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Raw CombatTHE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
By JIM GENIA
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2011 Jim Genia
All right reserved.
I paid thirty bucks to the big, burly man at the door and walked into the South Bronx boxing gym unsure what to expect. It was February of 2003 and I was playing the role of curious spectator, my hidden notepad and pen and digital camera the only indicators otherwise. Around me sat a few dozen in bleachers, some of them cheering, all of us transfixed by the ring in the center of the room and the occupants within. And when the judo black belt in traditional kimono had his arm suddenly and violently twisted and broken by the kickboxer clad only in Lycra shorts, that was it. The New York underground fight scene had me hooked. It was beautiful, a poetry of violence, calligraphy with karate for brushstrokes and jiu-jitsu for ink.
Seven years and close to thirty editions of something called the Underground Combat League, watching hundreds of men throw everything they had at each other, and from the start I knew was gazing upon something special. If you live in the Five Boroughs, the UCL is the only game in town, the only place to see a Five Animal-style kung fu instructor get clobbered by someone who knows how to fight for real, the only place to see a personal trainer from the David Barton Gym on his hands and knees, blood leaking from his forehead and mouth and dotting the canvas. The UCL, not the first but for sure the most resilient, what you'd get if you made Fight Club a sport (but don't ever call it "Fight Club"; doing that shows how much you don't really know) and gave the thing a life of its own, made it a magnet for thugs looking to pound someone, for aspiring fighters and wannabes, for the ignorant and disillusioned, for the psychotic. A tradition, like when they'd gather in dojos in post-feudal Japan and scrap, or when they'd meet in back alleys in Brazil or under tents at fairgrounds in Europe, only a modern, up-to-date version where the party crashers wear blue uniforms and carry Glocks. A tradition, practically a Big Apple institution, and when mixed martial arts is legalized there will be no more need for it.
On a Sunday night I'm there, at the edge of a boxing ring somewhere in the Outer Boroughs. An endless array of cheap multicolored event posters cover the walls, warped and pitted floorboards squeak with each footfall, and the faded blue Everlast canvas stinks like meat gone spoiled, a side of beef long on dried blood and tetanus. Close by is a diminutive 135-pound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt named Emerson, there in the ring, so close I could reach out and touch him. He's an instructor, and his students present number over a hundred, a hundred and they've vacated the bleachers to crowd around the ring, a mad rush in the seconds before combat. If anyone is cheering for the karate fighter from Harlem, it's lost, whispers amidst crashing ocean waves. The referee yells "Go!" In the span of thirty-six seconds the Brazilian takes his opponent down, straddles him, and rains down punches until the karateka taps the canvas with his hand indicating "No mas, no mas!" It's all over but for the mayhem of celebration, and the tableau is so stunning, so charged and evocative, it could be a Caravaggio hanging in the Louvre.
Vale tudo, they had called it in Brazil in the 1900s (Portuguese for "anything goes"), but by the end of the century it was called something else here in the States, sometimes Ultimate Fighting or, disparagingly, human cockfighting, and now mixed martial arts (MMA) since the outrage over the spectacle has faded. The entire world went nuts over a SpikeTV reality show involving aspiring fighters battling it out in a cage called the Octagon, a more palatable thrill easier to swallow, and it's legal to hold such matches in Nevada, California, New Jersey—legal almost everywhere but New York. And I'm here thanks to a clandestine text message revealing time and place, clandestine because the New York State Athletic Commission isn't too keen on these sorts of shindigs.
The karateka and the Brazilian shake hands and hug, according each other all sorts of respect and gratitude. The vanquished is as much a victim of the Brazilian's technique as of his own outdated training methodologies (punching and kicking imaginary opponents usually gets you a big fistful of fail), and he'll never step into the ring unprepared again. But it isn't about who wins or who loses as much as it's about the intensity of the battle, and this one has provided all with an up-close and hugely satisfying dose of it. In Las Vegas, superstars like Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture are captivating millions from within the cage of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but here, at the lowest levels and in the trenches, the frontline skirmishes are all about local heroes giving it everything they've got and giving fans of fighting a glimpse of the reality of mano a mano combat.
Peter Storm is the man behind it all. Some say he's a villain, his secret events in ghetto-tastic boxing gyms deservedly criminal. But he's just someone you eventually stumble across if you live in the Big Apple and tote around a love for all things fighting. In the fourteen years since the first UFC graced the pay-per-view airwaves, promoter wannabes have sunk millions into organizations that crashed and burned and failed in spectacular fashion, but Peter took aim at a target more attainable, aimed square at the demographic hungry for intimate and personal action and an atmosphere of "Holy crap, these are some badass underground fights!" A feint, a body blow, and then a bare-knuckle hook to the chin and he's scored a knockout.
