In East Harlem They Do MMA the Bruce Lee Way - Part 2 (Under the Underground)

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

Photo by Adam Krause

Just after Canada and Connecticut passed legislation sanctioning professional mixed martial arts earlier this summer, UFC president Dana White tweeted a color-coded map of every state and country in North America that had legalized the sport. Green meant the region was approved, red meant prohibited. In all that emerald, New York popped like a burst blood vessel. “Who looks stupid on this map?” White asked.

Take White’s idea and apply it to MMA gyms in the five boroughs of New York City and you see a different kind of holdout. Trainers across the city have started offering MMA packages and opening gyms as grappling becomes a chic workout. Williamsburg has the Renzo Gracie Fight Academy, Chinatown has Anderson’s Martial Arts Academy. There’s Mushin Mixed Martial Arts in Greenwich Village and Tightan Gym and MMA Center in Astoria. The map would be green across the Bronx, where you can find the Jungle Gym, among others, and in the financial district, where a membership to Square Circle New York will run you around $150 a month. (“You got Wall Street guys now that take three classes and think they’re hard,” Jeet Kune Do student Sean Davis says. “Okay. Whatever you say.”) But the red starts when you look at East Harlem, which lists only one brick-and-mortar school, New Evolution MMA Academy, offering MMA classes.

Yet there are few places outside of Harlem where fighting has meant so much. When Joe Louis TKO’d Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium 80 years ago, the thousands of African-Americans who’d been segregated into Manhattan’s northeast tip poured into the streets, from 110th to 150th,, making a noise so loud the party was front-page news in every country where boxing mattered.

Mike Brown grew up split between his mother’s Harlem apartment and his father’s place in the Bronx. From his grandfather, a bare-knuckle fighter in Louisiana, and Brown Sr. a former Golden Glove boxer, his inheritance was learning how to throw a good right cross.

“My own father used to put me on his knee and we’d watch fights when I was growing up. I used to think that was going to be something for me,” Mike Brown Sr., 65, says. “I guess you could say Mike has it in the blood.”

His father remembers Mike as a slight, withdrawn boy with a natural talent for both sports and quickly losing interest. Mike remembers his father as the neighborhood tough guy who didn’t believe in letting scores go unsettled. It was forgivable if his son was bloodied in a fight young but not if he was bloodied often.

“You’d hear all these stories about fights he’d been in,” Mike says. “There was this one story about a guy with a gun threatening him. I don’t even know what started that. He went down there, and by the end of it he’d gotten the gun away from this guy and was just beating his ass with it. If he saw me getting picked on he’d grab me and push me and tell me to get in there and defend myself.”

When asked about his own scrapes, Brown Sr.’s response indicates only that he might be good in a game of poker. “Mike was so young all he could do was hear stories,” he says.

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The night of their last training session before the fight is warm, so Dawadah and Mike leave the housing project and walk two blocks up to a small park. This is the place they met a year ago, when Mike saw Dawadah leading a group in tai chi. It looks like it was built for theater. There are rising concrete benches in a semi-circle so a crowd can watch, and a circle stage that is just big enough to mimic a boxing ring.

“We sure can’t practice it that way,” Dawadah says, nodding east. “And you can’t go any more blocks up. This is about the only place I’d say it’s safe to practice.”

They attract a crowd. There are police patrolling the area and it must be quiet for now, because a half-dozen watch as Mike punches the air. They tell Dawadah his boy looks good.

“I’m ready for this to be done,” Mike says. “I’m tired of waiting for this fight. I’m ready now.” He’s dropped 20 pounds from his normal walking-around weight of 205 over the last two months, and he lifts the sweat-darkened hem of his T-shirt to a bit of loose skin over his abdomen. “Could still drop a few pounds though.”

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The last time Dawadah’s Totally Complete JKD came to the UCL, Mike Brown dislocated a man’s arm.

It was the league’s 10th anniversary and while that decade had seen them signing up shows at any venue that would take them, on that day they were at a weary boxing gym in the Bronx. Holes had been punched in the ceiling to string up heavy bags around girders; debris dusted the ring. The league had established itself as a brand years before and many of the few dozen spectators filling the folding chairs displayed its logo on their shirts.

