Andre Harrison knew he had to find a way out.
Growing up on the north side of Freeport, he said racial tension made life dangerous, especially since he had to walk past violent gangs every time he left his house. His childhood friends were in the same position.
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"A lot of people got hurt real bad," Harrison said. "Some people didn't make it."
Then a wrestler for Freeport High School, Harrison saw the gym as his opportunity for a better life.
"I knew if I was going to be able to do anything, I needed to be good at wrestling so I could get a scholarship, go somewhere and do something."
That led Harrison to mixed martial arts in his first year at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, where he graduated with a criminal justice degree. He was just filling in as a sparring partner for a friend but discovered a new passion.
"When we were doing straight boxing, it was relatively even," Harrison said. "When we incorporated kicks, it changed the game completely. I'm like, 'I have to learn this.'"
The 27-year-old is now an undefeated MMA fighter, training at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy.
Harrison (9-0), a former Ring of Combat featherweight champion, gets his first Titan Fighting Championship title shot against reigning champ Kurt Holobaugh on Saturday at Titan FC 34 in Kansas City - Harrison's college hangout spot.
"I know he's tough," Harrison said of Holobaugh (14-2). "In his two losses, he was in both of those fights. He could have easily won it. He just got taken down and controlled.
"He was put in positions where the average person would have tapped or gave up and he fought through it. He would literally go to sleep before he taps. You have to beat him in order to win, you can't expect to squeak one out."
Facing a reigning champion is unique, Harrison said, because they are "the king of the weight class" and "supposed to be better than everybody else."
He said his training stays the same this week, but meal portions shrink. He plans to stock up on vegetables, chicken and water.
Trainer Keith Trimble believes Harrison is well prepared, partly from sparring with tough local competition. Trimble said Harrison "holds his own" against UFC fighter such as Dennis Bermudez and Chris Wade and former world champion boxer Chris Algieri.
"He's a well-rounded fighter," Trimble said. "He can take it on the ground, he can beat you up standing."
Harrison and Trimble's relationship transcends the traditional. The two met about three years ago and have been dedicated to helping each other ever since.
Trimble has become the father figure Harrison never had growing up. Harrison even calls him "dad."
"I tell him, 'Listen, there'd be no way for you to kick me out the gym, I'd find you in grocery store aisles. You can't get rid of me now, it's too late,'" Harrison said. "The world would be a better place if it had more guys like him."
Trimble and the rest of the gym's fighters are an extended family to Harrison and his daughter Aniyah Nicole, who turns 3 in September.
"He's a great dad, a caring dad," said Gregor Gillespie, Harrison's main sparring partner. He said Harrison is laid back and likes to joke around outside of the octagon. "But don't let that mislead you" when he steps in the cage.
Harrison said he and his daughter share a favorite superhero: the Hulk. He said she compares him with the muscled giant and enjoys watching fights.
"She's seen me fight, spar, condition, everything," Harrison said. "She wants to hit the pads and do stuff sometimes. She's like, 'Daddy, you've got to punch like the Hulk.'"