Photos by Anil Melwani
Before the fights, Owen warms up off to the side for two hours by blocking and stepping and throwing punches in a kind of kung fu ballet called Bagua. It's impressive, but when he gets into the ring his opponent taps him out with a choke in about 20 seconds. Owen doesn’t like that. He wants another go-round, so he gets into the ring again and takes on Mike from Harlem, who’s chiseled out of muscle and skilled enough at Jeet Kune Do—the martial arts style founded by Bruce Lee—to beat the piss out of Owen for two minutes straight. Owen taps out to an armbar. Otherwise, Mike would’ve broken his arm.
Since 2003, there have been over 40 installments of the Underground Combat League (UCL)—the nexus of New York City’s underground fight circuit—and the only one I’ve missed was the one that featured eventual UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar’s mixed martial arts debut. I’ve seen stories like Owen’s play out a hundred times before. The kid lacks the necessary skills to win in these kinds of throwdowns, but he's got balls and heart. He’ll be back, and may even kick ass some day.
Take a glossy UFC product, strip away the glitz, populate it with thugs, wannabes, devout martial artists, psychos, and a few diamonds in the rough, and move it to an undisclosed location in the South Bronx and you’ve got the UCL. New York state banned MMA in 1997, and soon after that promoter Peter Storm flipped the athletic commission the bird in the form of these underground shows. Want to know when and where exactly they take place? Fuck you. Unless you’re on Storm’s text message list, or you’re friends with a fighter on the card, you’re on the outside looking in.
Owen and Mike shake hands and hug and leave the ring, making room for the next pair to do the man-dance. The main event features Chad Hernandez of Radical Jiu-Jitsu and Pedro Villa of Twin Towers Wrestling facing off in what we expect to be a war, and there are other fights as well, including one with Storm himself facing an amiable Muslim kickboxer named Adam.
When I walked in, Storm was in judo uniform pants and a pair of four-ounce MMA gloves, ready to fight except for the Post-it in his hands with fighters' names scrawled on it, a tenuous fight card that is always subject to change (shocker: Not everyone who says they want to fight shows up). Soon, Storm dons his blue gi top and black belt and joins Adam in the squared circle.
Go to any fight in Las Vegas or Atlantic City and the attraction's always what happens in the cage, and it's always advertised beforehand. At a UCL show, you never know what you're going to get. You might see a crazy-eyed busboy who freaks out mid-bout and storms off, and then in a couple weeks, makes the papers for going berserk in a subway station and carving up a stranger with a power tool. Or you might see a massive black dude, tattooed from lobes to toes, who looks like an extra from 300 but gets flattened in seconds. Or maybe you'll watch a kid break his thigh bone so it bends impossibly at the middle and get carted from the ring on a folding table and carried to the back, where he waits 25 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
We almost get a rumble outside of the ring when a guy from the audience gets into it with a young, mouthy fighter. This forces Storm to change course from the real athletes to the guys on folding chairs. His “day job” is nightclub security, and it’s nothing for him to usher the offending party out the door. “This ain’t over,” says the dude, and it isn’t: He's back in no time with a dozen friends, and it takes 20 minutes for Storm and his goons to get them outside—20 minutes of Muslim Adam sitting patiently in the ring. Chad's coach Rene shakes his head. “This is ridiculous,” he says, and some of us wonder if any of the would-be invaders had been packing heat. They're outside and Storm locks the doors. Though we’re trapped inside, we’re safe, and the show goes on.
Adam nails Storm with a kick to the face, but Storm gets him down, holds him there, and delivers a series of headbutts to the dome that exposes the bearded fighter up to an armbar submission. Adam taps out, and after Storm helps him up, they hug and smile. Knots immediately form on their foreheads.
Chuck Palahnuik wrote in Fight Club that "after you’ve been to a fight club, watching football on television is watching pornography when you could be having great sex.” The main event is a full-on gangbang—after a round and a half of back and forth, Chad’s purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wins the day; Pedro is stuck on the bottom eating punches, left with no recourse but a tapout. And that’s it.
Storm’s forehead knot encroaches as he shakes hands and says goodbye to the hundred or so spectators filtering out, like a preacher after church. Though New York is one of the last states to ban professional mixed martial arts competitions, and the bill that would lift the ban has stalled in Albany for the past three years, there's a shot that 2013 will be the year it all comes together. When that happens, Storm plans to go legit and apply for a promoter’s license.
But until then, it’s “fuck you” to the politicians who’ve dragged their heels and still believe the sport is “human cockfighting.” February will mark the UCL’s ten-year anniversary, and Storm is planning his biggest show ever, legal or not. Too bad you probably won't be able to see it.