Former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic is famous for competing as a mixed martial artist while working full-time as a firefighter. Of course, he was not the first; years before Miocic was even fighting professionally, there was Chris Lytle.
“The whole time I was in the UFC competing I was a full-time firefighter,” Lytle told Sherdog.com.
Now, the man who is entering his seventeenth year serving his community as an active firefighter looks to blaze a new path in combat sports as a bare-knuckle fighting competitor. With one fight already under his belt, Lytle will make his stateside debut at Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship’s Aug. 25 card at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi.
When Lytle chose to walk away from fighting in 2011, it wasn’t because his best days were behind him. On the contrary, he was 5-1 in his last six UFC bouts, with wins over Dan Hardy, Matt Brown and UFC Hall-of-Famer Matt Serra. However, he worried that his full-time dedication to the UFC and the fire department left his family neglected.
“I wasn’t really home a lot, I wasn’t spending much time with my kids,” Lytle said.
Lytle has not fought professionally in MMA or any other combat sport in seven years. For a fighter with 15 professional boxing bouts and 54 MMA fights over a 20-year combat sports career, it can be hard to fill the competitive void. In retirement, he has tried to keep busy. In addition to his firefighting job, Lytle also oversees the Chris Lytle Foundation, whose mission is to promote anti-bullying campaigns at schools and in local communities. In 2012, he ran in the Republican primary for the Indiana State Senate’s 28th district. The bid was unsuccessful, but Lytle feels he learned a lot from the experience, not all of it good.
“I went into [politics] very naïve,” he said. Lytle -- who considers himself fiscally conservative but socially liberal -- felt he was viewed as a rebel by the party establishment in his state.
“They want yes men to go in [the state senate] and just follow the agenda,” Lytle said. “They could tell right away that was not really my plan.”
Lytle maintains he was motivated to run by a genuine desire to improve his community, a motivation he feels many of the politicians in office at the time didn’t share.
“It was very disheartening,” he said of the political process. “I think those [politicians] in those positions…it’s not about trying to do what’s best for the people.”
Although Lytle did think on occasion about returning to MMA, he doesn’t miss the brutal training regimen of an MMA fighter.
”I love the sport of MMA, but it would be too tough on me and my body [to have returned],” Lytle said. Lytle also maintains that fighters coming out of retirement often experience disappointing results.
“From what I’ve noticed,” Lytle said, “When you come out of retirement after several years, typically it doesn’t go real well,” he says.
Even though a return to MMA was out of the question, Lytle remained interested in competing again in some fashion. Then, last year, he stumbled upon a Facebook post of his friend, fellow UFC veteran Joe Riggs, taking part in a bare-knuckle boxing fight. At first, Lytle was shocked and dismayed.
“I remember thinking, ‘What is wrong with Joe, why would he do that?’” Lytle said. It didn’t take long for his mind to start to change, though.
“As soon as I got done watching it I said, ‘I’d kind of like to do that’,” Lytle said. He was surprised at the level of technique and strategy displayed in the bout, which he had expected to resemble a game of human Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.
“It was much more measured and more calculated than I thought it would be,” he said. “More than [even] regular boxing.”
Lytle made his debut in January in the United Kingdom’s Bare Knuckle Boxing, winning by third-round technical knockout. The experience left him with an even greater appreciation for the technical subtlety involved.
“When you punch you have to be very careful, first of all, with the placement,” Lytle said. “If you punch a guy on the top of the head you’re going to break your hand.”
Lytle believes that since bare-knuckle fighters cannot simply throw punches recklessly, the resulting careful, measured style helps reduce the amount of head trauma they give and receive.
“Punching without a glove on -- I’ve done that before -- it’s a lot less extreme [than punching with gloves],” he says.
Another aspect that appeals to Lytle is that he finds boxing training less taxing on his body, an important consideration for man who turns 44 days before the fight.
“I keep telling people; to do a boxing match is infinitely easier in my opinion,” he said. “You go in [the gym], you jump rope, you hit the mitts, maybe spar a little bit and that’s it.”
While Lytle is excited about this new chapter in his fight career, he admits his friends and family do not share his enthusiasm.
“Most of them said ‘I thought you were done with this,’” Lytle said. “[They] worry about me. I get their reservations, [but] it’s hard, you have these competitive juices. There’s something about a fight, [going] through a two month camp and goal.”
Lytle sees potential for bare-knuckle boxing as a sport as well as for himself as a competitor, and claims his BKFC bout will not be a one-and-done thing.
“I would like to have at least a fight or two and see what I think about it,” he said. “I feel like this sport actually has a little bit of a future. I think  years ago when the UFC first came out, it had this kind of taboo [vibe] of what you’re not supposed to do. I think this can grab that.”