The boxing gym on Malcolm X Street is already closed for the night but Kaream Ellington sees a man lingering at the counter inside and thinks we should try anyway. When he knocks on the doors and smiles the man comes over and waves us in.
Anyone who goes through a vagabond period, as Kaream calls his recent past and the years in his early 20s when he traveled from room to room in the Bronx, learns to smile. When you’re uncertain where your next bed is, or how long you’ll sleep in it, charisma goes a long way.
“I was thinking we could do an interview here because it fits with me and it’d be great publicity for the gym,” he tries to sell the man, who after listening politely explains again that the gym is closed but if we want to we can try again tomorrow.
So we shuffle off to Kaream’s house. Last year he tore a muscle in his right leg, the surgery scar still shining and vicious, and he walks with the gait of much older man. On the way to his third-floor apartment he gets both feet on a step before trying the next.
We sit down in his kitchen and stay there for the rest of the night, Kaream smoking an occasional Newport that he extinguishes in the sink under a tap he keeps running at low stream. When the refrigerator’s motor kicks on the lights in the room dim for a moment before the bulb flickers back to full brightness.
I ask him if he wants to change seats. He’s 6’2’’, just shy of 210 pounds, and seems to just fit between the sink and the kitchen table. He declines.
“I was always bigger than my size,” he tells me.
* * * * * *
Over the last 15 years, Kaream has fought in the streets of New York City circled by men throwing down cash on the person most likely to stay upright, and he’s fought in stage-lit cages in New Jersey flanked by judges and doctors. He’s been in boxing rings in the Bronx where no one seemed to know exactly how legal the matches were and ordered Big Macs in between bouts in Japan.
I’ve watched amateur MMA fights where a man’s technique weighed him down. You could see them studying their opponent, planning how they’ll counter the strike they know is coming. It’s possible to think so much about what you should be doing that you never throw a punch, and by the time the blow you’ve been waiting for finally arrives you’ve already lost. Seeing footage of his early days, this was not Kaream‘s trouble. He fought like a wounded animal.
''People make money off your violence,” he says. “The person at the bottom of the totem pole does the most work for the least amount of money, but his face is out there.''
And for a while that was all he needed. Yes, he lost his grasp on the next rung of the ladder once or twice. There was the MMA reality show on the Christian cable network that told him to go home early into filming because it was discovered he had a criminal record. Then there was a deal with a potential Wu-Tang Clan fighting production before he decided the contracts asked too much and withdrew. Maybe he’d been knocked out in fights he should’ve won. The next day he’d try harder. The momentum was on his side.
Mention him today among the people who’ve watched New York City’s MMA scene over the last decade and you hear hope muted by history, like talking to the friends of a drug addict who’s just close enough to getting clean that it makes his return to old habits all the more wearying.
“Kaream circa 2002 was a unique blend of scary street denizen and ultra-friendly and respectful dude, and just looking at him move and fight, you were struck by how much talent and potential was there,” Jim Genia tells me. Kaream figured heavily in Genia’s book on New York’s underground combat scene, Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts.
“He had that ‘it’ factor,” Genia continues. “Maybe it stemmed from the fact that he was built like an action figure or that he could step into the ring and suplex people onto their heads or drop them with kicks to the legs, or that he could be ferocious one second and so damn kind the next. Whatever it was, you couldn't help but root for him. You could tell there were battles he was fighting outside of the ring--in his personal life, on the streets, wherever. But you wanted him to overcome those distractions and succeed, because you knew for him to overcome those things, success would've been that much sweeter.”
* * * * * *
The first time Kaream got in a fight he was in grade school.
At the time he lived with his mother in the Bronx. It was the mid-80s, and she was a single mother working for a real estate agency. For the neighborhood, they were doing well.
On the first day of school that year she dressed him up in a white suit and put a folded handful of one dollar bills in his pocket. She warned him about keeping money private. “You can attract people who aren’t who they say they are,” she told him.
Yet when it got to lunchtime and kids were telling him they didn’t have anything to buy food with, Kaream handed out bills. When one panhandler walked away with his cash another would step up with the same problem. The last kid that asked him, Kaream declined. He needed to keep something for himself. It didn’t go over.
“Push came to shove, shove came to stomp. Then shove, stomp, punch,” he says. “I got my ass beat.”
He walked home to an outraged mother in a white suit covered in footprints.
“I got two ass whuppings that day,” he says.
Once Kaream’s mother was done correcting him, she explained she’d be dressing him up again for school tomorrow. He was allowed to share his food if he wanted, but the money in his pocket was to stay in his pocket. If he came back home without putting up a fight again, he’d come back home to another lesson.
The next morning she laid out his clothes and sent him off. When the same bully came back, Kaream said he didn’t have anything for him.
