LIVINGSTON — Watching mixed martial artist Edward Mackey exchange jabs with his opponent inside a steel cage, you'd never know the 26-year-old Livingston resident almost didn't make it.
Growing up in the streets of Merced, he was faced with several choices -- drugs, gangs and guns.
"I've seen a lot of violence in that neighborhood," Mackey said about growing up on West 21st Street.
A move to Livingston in 1992, when Mackey was 5 years old, was supposed to make things better. But it only made things worse.
Mackey's biological father left when he was a baby, and his mother worked two jobs to make ends meet. Her son was having a hard time fitting in, becoming a target for bullies.
"Every day in school, people would pick on me because of my skin color and size," Mackey said, remembering being beaten up five or six times. "I was just trying to make friends and fit in."
Mackey said he wanted a way to fight back -- to defend himself, but most of all, to make it stop.
"I just wanted to stop the violence," he said.
When Mackey entered high school, things started to change as he discovered sports and joined the wrestling team for three years.
Finding his niche
Mackey said he was "always the skinny kid" and too slow at football, but he found where he fit in: martial arts and kickboxing.
However, Mackey faced many detractors. Those around him told him he wasn't good enough and that he'd never make it.
"That motivated me even more," Mackey recalled.
Mackey held tightly to his dream of becoming a professional mixed martial arts fighter, until another setback sent him reeling. Mackey's biological father, who re-entered his life when he was 13 years old, committed suicide in 2004 in Merced.
"I still have questions to this day and wonder why," Mackey said. "My dad always had pride and he never wanted to show that he was going through depression."
A week before his father died, Mackey had an inspirational heart-to-heart with him. It would be his last conversation with his father.
"He had hugged me and told me I have a gift. He said I can do anything and to never give up," Mackey recalled. "We started building a father-and-son relationship like I always wanted."
After losing his dad, Mackey threw himself into training -- this time with a newfound determination. Using his mother as inspiration, Mackey kept an eye on his ultimate goal.
"She's the reason I do what I do," Mackey said. "This is going to make me something so I can offer them a better life."
Today, Mackey cares for his 57-year-old mother in Livingston, who suffers from diabetes. In addition to training daily in Merced, he volunteers his time to work with children in the Muay Thai Kickboxing self- defense class at the Livingston Recreation Center.
Last year, Mackey paid a visit to his former teacher's classroom at Livingston Middle School to motivate and inspire the 12- to 14-year-olds, many of them facing the same challenges Mackey overcame.
"I was totally impressed," said Acquainetta Street, eighth-grade teacher at Livingston Middle School, who taught Mackey for two years. "I see a completely different Edward -- he wasn't that tiny kid anymore. He seems to be very confident and dedicated to helping other kids."
Eric Sharp, teacher's aide at Livingston High School, also saw the transformation in Mackey during the four years he mentored him.
"When I first met Edward, he was lost and not sure what he wanted to do," Sharp said. "You could see he was trying to find his niche. He could've been out in the streets doing whatever, but he found other things to do to stay out of trouble. You could tell he found God and just wanted to make his mom proud."
Mackey demonstrated a few kicks for the packed classroom of kids, in addition to encouraging them to work hard and never give up on their dreams. He plans to come back and speak to a gymnasium full of kids next week.
"I want these kids to know anything is possible," Mackey said. "Do not let anyone say you can't do something. Believe, and never give up. You can achieve anything in this world."
Mackey's next MMA fight is set for March, but until then, he's focused on becoming a better person every day.
"I don't want to go back to where I was, and I tell myself I can do better. I want to be a world champ, but I want to be recognized as a noble and humble person."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.
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