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MMA fighter Marcus Kowal leaving his sport to campaign for his fallen son

MMA fighter Marcus Kowal leaving his sport to campaign for his fallen son
MMA fighter Marcus Kowal with his late 15-month-old son Liam. (Marcus Kowal)

At a mixed martial arts club card in Studio City, a fighter will participate in his farewell bout Saturday night.

Marcus Kowal isn't quitting. Bound by unspeakable tragedy, he can't. He's instead taking his fight to another forum.

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Less than two years ago, Kowal's 15-month-old son, Liam, was killed after he was struck by a car in his stroller in Hawthorne by a drunk driver, Donna Marie Higgins, 72, who was sentenced after an August guilty plea to six years in prison.

"The truth is," Marcus Kowal said of his CFX Promotions fight at Sportsmen's Lodge, "this fight is for Liam."

Dedicated followers of combat sports know Kowal, 40, as a guy who's everywhere in the game. He owns the Systems Fighting Center gyms in Westwood, Hawthorne, Inglewood and Encino, coaching and mentoring fighters of all levels at gyms throughout the Southland.

He started as a pro kickboxer in 2001, went pro in MMA in 2008, fought in Strikeforce and has boxed and fought on sanctioned cards and unlicensed smokers from here south into Mexico.

"Martial arts is my life, part of my personality," Kowal said. "It's given me an opportunity to travel, to make a living, to grow as a human. A lot of fighters would agree with me that the hardest part is giving it up because it's addicting in a way. The adrenaline rush of hearing people scream and fighting is very difficult to mimic in life.

"Nothing compares to walking into a cage, you against another person, and it's got a mental side too, of you versus yourself. We hug in there afterward because we've been on this journey. It might be very difficult to explain, but if you've done it, it's a part of you forever — beautiful in a very violent way.

"Now I've got to concentrate on my life."

He started that work earnestly. Only four days after Liam was killed, he started writing every thought racing through his mind — 90,000 words in three months — crafting the heart of what has become a book and documentary, "Letters to Liam," nearing completion.

Marcus Kowal with his wife, Mishel Eder, and son, Liam.
Marcus Kowal with his wife, Mishel Eder, and son, Liam. (Marcus Kowal)

"It was a way for me to deal with emotions I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," Kowal said. "During this time, I met many fathers who had lost children and I realized that years down the line, some of them are still very bitter, many turning to drugs and alcohol.

"I refused to be that and I didn't want to become that person. We very rarely speak candidly about men's emotions. The stigma of being a fighter is you're perceived as being macho … so I realized I can reach an audience with my book after trying to handle a situation like this as healthy as I possibly can. Dealing with grief is subjective, but if I can I help anyone in this process, I'm happy."

Kowal and his wife, Mishel, welcomed a second son, Nico, six months ago, and have mounted a determined public safety campaign to address drunk and distracted driving.

"No parent should have to bury their child, especially due to drunk driving, when, in theory, we can stop it tomorrow," Kowal said. "The problem is people say, 'Someone should do something … .' Well, who? I decided I'm going to do something.

"Because of what happened to my son, I'm going to make sure other lives are saved and that other parents don't have to go through what we did."

Marcus Kowal with his son, Liam.
Marcus Kowal with his son, Liam. (Marcus Kowal)

Kowal's confidence is rooted in the fact that there's zero tolerance for alcohol in a driver's bloodstream in his home country of Sweden, and his pitch also notes that Germany and Ireland have reduced their drunk-driving threshold to .04 blood alcohol concentration from the current standard in the U.S., .08.

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He has collaborated with the California Highway Patrol to speak at 57 high schools.

"That's the highest at-risk group, young males 16-35. Being a fighter, I come in and they think I'm cool and tend to listen a little more — even if I have the same message as a mother," Kowal said.

He also had an audience with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom to propose legislation for a .04 blood alcohol concentration threshold.

"I have to tell myself to carry on every day. Time heals all wounds, but this scar will always be present," Kowal said. "There's days depression has taken over, when I've thought I'm going crazy.

"But both my wife and I decided early on, 'We're going to find our way back to happiness.' My son parted. If I had parted, I'd have wanted him to be happy. We were raising him to be giving and happy. So it's like the fight. You think, 'What am I doing? Am I good enough? Am I crazy?' I might get knocked down, but I'm not going to stop."

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