Kids gather in the schoolyard to watch when other kids fight. And some kids like to fight. Put these phenomena together in an adult world; add in a profit motive for fight organizers in an atmosphere of disrespect for the law; and underground fight clubs are the result.
For most people, familiarity with underground fight clubs begins and ends with the 1999 movie Fight Club starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. But that was fiction. Underground fight clubs exist in the real world too.
The fighters have varying mindsets and motivations. Some of the men who are doing this are trying to find themselves. Some want attention. Others like beating people up and are willing to take punches in exchange for the opportunity to do it. Sometimes both fighters are paid. Often only the winner is. Many of the fighters get nothing more than what one of them calls "my Rocky moment."
The organizers like to say that the fights offer a healthy release for antisocial tendencies. That two men who have a gripe between them settle it in the fight club rather than with guns or knives on the street. But the truth is that most of the fighters have no idea who they'll be fighting until they arrive at the club on fight night.
For the organizers, whatever other incentive they might have, there's a profit motive. Spectators pay for admission. In some instances, there's gambling with the house taking a piece of the action.
The fights are for real. There are no formal weight limits. Some of the fights are competitive. Others are brutal one-sided beatdowns. Fighters are allowed to take far more punishment than would be the case in a sanctioned amateur bout. Generally, those in attendance feel as though they've gotten their money's worth. If a fighter is seriously hurt and has to be taken to the hospital, doctors are told that he was assaulted on the street.
Four decades ago, Cus D'Amato developed young Mike Tyson's ring skills in "smokers." Years later, several incidents in which Tyson obliterated opponents in these encounters were widely recounted. Teddy Atlas worked with D'Amato at the time and was responsible for bringing Cus's young fighters from Catskill to the Bronx for fights between 1977 and 1982.
"Tyson got his start at those smokers," Atlas recalls. "But the smokers I took fighters to in those days were different from what you're talking about going on now. Right now, there are a lot of opportunities for amateurs to fight and the amateur shows are pretty well run. Kids can put what they're learning in the gym into practice to become better fighters. Back then, there weren't enough sanctioned amateur shows, and a lot of the shows they had were badly run. There just weren't enough opportunities to develop young fighters, and the smokers filled that void. We weren't doing it to make money. We were doing it to help make kids better fighters."
"I'm not saying everything at the smokers was perfect," Atlas continues. "Were there abuses? Absolutely. But for the most part, the smokers were well run. A lot of them were run better than what you had then as authorized amateur fights. The amateurs were pretty bad then. You'd have a kid come in with a passport that said he'd had four or five amateur fights, and the truth was that he'd had twenty or thirty. The officiating was poor. And like I said; there weren't enough opportunities to fight. The coaches who brought kids to the smokers took their responsibilities seriously. The match-ups were fair. We knew when to stop a fight. We were looking out for the best interests of the young men we were working with, not playing to the blood lust of the crowd. What you're talking about happening underground today takes boxing - if you want to call it boxing - to a different place from what I just described."
Joe Higgins has been involved with amateur and professional boxing for decades. While several of his fighters have risen in the professional ranks, his most notable contributions have been at the amateur level. He was president of USA Boxing Metro New York from 2003 through 2008 and has taught countless young men how to box and also the life lessons that come with the learning process.
"I lost a wonderful young man who was also a tremendously gifted fighter when Patrick Day died last year," Higgins says. "The hurt of that will stay with me as long as I'm alive. So believe me; I know how dangerous boxing is when it's done right. And anything that's not properly sanctioned and regulated is more dangerous. I understand the concept of taking a guy off the street and giving him the satisfaction of boxing. But you have to do it the right way. These underground show aren't legit. I tried for a long time to get guys who were fighting in them to become legit. You try to dialogue with them. You show them that there's a way to do this right. Some of them listen; some of them don't. And you also tell them, "You think you're tough? The real tough guys are the ones who are fighting in sanctioned fights."
