in the upscale strip mall, and Danny Rawlings greets you with a smile, a faint northern Ohio accent and a boy-band face bereft of even a shaving nick.

"I'm one of the rare, un-inked ones," he says of his tattoo-free, 5-foot-7 frame.

Suddenly, you realize this 34-year-old fighter has just landed his most profound blow, one you never saw coming.

A vicious roundhouse to all those preconceived images.

"He's a really nice guy," said Alexey Petrov, owner of Westchase Impact Martial Arts in northwest Tampa, to where Rawlings makes thrice-weekly commutes from his Brooksville home to teach something called Muay Thai, or Thai boxing.

"Usually guys who are that good, they do not fit the stereotype," Petrov said.

Nearly as unblemished as he is unassuming, Rawlings has been a martial arts student more than half his life. He's 1-0-1 as a light welterweight professional boxer, is internationally certified in Muay Thai (a brutal, versatile martial arts style) and competes for the Los Angeles Stars in the 3-year-old World Combat League.

"They've always said (the WCL) is like a three-round or five-round fight condensed into one," said Rawlings, who is single.

Rawlings, who might weigh 148 pounds after a second helping of his beloved Thai food, should know. He has fought in cages and kickboxing events, on Army bases and in foreign countries, on his feet and on the mat.

"When I go see him fight, it's like my heart is pounding sometimes," said his mom, Sherry Leslie. "But on the other hand, life is short, and if you find something that brings you joy, you should go for it."

Thing is, the other dimensions to his life, those other pursuits that provide him joy, are as far removed from brutality as, well, Brooksville is from L.A.

By day, Rawlings is a massage therapist at the White Daisy Salon & Spa in downtown Brooksville. He also raises two alpacas (think small llama with a camel's head and neck) on his mom and stepdad's Hernando County farm, and serves as a "big brother'' to three special-needs men (ages 36 to 50) under the foster care of the Leslies.

"He's got a good heart," his mom said.

"All my work is in my hands," Rawlings added. "I like to think I have dangerous hands, but I also have healing hands. I like that balance."

Time was, those hands held far more suds than potential.

A Brooksville resident since 2002, Rawlings was raised on the banks of Lake Erie in Madison, Ohio. The oldest of a family including two brothers, two stepsisters and a half-sister (one of his brothers was killed in a car accident in 1994), he vividly recalls his first driver's license listing him at 5-foot-1 and 96 pounds.

"I was scrawny," said Rawlings, who had no athletic background. "If anything, I would've wrestled because I was so small."

He was washing dishes at a Madison restaurant when Richard Fike, a veteran local martial arts instructor and frequent customer at the eatery, struck up a conversation with him.

"I guess I saw a little bit of myself in him. I'm only 5-7," said Fike, a retired Army officer who has served as a stunt and special-effects coordinator on dozens of films and TV shows.

"It was just the way he handled himself, his coordination, and he's real polite. He had heart, and just in talking with him, I sensed there was something there, and I felt if he was properly trained and supervised he could turn (martial arts) into something maybe that he could use, because he was so small."

In no time, Rawlings was training at Fike's dojo, learning the San Chi Ryu style, a smorgasbord of martial arts techniques created by Fike.

"I noticed he had talent beyond the normal martial artist," Fike said. "Then I noticed he had a fighters' instinct in him."

Rawlings took that instinct and fighters' itch to the Army in 1992, right out of Madison High. While stationed in Fort Carson, Colo., Rawlings took up Muay Thai at a nearby school and ultimately landed on the Fort Carson boxing team.

Muay Thai "is so much harder (than karate)," said Rawlings. "You're striking with all kinds of weapons. I mean, you've got normal techniques, plus you have elbows, plus you have knees. In karate you're kicking with the foot, in Muay Thai you're kicking with the shins. It's bone. Everything's bone."

Upon leaving the Army in 1996, Rawlings further diversified his fight portfolio. He boxed in the Olympic trials, had two pro fights, competed for the USA Amateur Muay Thai Team in Thailand, and even fought in a cage in a mixed martial arts event for an Ocala-based squad called Team Trauma.

He was introduced to the WCL several years ago when the coach of the Miami team invited him for a tryout. He didn't make the team, but later hooked up with the Philadelphia franchise.

For all his martial arts experience, Rawlings never had seen anything like it.

"It's its own breed of fighting," he said.

In this eight-team league, founded and partially financed by actor Chuck Norris, each team consists of six fighters (five men, one women) in various weight classes. On match nights, fighters engage in a pair of three-minute bouts (with a short intermission in between) against the opponent in the corresponding weight.

Punching, kicking and kneeing are allowed; throws, take-downs and ground fighting are prohibited. Clinching, holding, or even passivity (i.e. dancing around the ring) results in penalty points. The circle that serves as the ring — 251/2 feet in diameter — features no ropes.

"People are slinging power," Rawlings said. "And when you're throwing nonstop, you're open. You're very, very vulnerable when you're throwing shots. It's a unique kind of fighting and it's very difficult."

But not very lucrative.

Hence the reason that, in addition to his massage work, Rawlings teaches Muay Thai and dabbles in the family alpaca business, where the money is in the gentle animal's breeding and not necessarily its fleece.

Recently acquired by the L.A. Stars as an alternate, Rawlings said he will earn $600 (plus some expense money) if he doesn't fight in the May 3 Western Conference finals in San Antonio. He'll get $1,500 if he fights, with additional monetary bonuses for knockouts, a team victory, or if his match is voted the night's best fight.

"I'm actually the lightest guy (in the 147-pound) weight class," said Rawlings, who finished 3-2 with Philadelphia last season. "I'm the shortest and the lightest. A lot of people think I'm undersized."

There again, go the misperceptions.

That's one fight Rawlings is likely never to win.

"That's what this sport has taught me," he said. "Watch out for the little nerdy guy."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com or (813) 310-6328.

>>Fast facts

To watch

The World Combat League has a TV contract with Versus Network, which televises matches on a tape-delay basis. The Los Angeles Stars' match against Oklahoma on May 3 in the Western Conference finals will air June 8 at 7 p.m. WCL Turfwars airs on Versus each Thursday (check local listings).

Martial artist strikes a balance in life 03/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 8:23am]

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