It was supposed to happen on the Blood Boat. Two cruises, departing June 3 and June 5. The Bimini SuperFast, three days round-trip, with a stop at a Bimini resort to gamble, to eat crabs or to contract them – the destination wasn’t the point, only the departure. In the words of The Simpsons‘ Moe Szyslak, explaining the origin of the legendary Tyson vs. Secretariat fight (The Slaughter in the Water), “Once you get 12 miles out, there’s no laws at all.”
The boat trips were a solution, created by the BYB: Extreme Fighting Series, a fledgling bare-knuckle fighting federation that started as the brainchild of Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris. A former corrections officer and employee of the Florida Department of Children and Families, whose story forms the centerpiece of the documentary Dawg Fight, Dada’s roughly six-foot, 250-pound frame is paired with a soft, upbeat voice and a habit of standing, shoulders back and broad, arms bent 90 degrees at the elbows, palms out and up. It is a heavyweight physique in a state of constant motivation and encouragement.
Dada’s own motivation came from Kimbo Slice, a brief MMA sensation he had grown up with, who tapped him for a bodyguard gig after seeing him bench press over 600 pounds in his backyard gym. As he says in Dawg Fight, it was on the road that Dada found himself “looking at the mansions…looking at the lifestyle, and I told [Kimbo], ‘You know what, dawg? I wanna fight.'” But after three fights for Kimbo’s camp, he was done with MMA. “They never released none of my footage,” Dada claims, “it was just that destructive. Kimbo was hot at the time, and they didn’t want me…to take the attention away from him… I’m not getting no exposure, so I said, ‘I’m doing it for myself.'”
Doing it himself meant becoming referee, unofficial trainer, quartermaster and paymaster for a federation built from scratch. But, for the marketing, Dada could turn to the same machine that helped make Kimbo: YouTube. Already nationally known as a good amateur boxing town for the number of Cubans coming up on their way to New York, Las Vegas and destinations worldwide, Miami started appearing on the average Internet user’s radar, as millions of potential fans watched backyard contests in which fighters like Kimbo split open opponent’s faces before crowds of half-a-dozen on backyard patios. And if even a fraction of those people could be reached – by sports website or message board, by Twitter or Facebook viral hit – he knew that the next big fighter could be welcomed into the homes of tens of thousands anywhere with an Internet connection.
He also knew he might find that fighter in the same place Kimbo found him: West Perrine, Florida. Almost anyone from the South could close their eyes and describe it. Poor, out in the county, away from (and the opposite of) those gated places with names – gated places where an undersupplied school can be fixed with a PTA bake sale each August. Small, old Florida cinderblock homes with brick or stucco facades and carports. Waist-high chain-link fences dividing lots. Yards with sandy patches, where kids’ or boxers’ footfalls wear holes in centipede grass lawns. If Kimbo could make it out of there, then why couldn’t Dada? And why couldn’t he bring the entire community with him? All it would take was for enough people at the other end of a YouTube video to open their eyes and see it too.
Five years and one documentary later, that potential had grown enough to put Dada and young men from West Perrine and greater Miami on a boat, bound for international waters and a global broadcast. Two trips, two cards, edited together for the first ever BYB pay-per-view: Battleship I. The fed’s name notwithstanding, BYB was breaking out of the backyard business and going worldwide, even if the immediate causes for getting on the boat involved traveling beyond the Florida State Boxing Commission’s jurisdiction. No more county sheriff’s deputies leaning against their cars in the West Perrine heat and refraining from finally interdicting what amounted to an assault agreed-upon (misdemeanor for the fighters, a felony charge for Dada – a threat that had always hung over them), no more wondering what official might come up the street and shut BYB down mid-match, no more looking like a neighborhood outfit when the interest had grown beyond it.
Instead, they’d have their own ring, their own space, even their own nickname for the ride, even if only a few people were gathering in the bars and calling it “Blood Boat” to alarmed fellow travelers. For just long enough, the space would be theirs – shouts and trash talk and blood spatter taking over either a sunny deck or else the sort of cruise-ship conference room usually populated by Canadian dentists or podiatrists or psychologists.