In the past, underground fights were largely hidden from public view. As Brad Pitt told Edward Norton, "The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club."
Now, however, some clubs brazenly post videos on social media and even YouTube.
The Bronx and Brooklyn are the most fertile areas for underground fights in New York. In November 2015, Vice Sports ran two segments on a club then called the BX Fight Club. The segments have amassed more than 1.465 million views on YouTube.
Early BX Fight Club fights were conducted on asphalt in the park. Later ones were contested in a quasi-regulation indoor boxing ring. One of the "creators" (promoters) of BX Fight Club told Vice Sports, "It's a good way to relieve frustration, stress. We don't got no real problem. I don't know you. You don't know me. We're gonna go in there and punch for a few minutes, and that's it."
The VICE Sports video shows celebrities like Shaquille O'Neal and Fat Joe at the fights and 50 Cent in the ring extolling the virtues of the club. The grand prize at the end of "season one" was a Rolex watch. For season two, it was a 14-karat gold Cuban-link necklace. "I was very desperate for money," a competitor explained on camera. "I hear that they're handing out Rolexes and gold chains.' In season three, a Mercedes-Benz S550 and Nissan Ultima were dangled in front of participants.
In one BX Fight Club encounter, the crowd started chanting "one more round" after a scheduled three-round fight ended. One of the fighters wanted to continue. The other didn't. Then the crowd chant changed to "Are you pussy?" and the reluctant combatant was shamed into a fourth round with the added incentive of a hundred-dollar-bill thrust in his face by one of the promoters.
The promoter could afford it. BX Fight Club is listed on YouTube as having 136,000 subscribers. Some BX Fight Club videos have been viewed close to a million times.
Lines of succession are murky to outsiders. But subsequent to the Vice Sports segments, BX Fight Club appears to have morphed into Rumble in the Bronx.
YouTube viewers are now asked to subscribe to the Rumble in the Bronx channel which, at present, claims 42,300 subscribers. Whatever income there is from these subscriptions is supplemented by YouTube's automated ad placement.
One recent participant in a Rumble in the Bronx fight recounted for Boxing Scene through an intermediary how he was recruited after being seen by an organizer at a local recreational center. There was a telephone call explaining what Rumble in the Bronx was about and the question: "Are you interested?" He said he was. Later, he got another telephone call telling him when and where to go. He had no idea who he'd be fighting until he arrived on site on fight night.
Rumble in the Bronx fights are contested on thin gym matts with metal crowd-control barricades instead of ring ropes. They're akin to sophisticated barroom brawls contested at a Golden Gloves novice level. The fights are three rounds long, two minutes a round, with some rounds running a bit over.
Tournaments are part of the Rumble in the Bronx format. A typical tournament has eight combatants with each round taking place two or three weeks apart. On March 23, 2020, Rumble in the Bronx posted the video of a first-round fight that took place on March 7. The second round of the tournament was supposed to he contested on March 28, but organizers cancelled the event because of the coronavirus crisis.
Let's cut to the chase. The underground fights - at least, in New York - are illegal.
Under the New York State Penal Code, a person cannot consent to being assaulted. Striking and injuring another person is an assault whether or not the participants agree to fight. It's not a defense that a person consented to be assaulted by participating in a fight any more than consent allows a person to be shot to death without criminal consequences. The assault is legal only when it takes place with the approval, and under the oversight of, an authorized combat sports regulator.
The New York General Business Law gives the New York State Athletic Commission "the sole direction, management, control and jurisdiction over all authorized combative sports" and "all determinations regarding the authorization of amateur and professional sanctioning entities." It further states, "The conduct of combative sports outside the supervision of the commission or an authorized sanctioning entity is prohibited."
Under this law, anyone other than a spectator who "advances a prohibited combative sport" is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison. In addition to promoters, this prohibition applies, among others, to anyone who participates as a "referee, judge, matchmaker, timekeeper, professional, manager, trainer, or second." If the person has been convicted of a similar crime within the previous five years, he (or she) is guilty of a Class E felony punishable by up to four years in prison. Prosecution for criminal acts falls within the domain of the district attorney's office.
