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Originally published | Page modified June 19, 2009 at 11:32 AM

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Lyle Beerbohm has traded one addiction for another: meth for mixed martial arts

Former high-school wrestler decided while he was in jail that he would be a fighter. Now he's known as Fancy Pants, undefeated going into a match Friday night in Kent.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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SPOKANE — Lyle Beerbohm was behind bars when he decided to make a living in a cage.

Locked up in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla, he had six years of crystal-meth addiction behind him and an uncertain future. He was in the recreation room when he first saw a reality television show of mixed martial arts fighters competing for a professional contract.

"These guys are on TV, fighting, making money," Beerbohm said. "I thought, 'I could beat these guys up.' I really had no idea."

Now he can be pretty certain. For 26 months he has remained undefeated in a sport that is the closest thing there is to an honest-to-goodness fight. Tonight, Beerbohm (9-0) will fight at the ShoWare Center in Kent on a card promoted by Strikeforce and televised by Showtime.

His opponent is Duane Ludwig, whose nickname is "Bang." He's an elite kick-boxer who needed all of 11 seconds to knock out one opponent three years ago. The bout, which is not scheduled to be televised, is the biggest fight of Beerbohm's career, one that will show how far he has come and determine how far he can go in this sport.

Beerbohm has made a name for himself as a fighter and made a nickname out of the neon-striped fighting trunks his mother makes for him.

He is Fancy Pants, and at age 30, he has fought his way to a career as improbable as that nickname. He was a top high-school wrestler in Spokane in the 1990s who became a drug addict in his 20s and couldn't kick that habit until he was locked up facing eight felony charges.

Beerbohm says it has been three years since he used drugs, a comeback he and his father are chronicling in a book. He talks, Dad types, and together they've reassembled the story.

"Kind of a catharsis," said Gene, his father. "Because for me, I'm able to put it down in print without laying into him."

Lyle tells the story like he fights, refusing to pull punches. As a professional fighter he has found a discipline and determination that was missing in his life before he watched "The Ultimate Fighter" on Spike TV while in prison and saw his future.

"After I watched that, I knew deep down inside that's what I was going to do," Beerbohm said.

The very day Beerbohm got out of prison, he was at a jiu-jitsu gym back home in Spokane. He had his first amateur fight eight days after being released. Now he's preparing for his next one.

Getting to work

The gym sits in a strip mall in north Spokane. A plastic box taped to the door contains advertisements for different classes. The mirror pasted on the wall inside has a long and jagged crack covered by clear tape.

Beerbohm arrived for work at noon, which on this day meant spending the next 45 minutes having four of his teammates at Sik Jitsu take turns fighting him. They wore pads to protect their shins and heavier gloves than normal. The workout is divided into four five-minute rounds, and halfway through each round, Beerbohm's opponent switched out, leaving him to wrestle, punch and kick someone fresh.

This is his training. No elaborate weightlifting routines. No cross-training conditioning circuit. He'll jog in the morning to work on his cardio, but he prepares for his fights by fighting.

"I don't do what most people do," Beerbohm said. "I don't do medicine-ball drills."

The sport has been called no-holds-barred fighting, but that's a misnomer. There are rules such as no blows to the groin, no gouging the eyes, no kicks to the head of a downed opponent.

Mixed martial arts does provide a maximum number of ways to battle an opponent. Fighters can use fists, feet, knees and elbows. Want to try to choke the opponent? Go for it. Wrench his arm until it threatens to pop out of place? Fine.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the main promotion in the sport. Beerbohm is fighting for Strikeforce, another national promotion.

The fighters wear 4-ounce gloves, which are open, allowing fingers to move. The padding simply prevents a fighter from breaking his knuckles. A fight ends if the opponent is too dazed to defend himself or decides to give up, "tapping out." Judges decide the winner if there is no knockout.

Of Beerbohm's 12 amateur fights and nine pro bouts, only one has been decided by the judges.

He is a brawler who can switch between southpaw and orthodox stances. His ears are swollen with lumps of cartilage, cauliflowered after years of being crunched against wrestling mats. He has a light-bulb body of a fighter. Squared shoulders. Slender waist. Skinny legs.

