Inside New York City's Kung Fu Underground
Let's talk about a fight club.
Before I arrived at Manup Standup—MUSU for short—the event's promoted assured me it was "taking over kung fu and hip-hop together,” and the poster pinned to the entrance advertised “kung fu gone buckwild.” I was fairly certain those claims were mainly hype, but then the first guy hit the floor. OK, these guys are really hitting each other. New York City’s underground fight scene was, on that August afternoon, a 1970’s Shaw Brothers flick mixed with Dolemite; there was no shortage of violence. Which is good, since violence is what everyone came here for.
MUSU’s venue that day was an upstairs martial arts school that's part of busy retail strip in Jamaica, Queens, but it might as well have been at the corner of Wu-Tang Clan Boulevard and Fight Club Lane, in a semi-fantastical realm where words like Sifu and “Chinese medicine” and “internal style” carried weight, and shirtless competitors alternated between winging knockout punches and eliciting tap-outs with chokes. Novell Bell, aka the Black Taoist, a tall, disarmingly fit dude wearing mostly red silk and a broad wicker hat, proclaimed, “We bringing the old styles back,” before handing the mic to a rapper who name-dropped Blood and Bone and Black Dynamite. There wasn’t a ring, really, just a roped-off mat, and the crowd was eating it up.
Unsanctioned fighting has a rich history in New York, from famed bare-knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan’s 1881 bout on a barge over the Hudson River to the modern no-holds-barred offerings of the Underground Combat League in the Bronx. And really, what else do you expect from a state with no legislative appetite for approving these sorts of pugilistic endeavors and countless fight fans who simply don’t care? Fighters will fight, whether in secret or otherwise. They’ll fight in gyms and fight in schools and academies and wherever else they can gather without drawing too much attention, because that's what they do.
A kid named Rinson had the first knockout that Saturday. He sported a hexagonal tattoo on his chest and a looping right hand that floored his foe midway through the first round. It got bloodier from there. There was Ruben, who turned his opponent's eye socket into a swollen mess; Chris, who ended Mark of Six Harmony Kung Fu (the academy in Chelsea, operating since ’96) with a well-placed knee to the body. There was Mike from Harlem, who snaked his arms around Craig’s neck, so the taller, rangier New Hampshire native gave up in no time flat. That particular move was enough to prompt the uniformed EMTs in attendance to approach the ring and chastise the fighters.
“I'm not here to work!” one of them yelled in frustration. “I have to work after this, and I do not want blood on my shirt!”
“Chi up!” called a group of guys from a local fight team who practiced San Bao.The crowd responded and “Chi up!” became the chorus for the rest of the day. It rang out whenever a fighter needed a boost or a rallying cry, which was often, and after a half dozen bouts, it had become a cheer, a mark of approval like the Olés shouted at Spanish bullfighters.
Steve, 57 but built like a boxer half his age, took a beating at the hands of Kelly, but caught a break and won when Kelly fell to the ground, clutching his chest and gasping for air. Bell yelled out, “Don’t die at my show,” but all that brought was nervous, measured laughter. Luckily Kelly got up unscathed and walked it off. (He later attributed it to a panic attack, and said it wasn't his first.)
Fighters came from as far away as Utah, Boston, and Syracuse to mix it up, displaying all sorts of styles, including San Bao, Urban Bagua, Baguazhang, Jeet Kune Do, and Hung Gar. Some guys fought more than once, participants in an impromptu tournament of sorts, and the champs—“We ain’t giving out belts,” said Bell to the crowd, “we giving out reps!”—got gold medals for their troubles, and pats on the back.
The champs included DJ, the middleweight title holder, who bore a black poultice of Chinese herbs above his eye that covered a cut he got sparring the day before. He took it to Mike from Harlem, who repeatedly pulled him to the mat to try to wrestle. DJ’s athleticism was a bit better, and he won on decision. Mike flipped him the bird, DJ bowed, and they laughed.
“This one is way more violent than the ones before it,” a demur white girl in the crowd told me. She would know; she trains kung fu when not working as a veterinary technician in Upstate New York, and had been to all five previous MUSU installments, even fighting on the first card. “I wonder why that is?” she said.
The answer might have had something to do with the Discovery Channel camera crew on hand filming for Hidden America, or it might have just been evolution. More fights means more exposure and better fighters, and the guys were more dangerous and better trained than they were last go-round.
Eventually, it was time for the main event. Two masters, Sifus Jesse and Ben Hill, went after each other without a referee. What’s a full-contact, no-rules kung fu bout between masters with no referee look like? A lot like early UFC, as it turns out. Bursts of wild striking upright, and strained grunting on the ground. Masters don’t fight too often. It was something to see.
As everyone began to file out in the warm, post-coital glow that comes from watching unarmed combat in a ridiculously intimate setting, some of the fighters were still being attended to. One, Steve, looked as tender as a slab of skirt steak. His shirt was up, and a slew of needles protruded: post-fight acupuncture.. “Great job,” someone said. He grinned and said thanks. It was better than a ballgame by some measure.
Jim Genia is the author of Raw Combat: The Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts. He’s been writing about fighting for years.