Most professional fighters brag about the matches they've won, especially if those wins include world titles. To hear James Mullen tell about his victories on the Ultimate Fighting Championship tour -- the "no-holds-barred" full-contact martial arts bouts -- you first have to hear about the match he lost.
"I wrestled with the Lord, and he won," said Mullen, 39. "I was seeking fame and exultation and all the things that went with it. Then I realized that it wasn't my glory I should be living for. It's his glory."
So he walked away from his career as a prizefighter, moved to the Twin Cities and launched a ministry in north Minneapolis in which he brazenly approaches drug dealers, prostitutes, gang members and anyone else he thinks could benefit from hearing "the good word."
Gutsy? Crazy? Maybe a little of both, but he shrugs off such things the same way he shrugged off the threats when he first moved into a house just down the block from a bustling drug-dealing corner.
"Some dealers came up to me and said, 'Don't be surprised if you end up with bullets flying through your front door,'" he said. "But I've only been attacked once in four years. That was by a drug dealer who sucker-punched me. He just came up to me and: bam!"
Mullen had been hit much harder by much bigger guys. He grabbed his assailant in a bear hug and hung on until help arrived. Afterward, another dealer who had watched the struggle from across the street came up to him, but with a completely different attitude.
"He told me, 'Don't quit. Don't get scared. We need you here,'" Mullen recalled. "There are people who think I'm bonkers. But by God's grace, I'm not scared. The whole reason I'm out on the streets of Minneapolis, putting my life at risk, is because God loves the world and wants everyone to hear his word."
He ministers primarily in an area bounded by Lyndale, Lowry, Penn and Broadway Avenues. The people there know him. Folks wave as he walks by. A police car honks as it passes. When he approaches a prostitute, her pimp watches from a parked van but never intervenes.
"You have to realize that a lot of these people were brought up in very religious families," he said. "They respect what we're trying to do. They might not like it, but they respect it."
It takes one to know one
The fact that Mullen resembles a vending machine with arms and that he has proven that punching him is akin to punching a brick wall probably plays into how he is perceived on the street. But in his mind, there's another factor: The drug dealers realize that they are looking at one of their own.
"I grew up in Northridge, Calif., in a very dysfunctional family," he said. "I was a drug dealer. One day when I was 15, our house was raided and I woke up with a gun in my face. I decided that I didn't want to go to jail, so I cooperated with the police. My older brother, who also was a dealer, didn't cooperate. He went to jail."
In what he now considers the providence of God, he started studying martial arts, quickly discovering that he had a knack for it. "I thrived on the discipline, the focus and the hard work," he said.
After winning amateur championships, he turned pro. His breakthrough to the big time came on Jan. 3, 1998. He was pitted against a Russian heavyweight champion named Zagir Gaydarbekov in the Great Western Forum, then the home of the Los Angeles Lakers.
He won the fight. When the Russian's handlers called it a fluke and demanded a rematch, he beat him again.
His career took off. He suddenly found himself featured in pay-per-view cable bouts and going to fights overseas. But it was a different venue that determined his fate.
"I was invited to a meeting of Promise Keepers," he said of the national evangelical movement aimed primarily at men. "It was a shattering conversion. I kept fighting for about 18 months after that, telling myself that I was doing it to honor the Lord. But when I won the world title again on a pay-per-view, my pride kicked up again.
"The accolades and the autographs and the interviews, that's pretty heady stuff. But the next morning when I woke up, it was just me and God."
He and his wife, Anne, whom he met at a Bible study class, moved to the Twin Cities to take a missionary training program at Bethlehem Baptist Church. They were planning to go to Zambia, but Anne encountered complications after giving birth to their second child.
"We decided that it was important to stay close to good medical care," Mullen said. "We decided on an urban ministry. There are a lot of people who need help right here."
Together they founded Christ Satisfies Ministries (www.christsatisfies.org). In addition to the street ministry, Mullen is an associate pastor at Family Baptist Church, he teaches Bible study classes and the family hosts a monthly outreach at their home for "gang members, drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps, the homeless and common neighbors."
"I cook a lot," Anne Mullen said. "A lot of our ministry involves giving meals to people."
A friend of God
When he's on the street, Mullen is bursting with friendliness and enthusiasm.
"I try to wave to as many people as I can so I can show the love of Christ through friendliness," he said. "It doesn't matter if they wave back."
He introduces himself to people and asks if they have any burdens they want to share. His reception varies from welcoming and warm -- a neighbor who asked him to pray for her health -- to people who make it clear that they want nothing to do with him.
"I just try to show some love," he said. "If they say, 'Get out of here!' I say, 'OK. Sorry. Praise the Lord!'"
Before they moved to north Minneapolis, the Mullens lived in Eden Prairie. Now with three children -- Titus, 6, Phoebe, 4, and Hadassah, 3 -- they are committed to living where they work, and vice versa.
"We invested our lives in this," he said. "Living here is one of our convictions."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392