Beerbohm usually weighs about 175 pounds, but will fight Friday at 160. That means he must make weight, losing those 15 pounds for the weigh-in the day before the fight.

He had been a high-school wrestler in the 1990s. A very good one, actually. He became the first freshman from Rogers High School in Spokane to qualify for the state wrestling tournament. He transferred to Mead High School, placed sixth at 141 pounds as a junior, and was undefeated as a senior.

"Great kid, a fun-loving kid," said Dave Vaughn, a full-time counselor at Mead and assistant wrestling coach for the past 24 years. "He had little to no fear. We knew he had a wild-hair side to him, but in terms of him in the wrestling room, real positive."

In his final year of high school, Beerbohm couldn't stay eligible. Not even with his father helping him finish a book report and the wrestling coach coming at 6 in the morning to make sure Beerbohm went to extra study hall. He needed a 2.0 GPA to be eligible; Beerbohm had a 1.9.

"I was very lazy, but very talented," Beerbohm said of his wrestling career. "I had to do minimum to get by and win. Now, I do the maximum."

Beerbohm's family support

The teeth were the first thing Lyle Beerbohm showed his parents when he walked out of the state penitentiary in February 2007.

He wanted to show he still had them. All of them.

Teeth tend to be a casualty of crystal-meth addiction, and Dad had been sending him pictures of drug-addled disasters to scare his son straight. Here was Lyle, out after serving 12 months, off drugs and smiling to show he was ready for a fresh start.

His parents had been through the bad times when he used their house as a meth pit stop, a place to make withdrawals to fuel twin addictions to gambling and drugs.

"He would have some money, and he didn't know if he should buy meth or go gamble with it and try to get more meth," said Gene. "And it was usually money he stole from us."

A framed picture of Jesus hangs over the mantel in the living room of their Spokane home. Gene taught Sunday school for five years at a jail near Spokane, where another of his sons is a guard.

His parents tried everything. They cried. They pleaded. They even kicked Lyle out. "Finally, I would just grab all of his belongings and put them in the garbage and march them out to the street and say, 'Hit the bricks,' " Gene said. "We did that a few times."

Beerbohm was arrested multiple times. Vehicle prowling. Drug possession. Fleeing police. Possession. He finally was locked up in 2006 and spent months in the county jail, where he was allowed out of his cell only 30 minutes per day.

The time was as miserable as it was necessary for Beerbohm.

"If I didn't go to prison I probably would be dead today, the way I was going with my life," he said. "Because I wouldn't get cleaned up. I wouldn't go to rehab. I wouldn't get off the drugs. I didn't want to get off the drugs."

Now, he and his dad are looking for a publisher for their book. His father has even formatted his own cover, which includes a grade-school photo of Lyle, a picture from his days as an addict and finally a shot of him after a fight, a championship belt around his waist from a sport that has proved to be a path toward redemption.

"I traded one addiction for the other," Lyle said. "I traded meth for MMA."

Now, he said, his recovery doesn't depend on the sport. He has his family. He has reconnected with his daughter, Peyton, who is 8, and has a girlfriend he said he plans to marry.

And about those shorts

The shorts have to be longer this time.

That's what Lyle told his mother, Sherry. He wants them to peek out the bottom of the fighting trunks he'll wear from his sponsor.

His nickname is based on Mom's shorts, which are fancy pants indeed, form-fitting with neon stripes. He saw the material back when he was an amateur fighter, and told Mom he wanted shorts made from the fabric. She thought he was joking, but he kept mentioning it week after week. She finally made him shorts that he wore to the ring, hidden until he removed the sweatpants after warming up.

"There they were in all their glory," Sherry said. "And of course, the crowd just went wild."

There were whistles, there were catcalls and even a few boos, and as soon as he heard that, Lyle Beerbohm knew he had found a signature.

It's all part of his custom-made comeback. Mom sews the shorts. Dad writes the book. And the son who ran wild for so much of his 20s fights his way to the career that he foresaw in the rec room of the state prison.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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