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One of the fastest growing sports in the country is mixed martial arts and two local competitors are among the elite helping to grow the sport.

Two athletes from Calvert County took their combat-oriented disciplines to a national event sanctioned by the World Kickboxing Association and both came home with first-place championships on March 23.

Chris Cleary, a 2005 Huntingtown High School graduate, and Cody Denton, a 2008 Calvert High School graduate, competed in Richmond, Va., at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center. Cleary won the Muay Thai Championships and Denton won the MMA Championships.

Don’t led their calm demeanor fool you, they have mad skills.

Cleary trains at the Calvert MMA Academy in Prince Frederick under coach Carlos Lopez and Denton trains at Conquest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Millersville under head coach Vicente Junior, a third degree black belt from Brazil.

Cleary graduated from Salisbury University in 2011. Denton is currently a junior at the University of Maryland in College Park, majoring in environmental sciences and technology.

Cleary and Denton have aspirations of taking their skills to the professional level. They started out training at the Black Belt Academy in Prince Frederick but soon found themselves in the boxing scene training under professional boxer Keith Gross.

Cleary got his start in the Golden Gloves, while Denton fought a few amateur bouts, but never pursued boxing fully.

Denton instead had his heart set on learning mixed martial arts and began training with Junior in 2011 and Cleary was on his way to success in Muay Thai, a combat martial arts sport that uses stand-up strikes including fists, elbows, leg kicks, punches and knee kicks.

Six-foot tall Cleary (9-1, 4 KOs) lost 28 pounds to make weight. He fought three fights in two days after making weigh-ins on March 21.

“The wait was horrible because 600 fighters had to be weighed in, so no one could eat or drink for fear of missing weight and not being able to compete,” Cleary said. “Losing the 28 pounds was hard, but standing there waiting for my turn was a nightmare.”

Cleary started his weekend with a unanimous decision over Alvin Johnson from Lafayette, La., but his ultimate test came on March 23, as he ended up fighting two matches just two hours apart.

Cleary defeated Jake Chamberlain of Norfolk, Va., by unanimous decision and, for the championship belt, took down Logan Maxwell from Calgary, Canada.

“I dominated the first round with aggressiveness,” Cleary said regarding his win over Maxwell. “I was looking for the knockout. I dropped him in the first round and the referee gave him a standing-eight count. The finish I had been after all weekend came in the second round when I landed a series of combos that dazed and stumbled him enough that his corner coaches threw in the towel to protect him from further damage.”

Cleary said if there’s one thing he took from the experience, it’s that anything is possible.

“If someone told me I would be a national title holder this time last year, I would laugh in their face,” Cleary said. “I know it sounds cliché but if you put your heart and mind into something and are determined to give it your all, then nothing is impossible.”

Denton (5-0) fought in the 165-pound MMA class in the tournament, which involves more ground and pound and wrestling techniques. He said it takes a person who is dedicated to working hard to become successful in the sport.

Denton competed at Calvert for one year but said he didn’t really like it at the time. Things have changed since.

“We’ve both put in so much time and hard work,” Denton said. “You have to strive to want to be better at this. It takes a hardworking person that isn’t afraid to take a punch.”

Denton, who had only been training six months prior, opened his weekend with a win over Michael Kennedy from Atlanta.

“That fight ended in the second round [submission] when I choked him unconscious with a triangle choke.” Denton said. “It was tough, I knew I had to push my body. After the first fight, all the nerves were gone and I knew on Sunday I would have to fight back to back. I was sore and bruised, but I knew I just had to go out there and get it done. It was nice because Cleary got to watch me fight and I was able to watch his fights.”

Denton said his second fight was the hardest of the weekend, against Philadelphia’s Shane LaRocca.

“I won that fight [against LaRocca] in 45 seconds by [submission] arm bar,” Denton said. “He came out and threw everything he had at me. I caught him with a punch, but he walked through it. It was a very intense 45 seconds.”

Denton won his third fight by a triangle choke against Canadian Chad Baird.

Denton said his ultimate goal is to turn to the professional ranks.

“I’d like to maybe get four more fights and see where my skill level is and make the decision to go pro,” Denton said. “It’s a really quick transition with MMA turning pro and all of the rules are exactly the same as the amateurs.”

Cleary is training for his next fight, scheduled for June, and his next tournament is the World Kickboxing Association World Championships in Tuscany, Italy, to be held in November where he will fight for a world title.

Cleary is looking for sponsors. For more information, you can call him at 443-624-2020.

tshowalter@somdnews.com