"We've never had a problem with the athletic commission or the police," he tells me, alluding to more of a "catch me if you can" than a "go ahead, try to shut me down, mother-fucker" way of thinking. For Peter has never and would never advertise. You're either on his list to get a text message or you're not—and if not, the only way you'll ever know there was a UCL event last weekend is if your friend fought or maybe, just maybe, you scour the Internet for MMA-dedicated news sites and find results. It's the Keyser Soze of fight shows.
At mixed martial arts events in states where sanctioning is a way of life, where an athletic commission official oversees the urine samples for drug screening and someone with a conscience—or at least a concern about tort law—has matched up the competitors, the fighters will be more or less athletes of near-equal degrees of skill and commitment. But at an underground show anything goes and there are no weight classes. So if you agree to face someone with a hundred pounds on you, well, more power to you, brother.
Who are these people willing to risk their health and well-being in the unsanctioned wilds of unarmed combat? At a New York City underground show, words like motley crew, varied assortment, and wretched hive of scum and villainy barely scratch the surface.
On one Sunday afternoon in June, at a martial arts school in Midtown, the cast of characters includes a massive Puerto Rican judoka, a lithe black boxer from Gleason's Gym, a short kickboxer from Jackson Heights, and a scrawny Tae Kwon Do practitioner. This UCL installment doesn't have the benefit of a boxing ring, so the forty-five or so spectators sit in white molded-plastic chairs around a large blue mat scarred with what could be a century of use. Peter, the maestro in the judo uniform, roams the room while his right-hand man, an amiable Hispanic named Jerry, talks of the task of rounding up competitors. If Peter is the bad cop in the equation, Jerry is the nice one who offers you coffee and hears your confession.
"The fighters who normally compete at these shows already know about mixed martial arts and most of the time they contact us because they want to fight," Jerry says. "Certain traditionalists are the ones that I find it hard to explain it to, because a lot of them have unrealistic thoughts of fighting," he says, alluding to every karate or kung fu practitioner rigid in their beliefs that all that's needed to win lies within one esoteric and outdated martial style.
"To be honest," Peter interjects, "we find a lot of guys who just want to fight." Or, more accurately, those guys find him.
Most aspiring combatants know how to find Peter. When not working nightclub security, he teaches private lessons at a school in Manhattan called the Fighthouse that rents out space to a wide variety of martial arts instructors, a repository of senseis without dojos of their own. It's a point of convergence for almost everyone who's ever donned a gi, slipped on padded gloves, and stuck a battered Bruce Lee's Fighting Method into their knapsack. If you're interested in MMA in the Five Boroughs, one way or another, your path will lead you to him.
Today's match-ups would seem set to answer the age-old question of "Which style is best?" and Jerry informs me they're waiting on a fighter named Manny to arrive, Manny the ace in the hole, Manny the supposedly baddest man on the roster. In the meantime, the boxer from Gleason's Gym takes on the kickboxer from Jackson Heights, a fisticuff that deteriorates into something resembling a mugging, ending only when the boxer lands a right cross that drops his opponent, the boxer refraining from taking his foe's wallet and instead breathing a deep sigh of relief. The massive Puerto Rican, nervous and sweaty and a nightclub security worker himself, is up next, and he needs just a minute and a half to hyperextend his opponent's arm and force capitulation. Someone in the crowd shouts, "Break his fucking arm!" but that never comes to pass. (The Puerto Rican tells me his lady gave birth the night before and he got no sleep.)
There's a lull in the action and I'm informed that they're still waiting on Manny, Manny the heretofore unheard of Hercules and Gilgamesh of New York. Meanwhile, the scrawny Tae Kwon Do fighter squares off against someone called Iron Will, Iron Will shirtless and possibly even scrawnier than his opponent, like the "after" photo of someone who spent a few years on meth. The audience is subjected to frantic images of a cartoonesque melee, with all the chaos and flying limbs, and the Tae Kwon Do man goes down from a kick to the groin. There are only four rules of engagement in this league, practical restrictions labeled as "gentlemanly," and they are: no biting, no eye-gouging, no fish-hooking, and no groin strikes. The bout is ruled a "no contest," although things could've played out much differently if these underground fighters had deigned to wear cups.
