HELENA — The life of any adult amateur athlete is not an easy one.
Balancing, effectively, a full-time job that nets next to zero profit, another full-time job that pays the bills, family life, and any hobbies amateur athletes might have is almost impossible.
“You pick and choose your moments and you pick and choose them wisely and cross your fingers and hope that you're making the right choice,” said Chris Wagner.
Wagner, nicknamed "The Honeybee", is the top-ranked amateur flyweight mixed martial artist in Montana and is ranked eighth in the U.S. western region. And "The Honeybee” isn’t a misnomer -- Wagner is a full-time beekeeper in Montana who helps operate about 18,000 colonies commercially.
“I love the job, I think there's a lot that goes into it. There's a lot of science, you really have to use your brain, you really have to use your body. It's the perfect gig for me,” Wagner said with several bees flying around him near a colony. “I get to sit out here in this beautiful country that we get to call home, out in the middle of these fields and work with these intricate little insects that work together as a whole hive.”
A whole hive is also similar to the way that Wagner attributes his recent prowess on the amateur circuit, where he recorded his seventh victory in his career on Saturday night. Wagner, a Townsend Native, has been a combat sports athlete for nearly two decades, dating back to grade school when he found his way to the wrestling mats.
“We just started with a little bit of low-level stuff around the state where we realized that we had a real good core group of kids and parents and coaches that were all really dedicated to it," he said. "So we started taking these trips over to Oregon and Washington to train with other clubs and once we got there, we realized now we can compete with these kids. So, next thing you know, we're just 8-year-old kids traveling to Reno (Nevada), traveling to Iowa City, to go do these national tournaments and doing well. Just this little tiny town from Montana that nobody knew. And our coaches had it together, and we all had it together. And we traveled around and we tore everybody out, man. We were known everywhere, and it just became a family and addiction. ... We were so good at it and it was just so much fun to do it.”
From there, Wagner was hooked. Wagner wrestled under coaches like Kurt Rauser, Kenneth Thompson and Ron Boggs. For Thompson, wrestling was not a choice, but rather a lifestyle.
“When the kids wrestled for me, you wrestled for -- I don’t know -- you got a little bit of time off during football season, that was it. We wrestled 10 and a half months a year,” Thompson said in his shop on the outskirts of Townsend.
Now at 27 years old, Wagner is trying to make a name for himself again -- this time in the octagon.
“I've been fighting MMA for three years now. I got involved into it kind of sporadically. A guy had a last-minute dropout, so I said, ‘Yeah, I'll fill the spot,’” said Wagner. “Once I started, man, I just realized how much I love it. I love all the aspects. I love training. I love cutting weight, which is crazy. You know, nobody loves to cut weight, but I just love it. It's a lifestyle and if you're not willing to live the lifestyle, being a wrestler, being a boxer, being an MMA artist it’s not something that you're going to do. It's not something that you just -- you leave basketball practice and you can go have your double cheeseburger, and you can eat whatever you want. It's not like that with wrestling. It's not like that with fighting. You have to dedicate your entire life to it.”
Wagner’s race to the top is also a race against the clock. He knows there will come a time where MMA will have to go by the wayside in pursuit of other things that make him happy, but for right now?
“I'm, I guess, undecided, is the answer to that question. I love to do it. I don't know. I don't want to stop doing it. But I do have to think about my kids and my family at some point,” said Wagner.
Despite getting older, Wagner, like a bee to a wildflower, is drawn to his love of combat sports.
“It's what we do. It's what we live. And I just think there's no getting away from it once it snatches you up. Here I am, 20 years later, still. I just can't help myself," he said.