In some ways, Christian Echols' first dose of fame is frozen in time. The uppercut that certainly changed his life as an MMA fighter will be forever etched in his memory.
But that creates an important question. Can that moment truly be frozen in time, the uppercut that knocked out top Bellator prospect Pat Downey, when the video has been shared somewhere in the neighborhood of a million times on different social media outlets?
"Man, it's crazy," said Echols, a 24-year-old Cullman native who graduated from Good Hope High. "Obviously, I expected to win the fight. You don't go into a fight to lose. With the caliber of his credentials and his wrestling, I was thinking maybe a three-round decision or maybe a second-round TKO. To knock him out in the first round, like I did, was surprising to me and especially everyone else."
The thing about Echols' story is it didn't end on December 9 when his knockout of a lifetime occurred in Uncasville, Connecticut. And it certainly didn't start there. The truth is his story has many layers and some of them aren't pretty. While he doesn't necessarily embrace the bad times, he certainly is willing to use them as inspiration.
"I went through a drug addiction for a little while," Echols said. "I went to jail. They always say whenever you tell your story. You're never going to tell it the same twice. You always miss out on little things. I like to sit down and tell [people] what I went through, what I did and how I came through it. It shows what people can kind of expect as they're going through it."
Echols grew up dreaming of being an MMA fighter. His dad, Ray, is a former MMA fighter and boxer. Christian, who fought in amateur bouts as a youngster with his dad in his corner, broke his ankle. He had surgery to put a plate and three screws in his ankle.
"The doctor [prescribed] me Percocet," Echols said. "I was a good kid. Sure, I was a little rough. I'm not going to say a bully, but I was definitely a meaner guy. I wasn't into drugs. I drank with my friends at parties. I ended up taking the whole bottle before my next checkup. When I went in there, I was like, 'Hey, I'm out of these.' At that point, I was already having withdrawals. They refilled them. I got my refill and took all of those. And from there, once they didn't refill the next one, I had moved on to finding people to buy them on the street."
Echols was asked if fighting was the vehicle that got him away from the addiction.
"Man, I wish I could say that. That would sound really nice," Echols said.
It took rock bottom for that to happen.
"If you're buying things on the street, obviously, they could be pressed with anything, or they could be real pills, you never know," Echols said. "I got sold a Fentanyl pressed pill. It was a painkiller. I took the same amount I usually would. I took a half a pill, which I usually would have taken, and would take the other half a pill later. Well, I took the half of pill, and that one was pressed with Fentanyl. It made me pass out at the wheel when I was driving down the road within about 10 minutes. I woke up and was in the back of an ambulance."
Rock bottom came after he reached the hospital.
"My dad came in there," Echols said. "I could tell by his face he had just given up on me. He had heard that I was doing something before. He tried to talk to me. I didn't listen to him. At that point, he had just given up. I was like, 'Dad, I'm sorry. I'll never take drugs ever again.' He was like, 'Yeah, I've heard that before. Hope you get some help.'"
Echols was on probation at the time for what he says are "some false claims made against me when I was younger." He was sent to jail for breaking his probation after the overdose. He spent two months in jail before being released to a sober living facility.
"I just kind of learned the ways of how to be me again," Echols said. "How to be a functioning human in society. The place I went to, they allow you to work a regular job, they allow you to be around people. They may be doing drugs around you. While you're at work, they may be over there snorting pills or whatever. They can't control that aspect. They just say, 'Hey, look, we're going to drug test you at random, and if you ever fail one of these drug tests, you're done. You're going back to jail.' You either sink or swim."
How did he swim?
"After I overdosed, just seeing my dad," Echols said. "You know how it is, growing up, you think your dad is like Superman. Anytime they're disappointed in you, that hits hard, really hard. Seeing him sitting there crying in my hospital bed and looking at me like I was a failure, that was just something that hit me in the heart. I said I'd never do it again. I think that's what did it. My dad didn't give up on me, but he was done being my helper. He was done trying to talk me out of it."
Echols began working out at 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu Decatur. One of his coaches – Matt Elkins – worked with UFC fighters Eryk Anders and Walt Harris in the past. He saw himself growing as a fighter. His cardio improved drastically, which played a role in his being 0-2 as a professional fighter at the time. His first two fights under his new team ended with a pair of victories totaling 55 seconds.
Not long after the second one, he was working out when he got a message on his phone.
"Some lady named Jane said, "Hey, this is Jane from Bellator MMA. Would you like to fight December 9?'" Echols said. "I was like – this is fake. Get out of here. Sure enough, I started talking to them. They gave me their number, offered me the fight, sent me a contract."
Echols knew what was expected. He was brought in to lose to Downey, a former All-American wrestler at Iowa State, United States national champion and Pan American Games medalist. Downey won his professional MMA debut with a knockout in 36 seconds. He was a star in the making, and Echols was supposed to be a building block in Downey's career.
It didn't quite work out that way.
Downey was able to get Echols to the ground early in the fight and sunk in a tight choke. It appeared the fight would end quickly, but Echols worked his way out of the deep chokehold and got back to his feet. He noticed quickly how tired Downey was from trying to end the fight. He knew what was next. And he knew that he would cut loose with an uppercut for the third time in the first round.
"Once we got on our foot, I knew he was going to try to shoot and take me back down," Echols said. "I just timed it perfect, man. I landed right on his chin."
The biggest fight in his life, at least to this point, was over in two minutes and 27 seconds. The rest of the experience was a surreal journey that began with his post-fight interview with legendary MMA referee and commentator Big John McCarthy.
"I've been watching MMA my whole entire life," Echols said. "My dad was a fighter. I was brought up in it. Big John McCarthy, he's a legend. I thought I would meet the guy. I didn't know it would be right after I had just knocked out one of the top prospects in the United States with him having a microphone in my face. Man, I felt like I was in a movie. All I could think of when he walked up was I got to tell this guy how appreciative I am to get to meet him. I didn't care if I was on TV or not."
Now, it's back to work for Echols. He's back at it daily. What's next is still up in the air. He's in the process of hiring management. Some of his friends in the business suggested that the focus that Bellator gave to Downey's future could be shifted to Echols. Many times, in similar situations, young fighters are given three or four-fight developmental deals.
All of that is important. But, the focus is continuing to build for that future, with his past clearly evident in the mirror.
"Man, it pushes me every single day," Echols said. "We have this thing called an 'Assault Bike' at 10th Planet Decatur. It's the ultimate cardio workout. That's what has changed my game completely, cardio-wise. Halfway through the workout, my coach is standing there beside me, telling me to push. I just think about all the people [that doubted me]. Nobody ever said it to me directly. Nobody ever said, 'Oh, you're a failure. You're not going to make it.' But, obviously, I live in Cullman. It's a smaller town, so people talk. When I'm working out, and I'm on that bike, and I want to slow down or not work as hard that day, I just think about all those people that lost faith in me. It just drives me, and I start pushing even harder."
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