And then Manny finally arrives, and Iron Will introduces him to me as someone who could "kick everyone's ass out there." The clouds fail to part and sunshine does not blind us all. I size him up as a battered-looking kid who's eaten too many knuckles, and I ask him if he's going to fight.
"Nah," Manny says with a shake of his head. Manny is a pipsqueak who probably looks impressive hopped up on cocaine and swinging with reckless abandon, but at something shy of a buck-forty, with gangly limbs and a gaze about as sharp as cotton, he isn't much to look at now. "I'd kill these guys. But I've already been knocked out by bouncers twice this week, and I'm supposed to go to jail in a few days. I don't want to get there all messed up."
"Good thinking," I say, and if my expression or tone is outwardly sarcastic, I have no reason to believe he'd pick up on it. If the first rule about these events is to never talk about them, somewhere else on that list is to never believe someone's hype. It's only legitimate—only real—if you see it happen.
For another UCL event it's the same location but a slightly different cast. The turnout is low, dismal in fact, yet perfect for a small martial arts club from Battery Park City to mix it up with a wrestler, a pro fighter, and a ticking time bomb of a psychopath. Said psychopath wears a white karate uniform with a white belt and a yellow yin-yang patch on his chest, and his red-rimmed eyes are furtive and point to either an awful lot or an awful little going on in his head. Peter introduces him as Lamont Tareyton, but when he makes the papers, the New York Daily News will call him Tareyton Williams, a.k.a. "The Subway Saw Guy."
Lamont Tareyton Williams has no mixed martial arts training to speak of, but the story of him working as a barback at a South Bronx strip club and single-handedly destroying a group of rowdies when security couldn't get the job done warrants an invite from Peter. And here, now, Lamont's showing that he's got enough raw talent to dodge the Battery Park City fighter's best and deliver a near-knockout right hand—which he follows up with a stream of apologies.
"I'm sorry, my brother. I'm sorry." Lamont doesn't like that he's just hurt his opponent, or maybe the sudden violence has flicked a switch or come dangerously close to something inside that needs very badly to be left alone, and when he shakes his head and steps off the mat, kicking over a bag of foam sparring gear, he says he's done. No amount of encouragement from Peter, Jerry, or even from his opponent can convince him to change his mind. He's done. No more. He sits down in a gray metal folding chair, and I walk over and tell him that it's okay, that he looked good out there and that fighting isn't necessarily for everyone.
"Thank you, my brother," is all he says.
Eleven days pass and Lamont wanders into the 110th Street subway station at 3:30 A.M. carrying a stuffed gorilla. According to police reports, Lamont, who's gulped down a bottle of Nyquil and has been suffering from blackouts, snatches a power saw from transit workers and does his best to carve up a stranger before fleeing into the night. He's caught hours later, and after passing a psychiatric examination that deems him fit for trial, he's eventually sentenced to eighteen years in prison. Present at the sentencing is Lamont's sixty-four-year-old victim (who miraculously survived). Lamont apologizes to him, right there in the courtroom, apologizes for what he's done and the pain he's caused, and the man—who suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung in the attack—accepts.
When Lamont is first apprehended, and his tale of insanity and violence is all over the news, Peter calls me on my cell phone, full of shock and disbelief that this nut job, this madman with a power saw, turned out to be Lamont, and that maybe, just maybe, we'd all been in some kind of danger that day he'd refused to continue fighting.
With Frankie the UFC champ (who had his first fight in the UCL and is the New York City underground circuit's most distinguished and accomplished alum) on one end of the spectrum and then Manny and Lamont on the other end, the range in the middle encompasses the vast majority of who you'll see fighting, the college students, blue collar workers, devout martial artists, and true believers. Their motivations run the gamut as well, some wanting to give "this whole fighting thing" a shot because they saw it on TV, some of them eager to test their skills, to see if their XYZ brand of karate really does hold all the secrets like they were told. They want to see if that assistant coaching position they have at Rutgers translates into badassery, or if the medal they got doing Greco-Roman at the Empire State Games means a damn. And some just like to hurt people, to get into a good fistfight, to feel a right cross against their face and hold an icepack to their swollen lip when everyone else is eating cheap slices of pizza at the place down Third Avenue later on that night.
It's all there in the New York City underground, a microcosm of brutality, a snapshot of what's going on in the rest of the world, a world exposed to the poetry and art and just plain beauty revealed in the cages and rings where sanctioned mixed martial arts bouts with rules are playing out. It's more than simply fighting. It's tradition.
Excerpted from Raw Combat by JIM GENIA Copyright © 2011 by Jim Genia. Excerpted by permission of CITADEL PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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