That, at any rate, was the plan. Until the threat of an Atlantic storm blew everyone back to shore, to a warehouse outside the airport, where, for the purposes of this international launch, no one can know where we are.
“We didn’t want to try to be boxing from a pitching, rolling ship,” Mike Vazquez later tells us. He’s handling PR for BYB, and in the days leading up to the fight, there’s a flurry of fallback options and schedules floated. The boat idea is definitely scuppered, but its replacement keeps changing. For over a day, things settle on Plan B – broadcasting the fights from an unnamed benefactor’s home on the Seminole Reservation. But just as soon as those plans seem set in stone, they’re called off, as the Seminole have a relationship with MMA and don’t want to jeopardize it by becoming the jurisdictional home of a potential new rival.
Eventually, my photographer Jon and I are told to be at our Miami hotel at noon on June 3, where Vazquez will pick us up, on our way to somewhere. That morning, halfway to Miami, we are told of a further change, and we’re greeted in the hotel driveway by a short, stocky man named Robert, who picks us up in a black Passat to take us to the fight.
“Is the fight still going to be on Seminole land?”
“Nah, it’s here in Miami,” Robert says.
“What do you do for BYB?”
“I work for Corrado.”
“In what capacity?”
“I’m Corrado’s do-boy.”
“What does that mean?”
“He says, I do.”
After some prodding, Robert reveals that Corrado is apparently Dada’s manager – although he owns or has owned a restaurant in D.C. – which brings us back to what Robert does, which brings us through another round of “I do.” Eventually, Robert explains that he “[hangs] out with Corrado and Dada” and he helps “find ways to try to get Dada on the radio, ways to get him in movies, get his image out there.” Then he corrects himself. “Normally, Dada is the one who does that. He’s all over the place. He did a video with Akon and Pitbull. He was in that movie with Andy Garcia.”
Attempting to verify any of those things on Wikpedia or IMDB takes a substantial chunk of the ride and doesn’t resolve anything, whereupon we reach the location we weren’t supposed to know about. Jon and I immediately and independently drop pins into map apps on our phones. This is how undisclosed locations are now.
The fight will take place in a warehouse near the airport, in a long contiguous block of buildings obviously built by one company and leased by many. Inside is the suspended chaos of a few dozen people’s expectations flung against the improvisations of another dozen. A hastily assembled office area is a chorus of “Sorrys,” as production assistants choose to bump into each other for fear of bumping into some perilously perched piece of equipment that might turn out to cost $10,000. Fighters mill around in a small dressing room, shadowboxing and raiding what is clearly an office fridge converted to a makeshift cooler for water bottles.
It’s hard to get a sense of these guys from grainy YouTube videos shot in bad lighting, still less so from adrenaline-fueled post-match promos where they speak through whatever hyperbolic personae they think will get them over with the Internet’s viral crowd. From the context of the backyard videos – violent, thrown-together, theatrically semi-threatening by default – it’s easy to expect their features to exude something intimidating. Instead, they’re all handsome. Fighters, sure, in that lean fighter way, but all with charming features that make you wish the YouTube cameras could get closer to see their expressions. A radio is playing Christian reggae, then hip-hop, and guys are laughing and freestyling lines, dishing out and taking shit. While some are going over the coming fight and coming promos in their head, the rest are kibitzing to try to chase the second hand faster around the clock.
“I wanna lead with it, come out the right. But the way he stands, he gonna make me fight southpaw.”
“Why we waitin’?”
“Man, my cousins couldn’t even come.”
“Yo, man, I thought we’d get somethin’ to eat.”
The conversation quickly takes on the aspect of those mixtures of rumor, complaint and psychological compensation that might accompany a transport scene in any World War II movie, all the guys knees-to-knees in a jostling troop carrier being shipped from one end of bullshit to another, with no idea where the last bullshit really was and the where the next bullshit will be.
