This is the attic D trains in. The things he’s holding in the top right picture are sharpened chop sticks.
MMA may seem like the “real deal” in the US, but in terms of pure, totally unrestricted fighting it’s got nothing on the illegal matches that have been going on in Germany since the Cold War. Two networks of fighters and organizers developed independently of each other in East and West Germany. When the wall came down, fighters started moving between major cities and a booming national underground took off. Fights are held in places such as warehouses, basements, and apartments owned by members of the community and are about as barebones as it gets. No loud music, no hammy announcers, just a bunch of men shouting over the sound of skin being hit by fists and feet over and over again. That said, the atmosphere is a lot less dark and gloomy than you'd expect. Really it’s just a bunch of ex-cons and criminal types getting together to share in the thing they love. And maybe make some cash.
After hundreds of missed phone calls and a few weird, dodgy encounters, I finally met up with a fighter we’ll call D. He was covered in muscles, which were covered in illegal tattoos, and had a shaved head and a handshake, I should have been way more prepared for. As an active member of illegal fighting tournaments and currently on parole, you’re not going to find a great deal of personal information about him here. He was, however, plenty ready to dish about the scene.
Vice: How did you get involved with illegal fighting?
I’ve been fighting now for 24 years. I started boxing in the DDR when I was 12. I used to get into fights outside the ring and did a lot of other stupid things. I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point they revoked my license. After that, I wasn’t allowed to take part in fights anymore. That’s also the reason I’m not allowed to get my training certificate for boxing to this day.
What was it like boxing in a Soviet satellite?
Under Communism there was really no other way to set yourself apart as an athlete outside of boxing. The Russians, Cubans, and other Communist countries used to swap their boxers and let them train against each other. Boxers were the only sportsmen who could travel freely and enjoy any kind of individual fame.
How was it training and fighting with those guys?
Fucking tough. The hardest fight I’ve ever had was against this Cuban back then. I worked him over so much he should have gone down at least 10 times but he just kept coming. Cuba, Russia, and East Germany had the best boxers. Back then our Idols were Henry Mask and Henry Akinwande. I was even allowed in the ring once with Mask, but only for a second.
What’s the worst thing you’ve seen happen in an illegal fight?
That would be when my friend’s shinbone broke through his skin. There was one kick he blocked wrong and when he put his weight back on the leg, the whole thing just snapped right out. You can’t even bare to look. I see that image now every single time I train. The thought of something like that happening scares the shit out of me.
Can you train your bones to prevent that sort of thing from happening?
You can’t, but he should have been more precise in blocking the kick. That was his mistake. What you can do is train the muscle in front of the shinbone to cover it, so the nerves from the bone get behind the muscle and the hits don’t hurt as much.
Have you done any other kind of combat sport besides boxing?
Yes, back in the DDR my cousins introduced me to jiu-jitsu, but we added knives, sticks, and nunchucks to it. Later on I learned kickboxing and Muay Thai.
Which kind of combat fighting gives you the best chances in illegal fights?
I would say Muay Thai. Or at least it has the toughest fighters. It’s easily the hardest kind of combat fighting in world, because you never try to avoid or take the top of hits. You just take every single one of them with a direct block or your body. You have to try to catapult the energy of your opponent’s hit back at him by blocking his punch so hard that he is actually hurting himself.
Are there set fighting styles you have to use in the illegal fights?
There’s not really a standard way of fighting. Sometimes a karate fighter meets a Tae Kwon Do fighter or a Muay Thai boxer fights a kickboxer. Everything can happen.
Do you use all the different combat styles in the same fight?
Yes, of course, sometimes this, sometimes that, it depends on the opponent.
How do you win a fight? Are there rounds or points?
There are rounds, but no points. It always lasts until the KO. That is expected and that’s what the fighters are fighting towards. And even in fights where nobody gets knocked unconscious or collapses, it is usually very clear who won.
How long is the typical fight?
Generally two to three rounds. Each round is three minutes long, and by eight or nine minutes everything is usually over.
Do they ever stop the matches for bleeding or injuries?
No, you just go on fighting. That means you have to watch out for your eyes. Blood burns like a motherfucker.
Is everyone who fights in Berlin from the city or are there circuits?
Actually, at the moment there are a lot of really good fighters coming in from Hamburg. Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, and Stuttgart have even bigger scenes. The spectators at fights are usually other fighters or people who know us, but there are also some people from the underworld, a couple of pimps or gangsters. Often there are only around 20 men present and everybody knows each other.
Do you allow foreigners to fight?
No, no. We don’t want that. If we want a go at it with the Polish we do through the football club.
Do people bet on the fights and who organizes it?
Yeah, of course you can bet on the fights. There are two or three people, who always do it.
I guess there’s no such thing as a title, what’s the prize?
Mostly money. My last fight I had to cancel because of an injury and I missed out on the purse. If I won I would have made 10,000 Euro.
Whoa, that’s not shabby. Do the fights ever get out of hand?
No, actually not. Everything is set up beforehand, everybody knows the rules, and everyone follows them. The scene is much too hooked up for stuff to escalate outside the ring. We also have gang members on the door.
How do you prepare for a match?
Around two hours before the games, is when it starts for me. Then I don’t want to know anything about anything else at all. I can’t listen to anyone and I won’t. I can’t care about anything else. During the fight itself the only thing I can hear is the voice of my aide and the sounds of my opponent. Everything else is totally blocked out. It would destroy you to focus on anything going on outside of the ring. That tenth of a second, where you are not paying attention, is the exactly what your opponent needs to start a proper attack.
How do you handle all the pain from the training and the fights?
During a game you can’t feel anything anyways. But during training you sometimes lie there screaming cause your entire body is crippled by pain. It’s an amazing feeling.
Recently D. has been giving self-defense lessons to the kids in his neighborhood. He keeps track of each one’s progress in this notebook and can spot a particularly talented child within minutes, though they aren’t given any special treatment. “I want the stronger kids to help the weaker kids through training,” D. says, “The children should also learn a sense of what it means to belong to a group.” Yes, we agree that has some weird undertones in Germany.
D. tried to convince us that the active ingredient in this boxing liniment was snake poison, but really it’s just the same crap that’s in Bengay. D. prefers this Thai business to the ice spray which most fighters use to desensitize their skin. Ice spray has the unfortunate side effect of making the boxer’s skin rigid and more likely to burst open. “You bleed like a bastard and hardly notice a thing.”
BAMBOO TRAINING BLOCKS
D. conditions his shins and elbows with these bamboo training sticks by battering them against his bones until he gets used to the pain. The little bundle can also be used to practice punches with bare knuckles.