Klayton Mai Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

This professional mixed martial arts fighter has dedicated a room of his home to his 40-plus ball pythons. At first blush, Klayton Mai sounds like a man who likes to live dangerously. A real tough guy. But once you talk to the 25-year-old, muscular, 135-pound Lake Highlands High School graduate, you know he’s just a sweetheart who loves his mom, his dogs, his fiance and, yes, his snake collection. “It’s a big misconception that fighters are tough, mean guys,” he says. “All of them I’ve met are humble nice people.” As for the snakes, ball pythons are relatively harmless, he says. Both snake-rearing and fighting take a large degree of fortitude, responsibility and discipline. Mai started martial arts when he was just a kid, lost interest for a few years after his instructor moved away, and picked up wrestling at Lake Highlands High School. Under coach Pete Grieder, Mai got into competitive form. “I loved working out, staying in shape [and] being part of the team.” In college, at the University of Oklahoma, he says he missed that. His senior year, he and a neighbor — wrestling champ Robbie Waller — started a wrestling club at the university. In training, Mai met some MMA fighters and felt pretty good about his performance when training with them. When he returned to Dallas after college to work with his dad at Mai Plumbing Company, he continued mixed martial arts at Octagon MMA gym in Uptown. Before long, he landed a couple of paying gigs, which officailly made him a professional. It’s exciting to get paid to fight, he says, but “it’s not enough to quit the day job.” Long-term, Mai hopes to lead his family’s plumbing business. “But it’s nice to know that if I really want to go take a shot at the big leagues, I can probably get some time off.” It can’t be easy to watch someone attack, punch or attempt to dropkick your son, but Mai’s mom, Carol, has been backing him since his wrestling days. “I know how much he loves this, so I support him,” she says. Mai says his mom actually has been quite enthusiastic about his fighting. “She’s been notorious for getting really into the [match]. She will yell things out even if she doesn’t really know what she is supposed to be saying … sometimes yelling things that don’t make much sense,” he says with a smile. The fighter says he’s as passionate about his snakes as he is about fighting. There’s a lot to learn about breeding and caring for the animals, and he says he finds it relaxing to sit in his reptile room and watch the pythons — with their unique colors and designs — move around their aquariums. “I compare it to how some people are passionate about gardening or raising tropical fish. They research and learn how to make their garden grow, and they get enjoyment out of seeing it develop. That’s how I am with the reptiles. I have dogs as pets … I know it’s different. These aren’t really pets like dogs are pets.” Mai plans to marry fellow LHHS grad Hannah Garner in October. And what does she think about her future husband’s hobbies? After all, finding a girl who doesn’t mind sharing a home with 40 snakes can’t be easy. “She supports my fighting,” Mai says. “She’s worried I might get hurt, but she enjoys it. She isn’t as into the snakes as I am, but she is OK with them.”