By Riley Manning
CORINTH – If you ask Johnathan Burdine what he does for a living, he’ll probably shrug his shoulders and say, “A little bit of everything.”
But the Corinth native wears many hats, from his role as a tattoo artist, to that of a mixed martial arts coach and fighter.
Most importantly, though, Burdine says his relationship with Christ is the driving force behind his many passions.
Burdine said his first love was tattooing. Nurturing a heavy interest in art through middle school, he received his first tattoo in high school.
“The next thing you know, I got to tinkering with some second hand equipment,” he said. “Then I got hired on at Unexplained Art tattoo shop that used to be a block away from where my shop is now.”
During the day, though, the ‘97 grad felt stifled at his full-time factory job, and dreamed of a way out.
“I hated it. I was depressed about going in from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., being around stuff I didn’t want to be around,” he said. “I felt trapped.”
At the same time, Burdine and his wife were scrambling to purchase their first home. It was at his wits’ end when Burdine said God stepped in.
“My wife had been on me about going to church, and basically I went to get her off my back,” he said. “I wasn’t raised in the church. I thought it was a forced thing that people had just been raised to believe.”
But something happened that morning he didn’t expect. As the young preacher delivered a sermon challenging congregants to ask themselves what was keeping them from God, Burdine broke down.
“I bawled all the way through,” he said. “I wanted to hold back, but even as a grown man, I couldn’t control myself. I knew I had to do something different, and I made that walk up to the front of the sanctuary.”
The next day, Burdine said he woke up with a clear head. He quit his job on the spot. It was a risky move because quitting without giving the standard two-weeks notice meant he probably wouldn’t be hired back if things didn’t work out.
“But I went from stressing at every angle to everything being turned around,” he said. “The Lord had been dealing with me before I even knew it.”
Burdine said he and his wife put buying a house on hold, while he devoted his efforts to tattooing full time. In 2003, Burdine opened a shop of his own, Fillmore Street Tattoo and Piercing in Corinth, and went on to be featured in Urban Ink magazine.
Pews around a boxing ring
Burdine’s new desire to share the gospel soon found its way into his martial arts career. Growing up as a fan of martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, Burdine took lessons in tae kwon do at an early age, but fell out of it by the time he graduated high school.
“Tattooing full time, I wanted to get back into it, but everyone was doing Brazilian jiu jitsu and grappling,” he said.
Burdine learned quickly and soon began teaching jiu jitsu and tae kwon do at a local school. He opened his own gym, Paragon Martial Arts in 2008, and took his first professional mixed martial arts fight in 2010, eventually earning the title of 145 lb. champion.
However, it doesn’t take much more than a step in the door to see that Burdine’s gym is more than a gym. The one-room facility is split almost down the middle. One side is made up of jiu jitsu matts, a few punching bags, and a small caged octagon for sparring. On the otherside, a pastor’s podium stands before a dozen or so rows of pews.
“I always had a vision of ministry working through the gym,” he said. “We had a boxing ring on loan, and when we returned it, it just so happened a family member had access to some pews, so we started having weekly bible studies at the gym.”
Some may find it conflicting to preach the message of Christ at a fighting gym, but to Burdine the two go hand in hand.
“Christianity is a fight. I believe God’s purpose for me is to take the gospel to the last places you’d look,” he said.“The tattoo shop and the gym are both places you get to talk to people every day and hear where they came from.”
Not to mention, Burdine said he has seen first hand how lives have been changed at his gym.
“I’ve seen people come in here with problems, everything from violence and drinking to being overweight, and make a real change,” he said. “I’ve seen one guy who came in at 340 lbs take a match at 170 lbs. I’ve had a parent sit in my tattoo chair and talk about how different her son is since he started coming to the gym, what a positive influence it’s been on him. People think it’s about beating each other’s brains out, but it’s really about who can be calm enough to make the smarter decision under pressure.”
The most difficult part, he said, is not having enough hours in a day. The father of three – with a fourth on the way – said for now, he’s putting his fighting career on hold to focus on the business, and his role as associate pastor at Mason St. Luke Baptist Church in Corinth.
“But my oldest boy just turned seven. We’re working on his grappling. He’s competed in two tournaments and won them both,” Burdine said. “And if you want to talk about that passage in Leviticus about tattooing, stop on by the shop.”