“He said something about my mother and I wasn’t into that,” he says. “He was wearing this jacket that said ‘Police’ on it. I wasn’t reading too good yet and I’d asked my uncle what that word meant one time when I’d seen a guy wearing a police jacket, and he told me it said ‘prostitute.’ So I asked him, ‘Why you wearing a jacket that says prostitute?'
“I didn’t get what that was yet but the teacher thought that was funny. The older kids thought it was funny. He didn’t think it was funny.”
The rest of that day went fine until last bell rang and the kid was waiting for him.
“I fought him; I got my ass beat again,” he says. “But I got my ass beat less than I got it beat the day before. So I was making progress. “
* * * * * *
A few years later, Kaream’s school put him into a program for developmentally disabled students. Now the rules had changed. At his old school a playground brawl was nothing, but now it could mean a trip to juvenile court. The teachers could use force if they thought it would do some good.
He started looking at the way people moved. Hands at the waist were good. Gesture any higher and he started to worry. He was big but not the biggest. There was talk of psychological counseling.
“People come at you in ways that shift blame,” he says. “Passive-aggressive shit. They want to play games. and once the teacher looks over they act like they’re the victim and you threw the first punch. There was a lot of that going on.”
Kaream developed his own code to deal with people, assuming that if he wasn’t ready for anything he’d get hurt. Less fighting than fighting back.
''I wouldn't say what would happen because that would be a threat,” he says. “That's confrontational language and then you're automatically aggressive and people will say, 'He came at him and he said this and that,' and it all gets blown out of proportion. The first time I would tell people I'd really appreciate if they'd stop what they were doing. Second time I'm pleading with them. After that it was physical.''
His mother got used to picking him up at the police station. She was moving between jobs and money was scarce.
Movies helped. Kaream persuaded his mother to let him take Tae Kwon Do after watching Best of the Best, an action movie about a rivalry between American and Korean martial arts teams, arguing it would give him structure. After the film he’d studied himself in the mirror and judged his long legs more promising weapons than the rest of the body he was still waiting to grow into.
His favorite was Death Wish, the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante fantasy. In the film, Bronson plays a meek architect until his wife is murdered, after which he starts going out onto the streets at night with a gun in his pocket, using himself as bait, waiting for muggers and crooks to present themselves. Ten dead bodies later, he’s a folk hero with the tacit approval of the New York City Police Department.
''He was just living his life. He wasn't being an asshole,'' Kaream says. ''Dirty Harry I wasn't leaning too much towards. He was an asshole but that's his job. Bronson, he's a goddamned architect! What did he do to people? He was just living his life and people kept going at him, and he has to do what he has to do. Each movie he was trying to move on from what happened to him in the last one, and shit just kept happening. He didn't even know he was good at doing it; he just didn't have a choice.''
One day outside the video store a friend came up to him with a VHS tape half-hidden under his coat. He held poked it out just enough for Kaream to see it and looked away to make sure the coast was clear, as if he were showing off a dirty magazine. The blue cardboard cover said “UFC 3.”
At first, Kaream wasn’t much interested beyond the trailers for new direct-to-video action movies like Kickboxer 4. That changed when Keith Hackney, an MMA fighter with a Tae Kwon Do background came out to fight a sumo wrestler named Emmanuel Yarborough. A much smaller fighter, Hackney kept the sumo at a distance with leg kicks, and less than two minutes into the first round he won with a TKO.
“He was fighting this 300-pound person and I’d never seen that before,” Kaream says. “A bully ain’t gonna pick on somebody their own size. So that right there is something I want to learn. Because I don’t see nobody smaller than me picking fights.”
* * * * * *
There was a time Kaream could’ve been a pharmacist. He liked learning about supplements as he trained so he enrolled at community college and spent days wandering through Manhattan book stores reading the texts for free. He was also reading books from fighters like Ken Shamrock and martial arts guides, obsessing over new strikes and takedowns.
“If you win a fight using a move you’re elated for a second, but then you have to keep working,” he says. “Because everybody knows that’s your move now. You have to be guarding yourself constantly.”
Getting paid for a fight was too good to pass up. Kaream left college and made a run as a professional. For the next few years he made a name for himself and money started coming in. He met a girl, got married, had a son.
There was no reason anyone could see why he should slip. None that made sense, at least.
Still, even a good fighter doesn’t make much if he’s not signed to the right promotion–-especially if it’s illegal to pay that fighter for plying his trade in the city he lives in–-and if there was one place Kaream could always rely on for cash it was the Bronx streets he’d grown up on. But aside from vague allusions (regarding a youthful injury: “Hypothetically someone might’ve jumped off a roof if they had law enforcement behind them because hypothetically they know a cop isn’t going to jump off a roof.”) he refuses to speak to this now, less out of vanity than paranoia over the statute of limitations.
“He lost fights that he shouldn’t have,” says Peter Storm, the man behind New York’s Underground Combat League. “He had a lack of loyalty to a trainer. In one year he had four different trainers. He just didn’t have his mind right. You don’t know a fighter until you’re worked with him for a while, and he was always jumping from school to school before anyone could get to know him that well.”
