Photo by Anil Melwani
The Underground Combat League has been operating for 10 successful years without me hanging around the ring, so at last Sunday's event, when I saw those steamer trays of fried chicken and hot dogs and the folding tables marked “reserved,” I figured there was a chance I was reading too much into it. It was the first show in UCL history to go on since New York State became agreeable to amateur MMA, so maybe I was anticipating "improvements" that weren't really there.
Then I saw Dawadah, a trainer who teaches Jeet Kune Do out of a Harlem housing project’s community room for $10 a lesson. At the last show, as a last-minute replacement for one of his pupils, Dawadah had lost to a man with fewer years and more weight. He'd be coming to the UCL for a long time, so I trusted him to have perspective.
“They got the place looking good,” he told me.
“Anthony Bourdain is here,” I said.
“He’s a chef. He’s famous. He’s got a show on CNN.”
Dawadah raised his eyebrows and tucked his chin in. Then he nodded. Okay then.
As much fun as it is to think of the UCL as a secret fight club, the "underground" is misleading now. But this has nothing to do with the league changing and everything to do with the world catching up, or at least catching on. Once you’ve been featured on Gawker and in The New York Times and once you've been the subject of a book and had journalists regularly attending your bouts and celebrities at ringside and the between-fight gossip is about potential reality shows, movies, and national magazine profiles, you can't really call yourself an outlaw organization. Such is life: One day your band is singing at a shithole off Bleeker Street about hustling gay men so you can buy heroin and the next day that same song’s in a Volvo commercial. Someday we’ll use the same breath to describe MMA, Coca Cola, Playboy, and Barack Obama circa 2008.
Cultural legitimacy or no, one of the UCL’s continuing pleasures is that, with all the last-minute changes and floating venues, you never know what to expect. This can sometimes leave you with a tepid set of fights, but, aside from the one title fight that ended with a questionable stoppage when Harlem’s Mike Brown (Dawadah’s pupil) fell through the ropes after taking a kick to the head from now-champ Jerome Mickle, that wasn't an issue last Sunday.
One fight stuck out from the others. I can’t tell you the names of the fighters involved because one of them was afraid of what would happen if he was discovered in the ring. Apparently he was wrapping up some murky legal conflicts, so he kept his name to himself. We’ll just call them “Red Trunks” and “Black Trunks.” Red Trunks was the man ducking the courts. Black Trunks had the deflated look of a former fat kid.
Within a minute of the opening bell, Red Trunks had Black Trunks pinned under him, battering his head with lefts then rights then lefts then rights over and over again. That’s how it started and that’s how it went.
“Stop the fight!" somebody yelled behind me. "He ain’t fighting back!” But no one did stop it, and despite all the headshots, Black kept trying to roll over, and at the end of the round he did. He even got a shot of his own in before the bell rang.
Things got worse for Black in the second round, when he took an accidental shot to the groin, and by the third he was just asking to be hurt some more and there was no reason to expect anything but for him to get knocked out. Still, he refused to quit, which was admirable, if not particularly intelligent. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for Red to get him in the corner and start in with the knees to the face. Now the crowd was on its feet and an 8-year-old next to the turnbuckle kept shouting, “Get him! Get him! Get him!” After about the sixth time Red’s knee connected with Black’s head, the towel flew out of Black’s corner to put an end to things.
Black Trunks dragged himself back to his corner and hung himself over the top rope as his people went to work cleaning him up. His nose had been cracked open and there was a cherry smear across his face. Red Trunks walked to the middle of the ring to get his hand raised then walked over to embrace the man he’d busted open. His mind could now return to his legal troubles.
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