The reporter was waiting at Grand Central Station, eager, ready to receive a dose of subculture and the kind of “underground” he’d never been privy to when he lived here, and when we met he introduced himself with a congenial, “Hello, I am Tolga.” His newspaper, Hurriyet, was the largest in Turkey, and as their foreign correspondent, his beat was New York and Washington, D.C., where he now lived. Today, his story was the Big Apple’s illicit fight scene – a scene that will soon die.
Forty-eight states have athletic commissions, and in 45 of those states the sport of mixed martial arts (a.k.a. “MMA”, “ultimate fighting”, “human cockfighting”, et al.) is legal and sanctioned. New York is one of the last holdouts (Vermont and Connecticut are the others). Never mind that grand, fistic, arena-filling affairs are broadcast on pay-per-view, and violence-hued reality shows that sequester aspiring fighters in a Las Vegas house and make them fight in a cage are aired on SpikeTV every week. Never mind that New York is home to countless martial schools and academies, and that if a would-be competitor wants to compete in the warm embrace of sanctioning, he must cross the Hudson River and do it in New Jersey. You want to partake in an event here? Forget about it. Hence the underground fight circuit.
Tolga has only ever seen MMA on television, never live. Never up close and personal with the threat of being splattered with errant blood very real and probable. But as we ride the subway to the venue in one of the Outer Boroughs (locations of these events are always changing, always kept secret), he assures me he’s ready. Regardless, I prep him. Let him know what to expect.
There’s Peter Storm, the maestro, the man who’s been putting these events – dubbed the “Underground Combat League” – together since 2003, and has over thirty of them under his belt. As he occasionally does, Storm will be competing at this installment, taking on a tall, lanky Jamaican kid nicknamed “Blackie Chan”, a judo versus kung fu matchup. Present will also be Junior, big and young with a broad smile, from a karate school on Long Island. There will be “Smash” Evans, who’s even bigger, from a Burmese kickboxing school in New Jersey; Anil the lawyer, who’s photographed nearly every event; Josh the pro fighter from North Jersey, slumming it for some ring time; and Shawn, the heavy-handed Wing Chun practitioner, a reformed trash-talker and brand-spanking-new father to an infant daughter.
“It’s not so much about the fights,” I tell Tolga. “It’s really about the scene and the people,” and the Turk in the corduroy coat and black-rimmed glasses nods.
And then we’re there, in a neighborhood that will never see a Starbucks or Shake Shack sprout up, in a place where half the awnings are written in Spanish and where the man behind the counter at the nearby bodega is encased in a wall of bullet-proof Lexan and transactions are done warily, cautiously. The venue itself is a boxing gym, but installments past have seen the action take place in jiu-jitsu schools in Greenwich Village, pugilist dens in East New York and the South Bronx, and once, in the front room of a mosque (no ring or cage, just mats on the concrete floor with the spectators gathered around).
We step inside and are greeted by friendly faces. The gym owner hasn’t turned on the heat and won’t for some reason, but that’s okay, why would you need warmth and comfort at an underground show? Instead, there’s the scent of cheap antiseptic cleaner and old sweat in the air, and a flat-screen TV plays “Never Back Down”, ironic like a hipster joke because every true MMA fan laughs at that film, and throughout the afternoon everyone does. Rows of folding chairs surround a ring, and assorted boxing event posters adorn the walls, irrelevant to what will soon transpire. In the back are odds-and-ends exercise equipment, a bathroom (“Do Not Use Toilet Paper for Paper Towels” reads a prominently-displayed handwritten sign), and a tiny locker room. From beneath a goofy, over-large knit ski hat grins Lionheart, a diminutive fighter who, when he stands in the ring in his fight shorts, looks like a Greek statue of Ares sans armor, shield and spear. Rage Rivas, Storm’s second in command, gives me hug. A thin white guy with a trimmed beard, who calls himself “Captain Zorikh” and is one part eccentric mixed with one part likeable dude, nods a “hi”. Someone shakes my hand, more people arrive behind us, and I introduce Tolga to the expanding group. Everyone keeps their coats on to ward away the chill, and later, when each fighter climbs out of the ring, they’ll immediately slip their street clothes back on to keep warm.
To get an invite to an Underground Combat League shindig you either must know a fighter who’s competing, or you have to be on Storm’s “list”, a figurative collection of the trusted and trustworthy who find themselves on the receiving end of a text message that usually reads something like, “Sunday at 2pm, blah-blah Gym, right off the ‘6’ Train”. Once, the audience for a three-bout card numbered about a dozen; other times, over a hundred were crammed into the venue, craning their necks to see their son, brother, buddy or sensei throw down. Thanks to a six-fight roster and grappling mini-tournament, what Tolga gets to witness is more towards the latter.
At two o’clock, when we arrive, the place is nearly empty. By three-thirty it’s a madhouse of accumulating energy. In the locker room fighters are stepping on a scale. Rage keeps track of the weights, and the names of the competitors are jotted down and kept on a folded piece of paper that never leaves his person. Storm has donned a blue judo gi and is stretching out as his girlfriend looks nervously on. Anil flits about, at first concerned with the possibility of fighting, and after his opponent is a “no show” (“No man, I drive a cab now, I can’t get my face messed up,” says the would-be opponent over the phone), he’s concerned solely with getting the best photos he can.
