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Collin Hart always said he never runs from pain, he runs to it. Looking at his two black eyes, Hart ran to it all right. Two blackish-blue, crescent-shaped marks were below both eyes. A perfect match they were, almost too perfect, as if they were applied by a special effects artist. Or delivered by two brutish applications from the same lead pipe.

Hart, 23, is a little self-conscious right now of being seen in public, the two black eyes, the broken nose and the five stitches closing the cut on his right eyelid not making him feel very photogenic. Fact is, to the outsider, they appear to be badges of pride, of honor, examples of toughness — that Hart could absorb the strikes of Britain's Luke Barnatt in Las Vegas last Saturday night. It was Hart's first UFC fight. He lost on a decision, a close decision, one that could have turned just as easily in his favor.

"It was the fight of my life," said Hart, an Analy grad. "I took a lot of damage and I gave a lot of damage. His face looks the same as mine."

The faces of both men had that whacked-by-the-same-lead-pipe look. The sport of mixed martial arts literally marks its participants. It's not a player like walking away from losing a baseball game and seeing a sad, droopy face. This is combat and Barnatt didn't sound like a winner in the post-fight medical examination.

"Hey, Collin, you took out (injured) my leg!" Barnatt screamed from behind a curtain that separated the two men as they were being examined.

"Stuff it!" Hart said. Actually, Hart didn't say "Stuff it!" He said something else but this is a family newspaper and I don't want to get a black eye from my sports editor. Hart was in no mood to be compassionate. His legs, elbow and face were in pain. He was having trouble breathing, diagnosed later as athlete-induced asthma. He felt he had won. And then there was the contact. The UFC website listed Barnatt as landing 113 strikes (contact with knees, feet, hands, elbows). Hart registered 95. That's a lot of contact during only three five-minute rounds.

You would think, after all that, he would have little energy or inclination for humor and fun. To the contrary.

"What happened to you?" That was and still is the question Hart gets from strangers either in Vegas or in Santa Rosa since he returned home Monday. The two black eyes prompt the question. Hart has given three different responses.

"I have a bad case of pink eye," Hart has said. That draws sympathy.

"I have an abusive girlfriend," Hart has said. That draws a lot of sympathy.

"I got beat up by a group of prostitutes," Hart has said. That draws bewilderment.

"I try to keep a straight face," Hart said.

Do the strangers get that he is joking?

"Some eventually get it," said Hart, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. "But not all of them."

Hart smiled at the thought of someone walking away, shaking their head, at the image a woman clocking him with a lamp. He hasn't lost his sense of humor and he hasn't lost perspective either. Hart is not putting his health at risk to be a celebrity. With a 4-2-1 record as a professional, Hart is not fighting for adoration. It would be ridiculous to go through all this pain just to be noticed. Yet it's happened.

"When I was in Vegas, every 100 feet someone would stop and ask me for my autograph," said Hart, who wrestled at Analy and SRJC. "It's really humbling, an honor that a complete stranger would be excited to see me. I'll never completely understand how celebrities can come off as rude when someone asks for their picture or autograph. I don't understand why my name on a piece of paper is important to someone. But if it makes them happy, I'll do it."

On the airplane to Vegas, Hart sat next to a woman who told him her son was a big fan. Can I have your autograph? Sure, Hart said. But on what?

"The only thing we could find (to write on) was the barf bag," Hart said.

Giggles aside, fame is fleeting for most pro athletes. Hart will remain visible as long as he fights. But he doesn't know if UFC will keep him. He is awaiting word. He plans to fight again in August, either under contract or taking another step to be accepted into the NFL of MMA.

"I like the challenge," Hart said. "If it was easy, I would need to find something harder. I think I found my challenge."

As if he could find this challenge anywhere else: Early on in the Barnatt fight, after taking a few punches to the face, Hart decided not to dodge the blows.

"Those punches didn't hurt that much," Hart remembered, "and so I took them to my face in order to save my energy to attack him."

A guy who allows his melon to be thumped repeatedly, waiting to attack when his opponent is lulled into complacency, that guy knows self-sacrifice. For Hart, to do it any other way, he would giving himself a black eye, the kind of black eye he wouldn't be proud of.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.