Kaream looks back on it as a matter of having business to deal with.
''It's like any young fighter,” he says. “You have to make it home and back to the gym, and there's a lot of things that get in your way in between. I’m not going to say what that might have been. I will say a person in my situation might have various interactions with some shady business. I'm not going to say I was going to kill someone. I'm not the kind of guy to wake up and say, 'Yo, I'm gonna kill people.' But I live in New York City. Motherfuckers like playing with guns. It ain't like back in the day when people could live with a loss. Nobody wants to fight fair anymore. It's 'I got jumped!' They know they didn't get jumped; they started some shit and got their ass whupped.''
* * * * * *
"I have people in my life I want to protect. I've lost people before. Out of bullshit, jealousy." -- Kaream Ellington
On Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007, Kaream’s wife’s body was found outside a six-story apartment building on E. 177th Street in the Mount Hope neighborhood of the Bronx. According to the police report, “at approximately 21:10 hours in the rear of 110 E. 17th St. … police responded to a call of an unconscious female. Upon further investigation, a F/H/21 was found with lacerations to her neck and abdomen. She was pronounced [dead] at the scene.”
A medical examiner later ruled the cause of death a mix of blunt force injury to the head and torso and multiple stab wounds. Meaning someone assaulted her on the building’s roof then threw her off. At the time, she was living in a Manhattan’s woman’s shelter with the pair’s son. They eulogized her at St. Martin of Tours Church, the same place she’d once served as an altar girl.
To this day Kaream refuses to discuss what happened, except to say that he still misses her. At the time, perhaps knowing that the eyes of the small fighting community were on him, he wrote this email:
“Hi this is Kaream Ellington. My wife, Jacqueline Irizarry, was murdered November 7th and I now must raise my son alone. I now must provide for my son and mixed martial arts is what has provided the most helpful income. In the past, I have made the mistake of allowing myself to become absorbed into the very things that destroyed my community and now have taken the love of my life and left my son without a mother.
“Law enforcement is conducting an investigation into who did this as our families are mourning. Throughout my career, and my life, Jacquiline supported me and wanted the best for me and our son. I thank you for all the help, opportunities, and inspiration. Jacqueline always told me never to quit MMA, just give it all I've got. I will honor her wishes until I see her again.”
Less than a year later, he was locked up in Rikers Island.
* * * * * *
“I was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon. I'll leave it at that,” Kaream tells me as we sit in his kitchen. “I was arrested for having a gun. I can't speak further than that. Apparently it was unlicensed. From what I was told. ''
Again, he won’t go further. He’s still on probation until 2014, must be in his home after 9pm, and believes that if he says the wrong thing it’ll open the door to another arrest.
Once he was inside he did what he could to keep up his training with the equipment available. Sometimes he’d meet someone bragging about how they were a fighter on the outside and he’d nod and smile and hear them talk about gyms he knew didn’t exist.
He wasn’t any less guarded than he’d been since his school days.
''You talk to people in jail about anything, you got another indictment on the way. Guaranteed,” he says. “There are people in there talking shit about how gangster they were when they didn't even do a respectable crime. You never know who you're around.”
He spent three years there. Every day he thought about how he was going to fix things when he got out. He could work at one of the gyms that were opening all over New York in his absence as MMA and boxing became trendy. Word got around that he knew how to fight, and he had his own club of inmates training with him in the yard.
''You know where you went wrong and what you're going to do to change and what you want to do,'' he says. ''But then the time comes you're going to get out. And it's 'Where's my parole office? Where's my address?' And if you ask someone about the hood it's going to be from a criminal perspective. It's not like you can go to a library and get a travel brochure.''
* * * * * *
When Kaream was inside he dreamed about being outside. Now that he’s out, he dreams about being back in Rikers.
Under the terms of probation he can’t leave the state unless he gets special permission, cutting him off from professional work, as New York City only allows amateur MMA fights.
“I had one fight I was going to do and I was training at Renzo Gracie (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA Academy), pushing too hard, and I tore my muscle out,” he says, gesturing to his leg.
So he waits in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed Stuy, but not idly. He’s already devised a strategy for fighting with crutches he thinks could be useful. “I want to come back,” he says. “But I want to make my life right too. To fight again, that’d be a dream.” The problem is time and whether he can leave the past behind.
“He was a great fighter,” Peter Storm says. “Time takes away from people. It depends on his injuries. He could have four or five good years ahead of him.”
Kaream knows the world changed while he was gone. Now there are gyms in places he’d never expected to see before. His neighborhood’s gentrified but not so much he feels safe. “Things changed but it’s still Bed Stuy,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jim Genia’s book has been optioned for a movie deal. Thinking about the chance, even a small one, that some kid could see a version of him in a film the way he used to watch Charles Bronson, he can’t help but laugh.
“I don’t know who would play me,” he says. “I don’t look like anyone famous.”
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