Tolga listens to Shawn talk and takes notes in a little black book, Shawn humble in glasses and hushed voice, speaking of past beefs with the promoter and his recent venture into the world of pro MMA competition at a sanctioned event in an Atlantic City casino, and of course how his newborn child has melted his heart and changed his life. Only a couple years ago Shawn was hitting opponents in the underground so hard they never came back, but whatever fueled that aggression seems to have been replaced by midnight diaper changings and lullabies.
The folding chairs are filled, mostly by men but there are women there, too, the girlfriends and groupies who’ve come out to cheer. A kid no older than ten sits in the front row. The theme to “Rocky” blares on a continuous, maddening loop over the speakers. Then they’re in the ring, the fighters, on either side of a referee in jeans named Israel Martinez, and as a hush falls over the crowd Martinez yells for the fighters to begin.
It starts off relatively tame, although for Captain Zorikh it’s a frantic scramble to keep from getting choked or having a limb twisted in the wrong direction. In between rounds he returns to his corner, and as he has no corner men to advise him, he begs for help from the other fighters. “Someone, anyone, tell me what I’m doing wrong!” he says with urgency, and the other fighters standing around the ring apron don’t hesitate to lean in and tell him. Captain Zorikh goes on to lose, but not for lack of trying.
Tolga’s taken up position atop a plastic water cooler, camera in hand, his line of sight clear. I give him an inquisitive look and he nods that he’s okay. That all changes when Lionheart faces Tommy the union worker, when their bout goes the full three-round distance and both fighters are left bloody, their faces marked up and a testament to seemingly endless back-and-forth exchanges of fists, forearms and elbows. Lionheart is battered and breathless, and when I look up at Tolga he’s aghast at the brutality, his face pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask him when the fight is over. He nods unconvincingly, so I gesture at the ring, at Tommy and Lionheart hugging and congratulating each other in the post-fight afterglow. “See?” I say. “It’s okay. Now they’re friends.”
And they are, for they are parties to a transaction that transcends sport. Something about punching another man in the mouth, or kicking his head like a soccer ball when he’s on all fours, or nearly succumbing to that deftly-applied choke he’s slipped on with his legs, creates something almost tangible, a bond among warriors. It exists there, in those shows in the arenas and on the pay-per-views, captured on film during those reality TV shows and witnessed live at events in Atlantic City casinos and wherever else MMA is sanctioned. But it’s here as well, in a state where the sport is a dirty word, in the confines of a remote boxing gym in a setting intimate and secret, and after Storm throws Blackie Chan to the canvas and twists his arm for a submission, then checks on him afterwards, maybe Tolga sees it. Or maybe he sees it when Junior and Smash Evans go at it, Junior very nearly successful in keeping Evans down with wrestling but eventually withering to exhaustion and Evans’ nonstop barrage (the referee steps in for that one, waving it off when he deems Junior isn’t sufficiently defending himself). After that one Junior wastes no time shaking Evans’ hand and raising his arm up, and the crowd applauds the sportsmanship.
Does Tolga see it? The subculture of combat, the dichotomy of violence and elation and friendship that’s there, just as it’s been since the Underground Combat League began churning out barebones fisticuffs of the MMA variety eight years ago. When Mike the 20-year-old white kid taps out his opponent with an armlock, and Mike’s father, suddenly bursting with pride, lets out a stream of “That’s my son! That’s my son!” from ringside, I think Tolga does.
The main event has muscular powerhouse named Kirkland out-grappling an impossibly-built Nigerian named Chike Obi, and after Campbell is awarded the decision – his first win in years – his smile could light up the Empire State Building. When Tolga asks him his age and Kirkland tells him he’s 39, the Turk is in disbelief. “Thirty-nine?” he says. “You do not look thirty-nine!”
Then we’re saying our goodbyes, thanking Storm for putting on the show and congratulating those who won (or lost, even), shaking hands and patting backs in the reverse process of our entrance.
From the backseat of a station wagon driven by a friend of Anil’s, Tolga asks me what will happen to Storm’s show and the scene itself when the sport is sanctioned. The Bronx is zooming by at 50 miles an hour. Soon we’ll be back in Manhattan.
“That will be the end of it,” I say. Like a rumbling, oncoming subway train when you’re caught standing on the tracks, it’s inevitable that MMA will get sanctioned here. Every year the movement gains steam and the bill to repeal the ban on the sport gets closer and closer to the governor’s pen, and this year, on November 15, Zuffa LLC (the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the flagship organization of the sport) filed suit against the State of New York, the suit claiming that the State’s failure to sanction violated Free Speech, Due Process and whatever else in the U.S. Constitution could sufficiently add power to the punch. It isn’t so much a question of “if” sanctioning will happen, it’s more of a “when”. Like when New Jersey legalized MMA back in 2001, and more recently when Pennsylvania and Massachusetts followed suit, the world of unsanctioned fighting will fizzle out.
“Why will it end?” Tolga asks, and I explain how there’s no real money to be made doing unsanctioned shows, that Storm wants to promote legitimately when New York allows it, and even the fighters want above-the-board events so they can amass real fight records and get paid for their efforts. Ultimately, because there will be plenty of sanctioned events, there will be no more need for an underground.
“But what of fighters like Kirkland?” he asks. “What of those who might be too old to get licensed to compete by the commission?”
I shake my head. “This is likely it for them.”
Seconds pass in the car, and in a moment we’re traveling over the Third Avenue Bridge. “That’s too bad,” says Tolga, but enough time has gone by that I’m not sure if he means it will be too bad about fighters like Kirkland no longer being able to get into the ring or if it’s too bad about the secret fighting subculture disappearing.
Not that it matters. When New York City’s underground fight scene dies, it will be a shame either way.