Since they’re not legally allowed to be doing this to begin with, the UCL makes its own rules. There’s a ref but no medics. No matter who wins, none of the fighters take a purse. The cover charge might be enough to pay the venue’s owner but it’s never a certainty. At best, the fighters get a win next to their name on some Web site … alongside an asterisk indicating that the fight was unsanctioned.

Mike opened the show with a fight against Rashad “Dead Arm” Clarke out of the Fight Factory in Brighton Beach. A minute in and it went to the ground. Another 15 seconds and Mike was on top. And at 93 seconds total Clarke’s corner was looking for ice to patch up their man’s shoulder.

“Shit! Motherfucker!” Clarke yelled in pain while his corner men prepped a folding table to lay him out on. He’d fallen in front of Dawadah, who calmly advised him to stay down.

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Since the last UCL event there’s been some movement in the New York political universe regarding MMA. NY’s attorney general has dodged a lawsuit from the UFC parent company Zuffa seeking legalization of MMA in New York by arguing that fights can be sanctioned as long as they’re amateur, not professional matches. So for the first time in a decade, new promotions are advertising themselves in the Empire State. A Bronx Catholic School has already hosted one event, complete with luxuries like ring girls and medics.

Little changes are already creeping into the UCL, as well. There’s a few steamer trays for the crowds now. A VIP table is set up for Ottavia Bourdain, who’s at most shows but this time brings her husband, Anthony, with her. They're as patient and generous as anyone could ask considering all the people who want a picture taken with them.

Mike finds Dawadah waiting for him on the sidewalk.

“They haven’t started yet? Come on.” Mike tilts his head back and blows the air out of his lungs, yanks on the strap of the gym bag hanging over his shoulder. “Get this done.”

He puts his earbuds in and paces back and forth on the sidewalk burning energy. People arrive and go up the stairs to wait for the fights to start, but Mike stays on the street.

“I’m going to get in the car,” he says, finally, breaking a half hour of silent worrying.

Upstairs, warm-ups start. Trainers wrap hands and there’s the bright jangle of the jerking heavy bag’s chains. Mike waits in the car, music up, energy turning from anticipation to restlessness. He gets out of the car, practices kicks, gets back in, and shuts his eyes.

As the first punch of the first fight is thrown, Mike is still in the car. He’s been there nearing two hours. Dawadah stands upstairs facing the ring but not really watching the fight.

“I don’t like it when I see him like this,” he says. “He gets tense like this, he gets stiff in the fight. It worries me.”

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There are only two hits in the entire fight.

In the opening moments Mike and Mickle only circle each other.  Two men of similar height, weight, and reach looking for an opening. Mike lands the first shot--a kick to the shin that almost sends Mickle pitching face-first into the mat before he can recover. They go back to circling.

Suddenly Mickle’s leg breaks out in a sweeping roundhouse that catches Mike straight in the face. Mike spills through the ropes of the ring and slams into the gym wall. He quickly scrambles back in but it’s too late. The fight’s been stopped.By the time Mike reaches Mickle, UCL founder Peter Storm is in the ring and the referee is at the ropes. It takes three men to pull the fighters apart, Mike clawing at his opponent’s chest even as he’s pulled away by the legs.

They hand the belt to Mickle while Mike walks back to his corner stunned, hands up in disbelief. Start to finish, the match lasted exactly 34 seconds.

Afterwards, no one says anything. Mike sits under a punching bag in the corner of the gym, trying to understand how all laws of the universe have reversed themselves without warning. “I want to see it,” he says suddenly, as if the words are breaking out despite his best efforts to hold them in. Cell phones are produced. “I didn’t go stiff, I was just out of the ring,” Mike says after watching it once, twice, a third time. “What is that?” Dawadah says nothing.

In the ring, Mickle is putting his gear together.

“It’s the same thing his trainer did,” he says, watching his open palm as he unwinds a wrap. “Stepping back and to the side. Back and to the side. We been preparing for that for the last two months.”

He shrugs.

“Maybe now they’ll learn their lesson.”

Check out part 1

And check out these related stories:

The King of the Underground

Creeping Toward the Overground