For most, the analogy is uncomfortably literal. After gathering elsewhere for a speech from Dada, one last inspirational address before the big push, each was patted down for cellphones before boarding the cargo vans, which had blackout curtains between the drivers and passengers. Even the guest list is severely restricted. Any stray text, any Facebook post, Instagram update or Tweet can – if the wrong authority is watching – bring the hammer down on the entire pay-per-view, taking not only today’s fights but Friday’s as well, unless another venue can be found and set-up in time.
“They don’t want nobody to give up the location. Not like they gave us much of an option,” says Delvon “Black Mamba” Stanley, a 32 year old who’s been with the backyard for five years and whose eyes crinkle with each of his frequent bemused smiles. “We couldn’t even see where we was at anyway. We still don’t know where here is. We got in a van in one place, came out of it here.”
A couple fighters don’t seem to buy the cloak-and-dagger, especially the notion that they would jeopardize their own biggest payday. “Somebody fightin’? They ain’t gonna put that shit on Facebook,” says one. “That’s up to the higher ups. I’d just turn [my cellphone] off.” A voice brings up the boat again, and another replies, emphatically, “This is bullshit.”
I lean over to a fighter sitting next to me. “Why’d he think the boat thing would be bullshit?”
“Oh,” he says, “you know. Dada.” He thinks on it for a second. “Don’t say I said that.”
Another fighter, Alfonso “Chocolate” Frierson, isn’t as shy. Frierson is 25 now, but his backyard bona fides go back to age 18, and his ring intensity and power is something that helped grow BYB enough that there are people in the limited audience tonight who each try to tell me their own “Chocolate stories.” He can be seen in Dawg Fight delivering “the most famous knockout in BYB history,” leveling then-rookie and current MMA fighter Mike Trujillo with one blow.
“I thought the whole boat thing was an excuse. Like, the weather gonna fuck it up. A lotta people had doubt. The Dawg Fight came out really late [It was filmed from 2009-11 and only released this year] and a lotta people had doubt about what Dada was saying,” he says. “I mean, look at this. Everybody in this room has limited information. There’s only four people in this business who know where we are right now. If we couldn’t have done it on a boat, we could’ve at least waited, right? This is the debut for the BYB series. We shouldn’t be doing it under these circumstances.”
The boat conversation goes on. In the fluorescent-hum dullness of a closed room without the expansive escape of the Internet, the boat takes on increasingly greater meaning. The boat, man, the boat – any amount of shit on the boat would be forgivable compared to the best moments waiting here. For many Floridians, steaming out to Bimini on essentially an economy class cruise ship just to see beaches and gamble might not seem like an exotic getaway. But for these guys, coming from West Perrine and other poor neighborhoods in greater Miami, this is probably the first chance not only to be on the open water and to leave the United States, but to do it on someone else’s nickel while hitting on women in their spare time. Instead, they’re stuck in some crappy part of Miami, in a building whose insides could double for a free clinic you might see on 60 Minutes, with only bottled waters, and a few empty cardboard mix-pack cartons of pretzels, Fritos and Smartfood popcorn that were clearly plundered within minutes of arrival.
The question gets asked a lot throughout the day, but his presence is already here, in a way. Amid a room lined with blackout curtains, the ring he designed appears to leap up from the ground and dominates the line of sight. The original backyard rings were 12-by-12 square, four feet shorter than the dimensions of a standard boxing ring. The idea was to give fighters less of a chance to hide, to keep them coming at each other instead of dancing around: Instead of 10 or 12 three-minute rounds, where pacing and endurance were key, fighters would have one 10-minute round to knock out the other guy, make him quit, or make the ref (Dada) stop it. But the ropes were wobbly and loose, assembled in the yard on the day of the fight, not ready for international broadcast.
The new BYB ring – a black curtain below, a red mat situated about chest height, red corner cushions and black coated chain-link fencing rising about eight feet above ring height – forms a diamond. Each side runs a boxing-standard 16 feet, but the room for escape from each corner has been reduced from boxing’s 90 degrees to roughly 60. At the far end, the one true “point” of the diamond, the ring itself acts as a fighter’s enemy or ally, either pinning him in or trapping his opponent. It’s a permanent monument not only to the style of the federation but its designer himself, the color scheme taking a cue from Dada’s red-and-black hair, the wedge shape reminiscent of the patterns shaved into the sides of his head and the wedge of his black beard. Like the rest of us, it waits for the rest of him.
