The crowd simmers, on the verge of boiling over into full-fledged mayhem, as the small Brazilian makes his way into the ring. At 135 pounds, Emerson Souza is a powerhouse of jiu-jitsu, and his students over 100 hundred of them rush the apron to cheer him on. Kaizen Karate-Do representative Angel Ortiz stands before him, ready to swing for the fences in hopes of scoring a knockout against the black belt, but when the referee signals for them to start, it takes only 36 seconds for Souza to take Ortiz down, straddle him and rain down punches. Ortiz taps the canvas indicating no más. The crowd goes berserk.
Every few months, mixed martial arts enthusiasts and fight fans alike gather at an undisclosed location in one of the Five Boroughs to see this ghetto-version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Dubbed the Underground Combat League (UCL), this two-year old event is practically an institution albeit an institution advertised only via word-of-mouth. And while attendance has fluctuated (over 250 people showed up for a Manhattan installment, which featured a national-level amateur wrestler; less than 100 people showed up for the Bronx event that featured mostly street fighters), one thing has remained consistent: the action.
Souza and Ortiz shake hands and embrace, according each other a level of respect not often seen in other combat sports. A DJ turns up the hip-hop. Soon, the Brazilian grappling world-champ and his opponent leave the ring. They're replaced by 175-pound wrestler Andrew Montanez and Kaizen Karate-Do 185-pounder Angel Rodriguez.
One week prior, Montanez was fighting in an eight-man tournament in Massachusetts. Before that it was a kung fu competition at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. Before that, a tournament in Atlantic City. To say that Montanez fights a lot would be an understatement. But really, with the success of SpikeTV's The Ultimate Fighter (which Montanez in fact tried out forhe was told he was too small), and with the proliferation of mixed martial arts events throughout the country, Montanez is just a product of the increasing popularity of a sport that was once labeled as human cockfighting by its detractors. A sport that, in its professional form, is illegal in New York state, yet thanks to a loophole in the law is legal if the competitors are amateurs.
We've never had a problem with the Athletic Commission or the police, says promoter Peter Storm, who keeps his show under the radar lest it attract undue attention. The police were even invited to come check this show out.
Nevertheless, it's a fine line that he walks. If he were to get caught paying one of his fighters, he could face up to a year in a cage (of the Rikers Island variety) and a $10,000 smack in the chops. If he advertises, i.e., prints posters, hands out flyers or otherwise flaunts the UCL, his show will end up like the International Fight Night event in Brooklyn or the Vengeance at the Vanderbilt event on Long Island back in 2002: shut down. Storm can't even allow alcohol at his events, lest he be forced to tap out. Despite all this, the show goes on.
Why? For Storm, it's nothing less than a labor of love. In fact, he pulls no punches when describing how he's lost money due to high venue rental costs and low ticket sales. But the full-time bouncer and part-time promoter keeps at it so he and others like him can have a place to test their ability to scrap. And scrap Storm has. A judo black belt himself, Storm has on more than one occasion stepped into the ring at his own event and thrown some leather. At the December UCL show, he managed to choke his opponent into submission in the second round after a bloody, crowd pleasing battle.
Despite the dramatic nature of the fights, the bouts take place in an variety of venues: an old and storied boxing gym in the Bronx, the kind with an assortment bloodstains on the ring canvas and plenty of duct tape holding together the dangling punching bags; a worn and well-used martial arts school in Manhattan, with mats on the floor for the competitors and the spectators around the edges; a neighborhood kickboxing club in Queens, set up with rows of metal folding chairs.
Unlike the mixed martial arts competitions held across the Hudson in college gymnasiums or sports arenas, Storm's show is a smaller, no-nonsense affair that many fighters use for experience, or as a stepping stone to bigger opportunities. For newcomer Angel Rodriguez, who works as an IT consultant during the day and has trained five days a week for this fight, it's definitely the former; for Montanez, the latter.
At the referee's signal, the two circle each other. Then Montanez throws a high kick, transitions into a smooth takedown, and in no time a familiar scene plays out. Straddling his opponent's chest, Montanez showers Rodriguez with punches. This time, however, the man taking punishment is too stubborn to tap out, so the referee steps in and calls it. The wrestler earns another win. Montanez and Rodriguez shake hands.
I'm happy, says Montanez. I felt I could've banged with him, but I didn't really feel the need to. He adds: I try to stay active and didn't want to get cut. Sure, there's been plenty of blood and the occasional flash-knockout, but since its inception, the most damage anyone has ever sustained in a UCL event is a strained elbow at the first show, when Storm was caught in an arm submission and didn't tap (prompting a visit to the emergency room, and a sling). For his efforts, Rodriguez is bruised and scraped, but no worse for wear.
I'm not discouraged at all, he says. I fought a tough, experienced guy. Though originally slated to fight someone with much less experience, Rodriguez was left with few options when his original opponent was a no show. Still, he remains upbeat. I made some rookie, beginner mistakes, he says. But it's part of the learning curve, and I will come back stronger. He adds, I like Andrew. I'll try to make contact with him and keep in touch.
Rodriguez joins the audience in its cheers for his teammate Richie Torres, as Torres lands a crushing right cross on a wild-swinging brawler that sends the fighter to the canvas. When Rodriguez watches his sensei tap out from a torrent of fists (courtesy of a Team Renzo Gracie fighter), he's there to give his coach support. Like many before him, the IT guy-by-day/fighter-by-night will take what he learned in the ring home with him, chew on it and come back with a keener idea of what it takes to win. Some might call it a constant trial by fire as fight club education.
When Montanez turns pro, he'll have a definite advantage over those who've only had a fraction of the fights. But until then, he's got a full plate. Next for me, he says, I'm fighting in Massachusetts. Then I'm fighting in a show in Ohio.
With a UCL show scheduled in only a few weeks, will he be returning to the Big Apple's only underground fighting event? Says Montanez, I've heard rumors of me and Peter Storm fighting for the title most likely I'll be fighting him.
It's Sunday night, and after the action ends, the crowd begins to filter out and head home. The DJ is silent. Around the ring, some of the fighters mingle with their opponents, talking casually with men they'd tried to knockout or make submit not more than an hour ago. There are no hard feelings. Instead, there's camaraderie the only reward these modern warriors will receive for the sweat and blood they've shed. For each and every one of them, that's enough.