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Kevin Kearns finds strength in helping others

Client Tara Mardigan works out with trainer Kevin Kearns at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy in Somerville.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Client Tara Mardigan works out with trainer Kevin Kearns at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy in Somerville.

“I turned a bad situation into a good one. I turned a hobby into a lifestyle, and then into a career,” said Kevin Kearns on how being bullied led him to his fitness business.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

“I turned a bad situation into a good one. I turned a hobby into a lifestyle, and then into a career,” said Kevin Kearns, on how being bullied led him to his fitness business.

If you search for the wind-up key, electrical cord, or batteries on fitness guru Kevin Kearns’s back, they are suspiciously missing.

It’s shocking if you consider that Kearns, a muscular bulldog of a man who has developed a mixed martial arts fitness regiment, can chew the fat for hours. He’ll tell you stories as if you’re familiar with the full cast of characters who have populated his life over the years, and then he’ll tell you about all their siblings.

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But as you sift through his tales of growing up in Everett, the story that is most inspiring is how a once-bullied and tormented Kearns grew up to train Ultimate Fighting Championship contenders Kenny Florian and Stephan Bonnar, plus a dozen others. A once-constantly shoved runt who learned to tie his shoes later than his peers, he is now a font of positivity who will stop others mid-sentence if they negatively judge themselves.

The 47-year-old from Norfolk progressed from personal trainer, to gym owner, to ultimate fighter coach, to fitness video instructor, to author. Now he’s certifying trainers around the world to teach his program of mixed martial arts-inspired fitness while promoting his self-published book about combating bullying. He’s hoping to find investors to help him produce an infomercial to sell his upbeat DVDs. The tattooed Kearns, who can talk for two hours with nary a breath, seems as if he was placed on this planet to create exercise infomercials.

The thread that links all of the these projects always comes back to Kearns’s particularly difficult childhood. He describes it in his book, “Always Picked Last.”

“The bullying started when I was 5 or 6,” he said. “I was the kid who was always a step behind everyone else. I sucked at sports. I was an easy target, and after my dad died when I was 12, it got even worse.”

In the book, he describes one particularly horrifying incident when a former best friend joined a group of Kerns’s tormentors dragging him, throwing him in a puddle of mud repeatedly, and holding him face-first in the filthy water as he was kicked and punched. He was finally freed when an older teen dispersed Kearns's attackers.

At 5-foot 4-inches and hovering at 100 pounds, 14-year-old Kearns continued to be a target. His attackers dented his mother’s car, called him names, and threatened him. He took comfort in staying inside and curling up in his late father’s favorite chair.

A well-meaning uncle stepped in and helped pay for karate lessons (“we had nothing, absolutely nothing”), and the karate lessons led to weightlifting. It was a way to fend off the tormenters, but it also sparked Kearns’s life-long interest in fitness and his crusade against bullying.

“You have to remind yourself everyday what you’re good at, and I’m good at helping people,” he said. “Because I remember everyone who has helped me along. I look at it this way: It’s tragic that my dad wasn’t around for all parts of my life. But if it didn’t happen this way, I wouldn’t be who I am.”

His toughest clients are among his biggest supporters.

Kearns at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Kearns at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy.

“Most people are afraid to be who they are, to be open and transparent for fear of ridicule,” said Marcus Davis, a hulking ultimate fighter whose nickname is the Irish Hand Grenade. Not necessarily a nickname that would denote sensitivity. “Not Kevin. He’s not afraid to put himself out there.”

Once conquering the bullies and graduating from high school, he proceeded to bulldoze through challenges in college, graduating with a degree in exercise physiology from the University of Massachusetts.

There’s a charming, scrappy Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Let’s put on a show” mentality — if the pair had ever made exercise training films — behind Kearns's adventures in fitness. He appears game for trying just about anything. At various points he invented a device to hold a Walkman and a water bottle while working out, wrote for magazines, and filmed fitness videos in his basement on a shoestring budget. This summer he’ll be the conditioning coach for Lapides Tennis Academy in Newton.

There are bigger plans. He wants to certify more people around the world to teach his program, called Mixed Martial Arts Fighter Fit, which he originally developed to train his UFC clients. He’d also like to author additional books, film more DVDs, and present anti-bullying seminars. And if anyone is interested in financing his infomercial, Kearns will not say no.

“I turned a bad situation into a good one,” he said. “I turned a hobby into a lifestyle, and then into a career. I had no grand plan. Life sends you clues, and you have to make choices.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.
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