Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, May 22, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Blood rushes toward the head of UFC fighter Chico Camus, turning the outer part of his eyes from a radiant white to an ominous red.
His voice drops a couple of octaves. Camus slides downward in his chair as “vivid memories” engulf his mind, vivid memories of the worst night of his life.
“It was the Fourth of July so fireworks are going off all night,” Camus recalls. “Nothing sounded like anything different but I was on the phone and I heard my dog grunting loudly.”
Camus decided to investigate further when the moans failed to subside after a couple of seconds. He exited the room to find his dog limping and leaving a trail of blood drops on the floor.
Camus quickly panned to the other side of the room where his mother was folding laundry and his two nephews, ages 3 and 5, were getting dressed after taking a shower. Everything looked fine for his three family members, until Camus did a double take. He noticed a red dot increasing in diameter across his mother’s white shirt.
She had been shot.
Camus dropped the phone, wrapped his arms around his mother and barged into a closet for safety.
“We’re face-to-face, an inch away from each other,” Camus says. “I’m holding my mother, and she’s just bleeding. My brother comes upstairs, grabs her and runs to the hospital. I remember thinking, ‘That’s the last time I’m ever going to see my mother.’”
Camus pauses to place his hands over his eyes and wipe the tears away. It’s time to reminisce on the part of the story that doesn’t tear him apart, but keeps him going.
His mother survived the gunshot wound from a decade ago. She’s been fully healthy, enough to never miss a fight of her now 29-year-old son’s career.
She’ll be at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Saturday when Camus (14-4 MMA, 3-1 UFC) looks to further climb the bantamweight ladder in a preliminary-card bout against Chris Holdsworth (5-0 MMA, 1-0 UFC) at UFC 173.
“Out of everything I’ve been through, the most heartbreaking one was seeing something happen to my mother,” Camus says. “On top of your mother raising you, sacrificing for you and giving up everything she had for you, then she has to literally take a bullet for you? I owe the world to her.”
Camus pinned the drive-by shooting on an argument he engaged in with “a tough guy” on the phone earlier the same night. The incident was devastating, but hardly shocking.
Spending six years of his adolescence gangbanging and drug-dealing on the south side of Milwaukee each day, violence was commonplace to Camus.
“I came from the streets,” Camus shakes his head. “We were reckless, man. We were out there, crazy. I could have easily been dead or put away 30 to 40 times with a snap of my fingers.”
Camus remembers watching his older brother fall into the pitfalls of gang life from a young age. He used to tell his mother that he would never follow as they drove past his brother slinging drugs on the street corner.
Too focused on athletics, Camus played football, basketball and baseball since he was a child. He described his jump shot as so smooth he could have played in the NBA if he was a foot taller. Coaches used to tell him he had the talent to land a college scholarship playing second base.
But every time Camus stepped out of his house, there were negative influences.
“I was always strong-minded and gave it the stiff-arm, said no way,” Camus remembered. “But then a couple of bad things happened to where I finally gave in to temptation.”
Camus started slow selling drugs, but the new routine quickly consumed him. He would try to quell doubts about the direction he was heading, but they were always present.
Sam Pagan, now Camus’ best friend and trainer, will always remember the first conversation the two shared.
“We started talking and realized we shared a lot of common interests,” Pagan said. “But he was like, ‘I don’t know if you want to be friends with me because I’m really on a bad path right now.’ I told him I wasn’t worried about that. I knew he was going to figure himself out.”
Camus would “mess around” and cause a ruckus anywhere he went. One of the frequent stops during the time was a sub sandwich shop called Charley’s.
One of the employees was a teenage Anthony Pettis, the current UFC lightweight champion. Although Pettis refrained from ever dabbling in gangs, his family was notorious in Camus’ same south side Milwaukee community.
Pettis said his father, who was stabbed to death by a burglar around the same time, was known as “The Godfather” in the streets.
“Chico was a member of the Latin Kings, who I was friends with growing up,” Pettis said in an interview last year. “I understood the lifestyle: You saw the fast money as a kid. I saw tens of thousands of dollars stacked in the basement. I never judged anyone for what they did. If you grow up in that neighborhood, kids see those guys as the champs. They are like, ‘That’s who I want to be like.’”
Camus never acquainted himself with Pettis at the restaurant, but the familiarity made him comfortable introducing himself when they happened to encounter each other at a barber’s shop years later. Camus had started trying to distance himself from gang culture and overheard Pettis discussing one of his upcoming fights.
His curiosity stoked, Camus asked Pettis about mixed martial arts and whether the fighter be willing to let the gang member work out with him. The next day — the Fourth of July two years after the shooting — Camus puffed on a cigarette as he waited for Pettis to pick him up and take him to the gym.
Camus arrived confident and he was tough enough to hang with anyone, professional fighter or not, but departed with cuts and bruises all over his body after an absolute beatdown.
“Anthony humbled me, put me back to Earth,” Camus said. “I remember walking out of the gym thinking, ‘I lied to myself, my friends and family about being a bad-ass gang guy.’ I threw my cigarettes away and never smoked again. That was the changing point of my life.”
Pettis dropped Camus off at a holiday barbecue afterward. Camus told his family something at the gathering that none of them really believed: He was going to try this “mixed martial arts stuff.”
Everyone responded skeptically except longtime girlfriend Lilly Beth Colon, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Colon almost immediately believed in Camus and told him she would support him while he tried to break into the sport.
Camus had dialed back his gang activity, but it was still too much for a soon-to-be mother. She urged him to find another outlet.
“I was making runs every other night at midnight to go sell drugs,” Camus said. “She was sitting there telling me I have to get away from it, and I’m forever grateful. That’s the love of my life. She supported me when I didn’t have anything.”
With the motivation of his two sons, now 8-year-old Armani and 6-year-old Isaiah, Camus spent the next six years working his way toward the UFC. He worked a job as a brick mason, callousing his hands and exerting himself through labor all day before heading to the gym to try to keep up with one of the world’s best fighters in Pettis at night.
Losing three of his first 11 fights, it took Camus longer than he ever expected to reach a major promotion. But the opportunity finally presented itself in August 2012, when the UFC called with an offer to fight Dustin Pague at UFC 150 in Denver.
Camus controlled the fight both on the feet and on the ground, winning a unanimous decision. Shortly after, his phone rang indicating an unknown number.
Camus answered to hear the voices of his two best friends from his gang days on the other end. They had watched his fight from prison, where they are “basically locked up for life” according to Camus.
“That was probably hands-down the most humbling experience of my life,” Camus said, “because that could have easily been flipped around and been me calling from a jail cell to someone I saw on TV.”
Camus said he ran with a crew of 32 gang members. Twenty-five of them are now incarcerated.
Camus thought he played it safer than some of his colleagues back then, but can’t count the number of times he dodged bullets or ran from police. He had no explanation for how he came out of his past relatively unscathed and with no record beyond a pair of misdemeanors.
“I got all messed up because of drugs and gangs,” Camus concluded. “But it’s never too late to chase your dream. You can do a hundred wrongs, but when you do a right, everything can change for you.”