When Dada finally arrives, after three hours, the standing-room-only crowd in the office immediately parts in anticipation of his entry. A photographer sinks to his knees to take a series of “hero shots,” his camera pointed up at Dada. It is now past four o’clock, and all the pregame elements were supposed to have been recorded at one. The impact on the fighters is ambiguous. Stanley tells me, “The problem with preparation is maintaining it. We were supposed to be here and getting ready this morning,” but Frierson seems to be feeding off it. “It angers me to make me want to fight even more,” he spits.
Dada not only introduces the fighters and congratulates them at the end (“He gets a medal too, because he came out and did what he did”) but also referees each match. A new federation needs a star, and Dada is that star. On the other hand, BYB also wants to make stars of all their fighters, and that can be tough when they, for the most part, are neither literally nor figuratively the biggest thing in the ring. At the same time, despite the preshow reminder that safety comes first and that fighters should be mindful that the hit that really hurts them might not be the hit they feel the most, his status as ring official has the potential to be at odds with that mission. A bunch of fights that held no risk of devastating hits could be boring. An over-cautious approach robs any fighting of the visceral element even the most basic fan can understand, the hint of danger. In the backyard videos and in Dawg Fight, you can see him get in fighters’ faces to challenge them to keep going, and at times tonight there are whiffs of that same impulse, where it seems like he’s jawing with his guys mid-match.
Dada delivers an emotional speech, thanking everyone “for coming and being a part of history,” as a graphic flashes onscreen in the production area. Instead of lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight, the weight classes for BYB have been reclassified as, “.38 special, 9mm, .40 cal, .45, and .50 cal.” It’s an odd choice, considering that BYB has always been billed as an alternative to gun violence, a traditional means for men to settle their differences. Just put up your fists instead.
When the fighters finally do, it’s for an opening fight between John-Michael “Jomi” Escoboza and Stanley, a hands-heavy match with kicks thrown in that sees each man temporarily gaining the advantage. It’s a disciplined fight – their footwork, defense and patience a far cry from the frenetic, nearly all-offense highs and gassed lows of many of the early backyard fights, and it’s exactly the kind of balanced inaugural match a new federation would want to showcase. But as well-paired as the two are, Stanley’s age shows under the brightness of the TV lights, and his affable expression takes on a grim aspect. He lunges for Escoboza’s face and connects with a few jabs, cutting him under the eye and temporarily stunning him. Both men are bleeding, but Escoboza lands two hard hooks to the body. Stanley, winded, tries to play for time after six minutes. Finally, after the horn blasts to indicate one minute remaining, Escoboza kicks Stanley behind the knee, dropping him and setting him up for a solid blow to the face, sending Stanley down to the mat, where he rises just before ten to complete the match.
Afterward, Stanley descends the stairs and is met by a clutch of people, including trainers and the doctor. He waves people off and walks to the right side of the room and sinks to the ground, under one of the camera scaffolds, leaning back against the ring, holding his head in his hands. I ask if he’s OK and if he wants to talk, and he looks up at me and starts to speak just before the EMTs shoo me away. When they finish, I ask him what they said.
“One guy wanted to know if I wanted to talk.”
“That was me.”
Somewhere in the background Escoboza – who is from the Dominican Republic but wears a long beard and dresses in promotional photos, ostensibly for heel effect, like a boxer who joined the Taliban – delivers a post-match promo in the production area. “IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT THEY THINK,” he shouts, like The Rock.
Until you take time to think about it, a blow landing in a bare-knuckle fight sounds more different than ominous. There isn’t anything overtly negative to it, nothing so unmistakably a sign that something has gone wrong to a body, like a crack or snap. It’s quieter than a slap and even quieter than the clap of a glove hitting a midsection full-on. But, if you’ve grown accustomed to the sometimes clapping, sometimes popping, sometimes puh-puhing noise of gloves striking, there is a less resonant thudding that is, in its own way, unsettling. Too often it sounds just like what happens when you put a piece of meat on a counter and slam a tenderizer into it. It is a very hard object colliding with flesh that has no place to go.
