When Travis Conley was a child in Spring Hill, his Aunt Nancy won tickets over the radio to see Andre the Giant take on The Ultimate Warrior from the third row at Memorial Hall.
Aunt Nancy sat it out (Conley went with his father and two older brothers), but she might as well have won the lottery.
At least as far as he was concerned. The night came to drive his life.
“Imagine as a 4-year-old little boy seeing, literally, a 500-pound giant,” he said. “Ultimate Warrior ran in, and he clotheslined him and pinned him in like 30 seconds.
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“And the Giant flips out. He said the match hadn’t started yet, or whatever, and he goes over to the announcer’s table, and the Giant flips over a table.
“And I thought we were all going to die. Like this guy is going to go on a rampage and kill all of us.”
This all is just as vivid and fascinating to him 26 years later.
And it helps account for how he’s come to be in Narita, Japan, Saturday to begin competition in the Sambo World Championships, a sport that combines wrestling and martial arts.
The moment has been a lifetime in the making, really, through zigs and zags including a stint as a professional wrestler while he was pursuing his degree in fine arts at the University of Central Missouri.
“My one goal (in life) is to be a world champion,” said Conley, who trains out of his gymnasium/home in Lee’s Summit. “Everything else just kind of comes off that.”
If sambo is an obscure sport to most of us, so be it. We can all relate to having our own unique dreams … whatever they may be.
The difference is what we do about it, and there’s an earnestness and energy about Conley that makes you want this for him.
“I want to be a trailblazer,” said Conley, the first in his family to go to college. “I want to do things that haven’t been done.”
So don’t be distracted by the unfamiliarity with the sport. Or its name. It’s nothing like the samba dance, and it’s pronounced sahm-bo, not like the word that has come to be viewed as a racial slur.
The amalgam of jiu jitsu, judo and wrestling originated with Soviet Red Army training in the 1920s.
“There’s no punching, no striking, no blows,” Conley said. “It’s leveraging and joint locks, elbow locks, knee bars, ankle locks, but you can’t do chokes. …
“On the mat is on the mat. It’s all grappling.”
You probably couldn’t have told him that when he was at Spring Hill, where he was The Star’s 2002 scholar-athlete and a two-time state wrestling qualifier.
Wrestling was the be-all, end-all.
But his passion would be challenged by revelations through the three-plus years he was on the local pro wrestling circuit after getting his start through the Harley Race Wrestling Academy in Eldon, Mo. … just as he started college.
He took school seriously, too, graduating Cum Laude, even if his degree with an emphasis on illustrating has been dormant since he designed the logo for his Underground Gym.
“I had such an untraditional college experience; I never went to a social function, I never went to a homecoming, nothing,” said Conley, who spent most weekends and plenty of weeknights on the wrestling tour and figured people in school thought he was “kind of mysterious.”
The sense of mystery and intrigue he had about pro wrestling, though, came to evaporate.
He remains grateful to Race, but over time he came to be disillusioned by that world.
Not so much because the results were orchestrated, because everyone knows that. In fact, it still bothers him when people dismiss it as fake, because even if the end was contrived the blows and athleticism were real.
But it all came to feel cut-throat and political to him as he roamed the state under his alter ego, “T-Money.”
He’d wrestle for $50 a match in front of a few hundred people at a time, sometimes with concussions that he swore left him feeling his brain rattling around.
Add it all up, he said, and “it’s almost like magic tricks. They’re awesome because you don’t know how they happen, but when they get revealed, you never look at them the same again.”
Between all that and a shoulder injury that he said required reconstructive surgery, Conley left the circuit before he finished college.
But he immediately felt a void.
Searching for new meaning and a new outlet, he filled it with Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Under the tutelage of Jason Bircher and Ethan Day of Kansas City Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Mission, Conley learned the sport and came to flourish in that and its hybrids:
He became a five-time International Opens champion in the sport and won a silver medal at the 2011 World Grappling Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
He recently completed a 40-day jiu jitsu teaching tour of 10 European countries.
Now, it’s sambo time, an opportunity that arrived in unique and somewhat fuzzy fashion.
Apparently based only on a recommendation from a Russian friend he trains with, Conley received a letter in September from USA Sambo offering him a spot in the Pan American Games in Trinidad and Tobago.
Maybe not surprisingly, there was a catch.
No, he didn’t have to tour a time share.
But he did have to pay for everything from travel to accommodations to his uniform, a few thousand dollars in all.
“It was a leap of faith,” he said, smiling and adding, “And the tournament was in a tent on a parking lot on an island.”
But Conley won, earning him a berth in what he expects to be “100 times harder” competition against opponents from lands where the sport is prevalent: Kazakhstan and Mongolia and Turkmenistan, etc.
For the curious, the matches will be live-streamed at http://sambo-fias.org/pages/japan2014. He gets started at 7 p.m. Kansas City time, 10 a.m. Sunday in Tokyo.
For the benevolent, he has to pay for a lot of this, too, which is why he hopes for financial help. You can check that out at www.ungd.tv.
“Friends and family have pitched in and donated, random people, too,” he said. “It really empowers me, because not only am I representing the United States but I’m literally funded by the American people.”
In a way, it’s a lot different than what he was setting out to do.
In a way, it’s exactly what he’d always hoped for ever since that day at Memorial Hall.
“I’ve learned everything,” he said, “from wrestling.”