When former Toughman fighter Sam Crilly raises his hands in victory these days, it's a symbol of more than an in-ring win. Crilly, a champion of the Toughman Contests of the 1990s, traded in a lifestyle of barroom brawls, drinking and carousing for a life of faith about 10 years ago. As he steps into the ring for tonight's Toughman challenge at Farmer's Market, 311 S Klein, Crilly hopes to tell about the fight of his life. The Oklahoma City man likes to tell how he made the transformation from "scumbag” to soul winner. The Rev. Dale Justice said Crilly's intense nature has been directed toward winning souls for Christ. "Sam spent most of life trying to beat people down. He's just as intense now, but it's about building people up, not ripping them apart,” said Justice, pastor of Kingsview Free Will Baptist Church, the Moore ministry Crilly attends. "He's a legend because people knew him as a bad guy. He's still impacting people now but in a good way.”
Fighting mentalityCrilly, 35, recently shared his life story during a chapel service at Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College in Moore. His face lights up and his voice rises in excitement as he recalls how the college students reacted enthusiastically to his tale of redemption. "I told them if God can use a scumbag like me, imagine what he can do with you.” Crilly said he has come a long way from his days of hard living. "I was just mean.” Crilly said fights in and outside the ring resulted in six broken noses and one confirmed concussion. He estimates there were countless others that weren't formally diagnosed. His jaw was dislocated in one of several underground kick-boxing contests. "I just liked to fight,” he said. He said even as a young boy growing up in Newcastle, he liked to put his fists to work. When he was 8 years old, he punched another youth who had the gall to tease him about his name on the first day of school. "He said ‘Sam I am. I eat green eggs and ham,” Crilly said. "He was making fun of me so I beat him up. It was a kind of sick fun and I enjoyed the attention.” He said as teens he and his friends would often "cruise” up and down 12th Street in Moore, looking for a fight and pretty girls. "I enjoyed life growing up but it was a troubled life,” he said. "I had problems with drinking and with women.” Crilly said he met his longtime friend, Larry "Trucker” Lewis, a Toughman promoter, when he was working at a crowded bar in the early 1990s. Lewis, 53, said he was searching for fighters and Crilly looked too young for the fierce competitions. Lewis said he found out later that Crilly lied about being 18 years old to get into the Toughman contest and was actually 17 when he fought in his first Toughman challenge. While he was a champion in many contests, in real life he was anything but. Crilly said his life spiraled out of control so much so that he wound up behind prison walls. Crilly spent just over a year in federal prison for his part in a 1993 abduction and kidnapping scheme resulting in the theft of more than $20,000 in pay phone money from a Southwestern Bell employee. (According to published news accounts, kidnapping and robbery charges were dropped because he cooperated with prosecutors and he was instead charged with possession of stolen goods.) However, Crilly said prison did nothing to detour him on his self-destructive path. "When I got out, I went right back to doing what I was doing,” he said. What brought about a positive change in his life — the change he loves to talk about — was a simple invitation. Crilly said in 1998 his son was invited to attend Kingsview, 14200 S May. He said before long his family attended the church together.
Winning the fightCrilly said his life changed dramatically and he felt the results immediately. Before he began attending church he spent his days planning his nights of partying, drinking and getting high. After a couple of Sunday morning church services, he noticed something different. "I'm waking up on Sunday morning without a hangover, without any bloody knuckles, without any regrets,” Crilly said. When Justice became pastor at Kingsview, Crilly began to hang around the preacher and the two formed a friendship. Crilly said through Justice's mentorship, he began to learn how to live his life for Christ. "God really changed my life and I realized that it's not just about going to church on Sunday,” Crilly said. The transformation led to his passion for telling others of Christ's goodness. Mark Braisher, vice president of Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College, said he was impressed by Crilly's commitment to spreading the Gospel. Braisher said he met Crilly when he joined Kingsview and heard the younger man speak during a Sunday school class. "I've been a pastor for 25 years and I see so many Christians that are just ‘playing the game,'” Braisher said. "I heard Sam give a testimony and I was so impressed with how he was so real and so passionate about his faith.” Lewis — "Trucker” — seemed to echo the sentiments of Justice and Braisher. "A lot of people talk it, but they can't walk it. I think that's what he's (Braisher) trying to say,” Lewis said. "A lot of people think real men can't be Christians. A lot of times people think Christian men are wimps, but that's not the case.” Crilly said without his faith, he could hardly claim the victory in the battle over his soul. "The fulfillment in life that I've found, I found in God,” he said. "It's beyond happiness. It's joy.” Crilly's hasn't been in a Toughman fight since 2005. As to what will happen in the ring tonight, only he and the men he leads in Bible study at Kingsview really know for sure. Smiling mysteriously, Crilly said the fight already has been won. Said Lewis: "In the fighting world, he will always be ‘Preacher Man' and now I guess in the real world, he'll be one.”