My photographer Jon and I begin playing a game I’ve started to call “Who Is The Doctor?” At the end of every round, we look at the people rushing to tend to the cuts or swelling knots on fighters’ faces and guess which one is the most medically professional looking. Eventually, we rope in other photographers, all of whom have different answers.
The urgency of finding the doctor becomes more acute as the rounds drag on. Mikey “Thump” Delgado and Alex “Warrior” Somarriba shoot rapid blows at each other and dodge expertly, both blurs of balance and precision. The two act more like they’re sparring, often shaking their heads and shrugging nearly in unison after one or the other tries a combo but can’t quite get everything to land. The match ends with Delgado holding up a hand and taking a knee, aware that he can’t go anymore. After the match is called for Somarriba, each steps in for a hug quickly and professionally.
But if Delgado/Somarriba set a high-water mark for execution, the next two matches threaten to embody the kind of danger cited by critics of both bare-knuckle and backyard fighting. Alfonso “Chocolate” Frierson vs. Jesus “Colombian Ninja” Madrid is by far the bloodiest of the card, bringing to mind all the Chocolate stories the audience had been trading before the fights began. Despite taking what looks dangerously close to a kidney shot, and at least one or two errant hooks, Frierson pursues Madrid around the ring as if hunting him. While Madrid is able to throw jabs and prevent an all-out assault, his left eye is nearly swollen shut and his face drips with the crimson mask generated by a flurry of intense jabs. Madrid keeps Frierson honest, but following each feint, you can watch him wince, unsure if – or from where – another brutal blow would come, losing more of his field of vision as the match goes on. His face starts to look uncomfortably like meat, and this is just going to become another Chocolate story. Minutes before Frierson’s hand is raised, it’s clear that Madrid never really had a chance.
Next, the match between Rene “White Boy” Rodriguez and Victor “Quick Vic” Matias is as thoroughly one-sided as possible. Backstage, before the fights, Rodriguez joked around a little but mostly read silently through a large, dog-eared Good News Bible whose pages he had bookmarked with torn ticket strips. His pale skin, shaved head and strong, straight nose, combined with a whole-body calm – apart from an occasional intense toe tap – made him look like the sort of person you would audition for the role of a Russian Mafia enforcer.
Once in the ring, he explodes, every swing landing with full force and angled perfectly to beat Matias senseless. He knocks Matias down three times in quick succession, then hits him so hard that Matias reels backward, through the ring door, which gives way, sending him falling nearly four feet to the floor. Incredibly, the fight continues. By this point, some of Rodriguez’s blows are flurries of nearly open-hand slaps, like a buzzing distraction before a punch comes down over the top. He dodges counterattacks effortlessly, mocking Matias, then comes back with a right hook knocking him down a fifth time. Dada forces Matias to take a knee for almost the full count to rest up. When Matias rises to resume the fight, Rodriguez slaps away two or three jabs effortlessly and comes back with a hard hook, knocking Matias down for a sixth time. Only now, as Matias tries to rise on jellied knees, is the fight called.
At this point, I decide to enlist the EMTs in the game of “Who Is the Doctor?” If they don’t have an answer, maybe there is no doctor.
“I met [the doctor] here,” one tells me. “I didn’t ask for any credentials or anything. The staff, they called him out, they said he was a doctor. Mike [Vazquez], he said that this guy does other fights here. If it was an unsanctioned fight, we wouldn’t be here.”
“For us to come out,” his partner adds, “they need paperwork.”
Both give me their names, and I return to the staircase by the cage door to resume my stakeout for the doctor when Vazquez comes wheeling around a curtain with a nervous expression.
“You can’t print their names,” he says. Everyone, he assures me, was going to use their real names on the boat, where they wouldn’t be within the purview of the Boxing Commission or any state agencies, but here it’s different. Fine, OK, but it only seems fair to see if he wants to play the game too.
“Who is the doctor?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
OK, how about letting me see someone in the physical act of doctoring. Anything. Signs of medicine. Mike looks over his shoulder, then starts to do some calculating in his head.
