Ryan Martin was pushing a lawnmower around a Hixson front yard last September, trying to put an extra $20 in his pocket, when his cell phone rang.
"It was [the rapper] 50 Cent and Tim [VanNewhouse]," he said. "They wanted me to box for them full time. I couldn't believe it."
Assuming "Blue Chip" Martin improves to 5-0 following tonight's lightweight bout against Misael Chacon in Monroeville, Pa., the whole country could believe in him come July 2. That's when ESPN would televise a bout including Martin on its "Wednesday Night Fight" show.
"That," VanNewhouse said, "would be his first big payday opportunity."
But it would be far from the first time those tied to Martin's Chattanooga roots would have seen big things from the 21-year-old Central High School graduate.
"Ryan first came to us when he was 7 or 8 years old," the West Side Boxing Club's Andy Smith recalled Thursday. "In the beginning he was like a lot of kids that age who walked through our doors: You just hoped he'd grow up to be an outstanding member of our community. But by the time he was 10 or 11, he'd won the national Silver Gloves and you could see he had tremendous talent."
That talent -- blinding speed, long frame and rapidly improving power -- is what led Van Newhouse to give the right-handed Martin the "Blue Chip" moniker.
"We like to label elite athletes as 'blue chip,'" he said. "And that's what Ryan is. He's a can't-miss prospect. He's special and we want our country to embrace him as such."
Tonight figures to be a very special night for Martin beyond the bout itself. The total card is being promoted by Mike Tyson, and part of that card -- though not Martin's fight -- will be televised by Showtime.
"It will be exciting just to meet Tyson," the boxer said. "I don't know that I was ever a huge Tyson fan, but I do remember when he was known as the most feared man on earth."
Martin said he never expects that to be said about him.
"At least I hope not," he laughed over the phone from his new home in Cleveland, Ohio.
But he surely instilled a little fear in his last victim, Justin Robbins, whom he knocked out in the second round of their March 28 bout in Rhode Island after smashing Robbins' nose in the opening round. It was the first time Robbins had been knocked out in eight professional fights, but the third KO for Martin in his four pro bouts.
"I've noticed a difference in my power," Martin noted earlier this month to BoxingScene.com when asked about his work with trainer Joseph Deyguyd and strength and conditioning coach Robert Kaleal.
"As an amateur I never had power, I just always had speed. Since I came to Cleveland, that's changed like day and night."
Everything in his life has changed like day and night. In addition to mowing grass, Martin worked as a dishwasher at Smokey Bones barbecue restaurant, then with the prep staff. He gladly left the real cooking to others, however.
"I can't cook to save the world," he said. "I'm awful."
But not in the ring, where he's already won more than 200 fights and 12 national titles. And that was before he went from 10-ounce amateur gloves to 8-ounce pro models, got rid of the headgear required for amateur boxing and began being escorted into the ring by 50 Cent.
"It's so much more strategy now," Martin said. "It's all or nothing. You're not just scoring points. You're trying to hurt the other person."
It's certainly different than the time Smith was carting Martin and four other young boxers home from the Golden Gloves nationals in Syracuse, N.Y., 10 or 11 years ago.
"I got this bright idea that I wanted these kids to get to see Washington, D.C.," Smith said. "So I pulled into a Ramada Inn in D.C. about 4:30 in the morning with these five kids, $200 in my pocket and no credit cards. The rate was $89.95 plus tax for a single, and I knew if I told them I had five kids with me I wouldn't have enough money to get us home. So I said there were four of us and the bill came to $129."
But he also had to find a way to sneak the other two kids into the hotel, and there was only one entrance.
"So I stuck Ryan and another kid into these two duffle bags -- that's how small Ryan was back then -- put the bags on a cart and hauled them upstairs. I think I got home the next day with maybe $5 left in my pocket."
Yet if any emotional scars remain from that night, Martin keeps them well hidden.
Of the Smiths (Andy and his father Joe) he said, "I'm so grateful for everything they've done for me. I was so lucky to have them in my corner growing up. I wouldn't be where I am today without the Smiths, my mom (Wanda Albert) and my brother Courtney [Campbell]."
It could change tonight in a bad way, of course. As VanNewhouse -- who once lived in Joe Smith's home during his own amateur career -- said this week, "Everything in boxing is tentative."
But "Blue Chip" also entered the ring last month to 50 Cent's hit single "Pilot," which seems altogether appropriate given his current career arc under VanNewhouse's and 50's leadership.
"It's all coming together," Martin said. "I just hope everyone in Chattanooga knows how much I appreciate all they've done for me."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org