Alternatively, the New York State Attorney General can institute a civil proceeding seeking a penalty of up to $10,000 (or twice the profit from the illegal venture, whichever is greater) for a first violation of the law and up to $25,000 (or twice the profit from the illegal operation, whichever is greater) for subsequent violations.
These provisions of the law apply to both professional and amateur combat sports. And they're supplemented by the Rules and Regulations of the New York State Athletic Commission.
The NYSAC cedes control over some amateur events to "authorized sanctioning entities." But these entities must be licensed by the commission.
Also, while many underground fight clubs style themselves as holding "amateur" events, the combatants are paid under the table or are fighting for prizes that classify them as "professionals." Under New York law, a fighter is a professional if he competes for "any purse, money, prize, pecuniary gain, or other thing exceeding seventy-five dollars in value."
Underground fight clubs routinely flout the NYSAC Rules and Regulations. Promoters, managers, trainers, matchmakers, referees, judges, and timekeepers must all be licensed by the commission. And they aren't. But the most significant violations by these underground clubs concern medical issues.
The NYSAC Rules and Regulations as they relate to professional fights require:
(1) Pre-fight medical examinations for all combatants.
(2) At least one commission-designated doctor and at least one ambulance with medical personnel consisting of at least one paramedic with appropriate resuscitation equipment to be continuously present at ringside.
(3) A post-fight medical evaluation of each combatant by an on-site commission-designated physician immediately following each match.
Additionally, promoters are required to provide medical insurance for both amateur and professional combat sports events. And boxing rings must conform to clearly defined safety criteria. Fighting on a one-inch-thick gym mat set over a concrete floor with metal crowd control barriers in lieu of ring ropes falls far short of the legal standard.
So . . . What is the New York State Athletic Commission doing about underground fight clubs?
The commission could (a) send a cease-and-desist letter to the promoters of these underground fights; (b) refer the matter to the attorney general's office for civil sanctions; or (c) refer the matter to the district attorney's office for criminal prosecution.
However, the NYSAC has opted for a fourth option. It acts as though the issue doesn't exist and has done nothing.
In recent years, the New York State Athletic Commission has retreated into an increasingly insular world. The executive director lives in Canada and spends relatively little time in New York. The commissioners are completely out of touch with the nuts and bolts operation of boxing and day-to-day occurrences. There was a time when NYSAC representatives visited gyms to see if conditions were safe and ensure that proper medical supplies were on hand. They don't do that any more. There was a time when the commission sent a list of fighters who were on medical suspension to gyms so that a fighter who had been knocked out a week earlier wouldn't be allowed to spar. These notifications are no longer sent.
Do the people who run the New York State Athletic Commission even know that these illegal fight clubs exist within their jurisdiction? With more than a million views on YouTube, they should. But when asked about the situation, an NYSAC spokesperson refused comment. And one NYSAC employee says, "This commission is leaderless. And the people who should be leading don't have a clue about what goes on."
Underground fights clubs aren't exclusive to New York. But New York is where they're most brazenly operated today. An entity can't hold itself out as a government regulator of combat sports and ignore that this is happening.
At the moment, there are more important uses for government resources in New York than directing them toward illegal fight clubs. But in the future, this issue should be addressed. And since government resources are painfully scarce in New York at present, the Department of State (which oversees the NYSAC) should address the issue of why some people who work for the commission have been - and are continuing to be - paid fulltime, six-figure salaries for parttime jobs and others have been receiving parttime salaries in recent years for no work at all.
There will be a lot of desperate people in the year ahead. People who are desperate for money, and people who are desperate for something to feel good about in their lives. But getting beaten up in underground fight clubs won't improve the quality of their lives.
The fighters are entitled to respect for getting in the ring and fighting. But that doesn't make it right.
Thomas Hauser's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In December 2019, it was announced that he had been chosen by the electors for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.