“Give me a few minutes. I will come get you.”
A few minutes later, I’m taken to the doctor, a short, thin man in his mid-thirties with close-cropped hair and a brisk, detailed speaking style. He assures me that he’s a board-certified doctor of emergency medicine and has worked numerous sanctioned fights in the area. The reason he and the EMTs are hesitant to give their names owes nothing to the fights themselves but the location.
“I would have done this openly had it been on the boat, but based on the circumstance, which was out of my control and [the EMTs’] as well, it made it a gray area in boxing and in the sport,” he says. “The main thing is the safety of the fighters, and I think if I hadn’t come today it would have still gone on, so first and foremost it’s about making sure no one gets hurt.”
A lot of the things he says echo things Somarriba tells me after his fight. “I’ve been in this game for a while, I’m a pro now, and by far they’re taking care of us financially and medically,” he says. “They make sure we’re healthy enough to fight before we get in that cage. They make us do blood work, physicals and eye exams. Any injuries we have, they’re covering us. They came a long way from backyard fighting. It’s on a pro level, as far as the way they take care of the fighters.”
“I get copies of [their labs and reports], and it’s all up to the state’s standards, otherwise I never would have considered working this event,” the doctor says. “The only gray area is that there’s no glove, but at a pro-MMA event, there’s only a five- or six-ounce glove, so there’s not too much difference. And typically when we see major injuries, the real problem and risk is when people cut a lot of weight. At a typical fight, guys are trying to drop between 10 and 25 pounds, and it’s impossible to get all that fluid back into the system, and that directly affects the brain’s ability to recover from any kind of head injury. With these guys, there’s no cuts.”
In a practice like bare-knuckle, where the last reliable data set for comparison is a century old, where hands break and noses can be torn open more easily, it’s immediately comforting to hear a doctor not be terribly worried.
We are sent away that night with the promise that tomorrow, we’d be able to speak with Corrado and shadow Dada as he goes about his routine – ostensibly to figure out the business behind BYB, and perhaps get the name of the damn Andy Garcia movie – but by mid-morning we receive an email with the name and number of a fourth person down the Mike-Corrado-Robert chain to speak to, who doesn’t respond to our interview request.
Instead, we drive out to Sunrise, Florida to see Cedric “Killa Gorilla” James, who closes out Dawg Fight in a 2010 loss to Dada, knocked out after 2:25, his face cut open and his blood spattered on the back of Dada’s shoulder. In contrast, the night before Gorilla defeated his opponent by stunning him with a blow that drew blood before anyone could finish writing down the guy’s name. He doesn’t have a mark on him.
A few blocks away from the Swap Shop – the grounds for a 14-screen drive-in theater that, during the day, serves as “the largest daily flea market in the world” – James’ neighborhood is dotted with tiny apartment complexes with the kind of lean-to shutters that no one’s built in Florida in 45 years. Lawns desiccate in the sun and wash away in the Florida downpour, turning more and more to sand. It is the kind of area that will never gentrify, because in Florida you can always build out and away.
Inside his house, his father, a bishop with the Church of God and Christ nods to us from the couch. He seems impossibly small compared to his son, even at a distance of ten feet. James’ younger brother, a minister, calls us each sir and bids us a blessed day. In the room to our right, the dining table is pushed up against a hutch, and devotional and exegetical texts pile on top of both. The other way to get out in places that don’t change.
We go to a Chinese super buffet – the sort that always have a row of crab legs and a row of sushi and a row of Jell-O – sitting in a strip mall that was five years old the moment it was built. James talks about working as a bodyguard for Plies, and for Jamie Foxx and his daughter, and his name getting around for other celebrities when they’re in town. “I don’t know how, but they get my number.” He figures BYB will eventually wind up in the same boat. “A lot of people don’t know about it yet. Boxers are going to find out about it, and once they do, then the fans will get tuned into it.”
In the meantime, he likes the visceral pleasure and simplicity of fighting in the cage.
“It’s just straight fists, like practically doing it in the streets,” he says. “It feels bad when they connect, but it makes you feel good when you do. You got no gloves, nothing to hide it. No cushion, no nothing, straight knuckles.”
And there’s the money. Last night, Somarriba flashed the $2,500 he got for less than ten minutes’ work – $15,000 more if he can go undefeated for five fights in a row. James will fight bare-knuckle for that kind of payday, especially when, as Somarriba puts it, “nowadays in MMA, they’re getting paid 500 bucks, 200 bucks, when you’re starting from the bottom.” James wants to put together enough money to give his dad and brother some room and move into his own place with his kids.
It’s a reminder of something Dawg Fight director Billy Corben told Rolling Stone in an interview. “There’s a whole underground economy – the flea markets, the fight clubs, the gambling.” It’s something you can see in the documentary, fighters betting on themselves while a Hispanic guy in an oversized white shirt, black glasses and gold grill, a cigarette behind ear, shouts, “I like Chauncey for 50, taking all bets.” Amid the narrative of neighborhood uplift and individual achievement, where the mainstream economy has failed, something else must take hold.
On the way back to James’ house, we pass another corner gas station with another cop car parked in front, lights on, two white officers staring in each direction, as black teens and little black kids stream over the sidewalks. We’d seen two or three on the way out. It took a while for James to figure out the reason.
“Aw, now I know,” he says. “It’s the last day of school.”
We don’t hear back from BYB until the next day, an hour after we left town. It feels a little like the sort of unavailability familiar to anyone who’s talked to a cusp-of-fame DJ/producer/MC/impresario – the selective busyness that is never directed upward, but which radiates laterally out to peers and falls on anyone below. It’s flicking a ringing cellphone across the couch to someone else and saying, “Tell whoever’s calling I’m doing a thing.” Unavailability means good things. You are someone being wooed or needed or torn in many different directions. And if nothing else, then no one can tell if you aren’t.
It’s safe to say that Dada is being pulled in many different directions. Going down the streets of West Perrine, whether in Dawg Fight or with the Rolling Stone cameras, he knows everyone, and everyone knows him. The day before, before the fight, two different people approach me.
One is a young, lanky black kid named J Plane 305, who tells me Dada’s supposed to be on the intro and outro of his album. He’s only been doing hip-hop for three years. Not being an MC actually, or writing songs. Club owners just told him to show up at their clubs because when he did, lots of other people showed up too. But the album is going to happen. “I don’t know exactly what I want to say yet or what he’s going to say yet. I got studio time, and he knows a lot of famous people, so he may want to get one of his celebrity friends.”
The other is a short, older black man named Bobbie Lee Robinson, who presses a business card in my hand, on the front of which is a picture him in a suit, behind a defendant’s table and above the words “Trial of the Century,” which isn’t accurate regardless of the century. On the back, between the words “They Gave Me the Electric Chair” and “and I gave it back” is a picture of him in a prison uniform gripping Old Sparky, while in the background a judge with a vaguely alien blue face shakes a white hand at him. The whole tableau is set atop a cross-faded image of Robinson’s face overseeing it all, with another smaller picture of his face embedded in his brow, like a third eye.
“They into a lotta things,” he tells me, about Dada and BYB. “Deodorant, an energy drink. I’m writing a book. They gonna back me, put me in the position so someone can take an interest in my story. For twenty years I lived 13 feet from the electric chair.” Bobbie Lee Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1991, after the shooting death of Lee Arthur Lawrence, a West Perrine grocer who had a reputation for chasing dealers down the street and away from his store.
If you go back to Dawg Fight, you hear Dada give a lot of speeches and pep talks. And alongside lines like,”What y’all seein’ here is goin’ worldwide” and, “Within the next six months, the world is gonna know about what we’re doin’ down here, we’re gonna be able to… sell out the American Airlines Arena” – all stuff that is little changed over five years – is the same community impulse that animated Lee Arthur Lawrence and probably led Dada to take a job at the Department of Children and Families. There are the moments where Dada talks about how the West Perrine cops didn’t used to care about backyard fights, because “they know for that day they got almost everybody in the community right here so they don’t have problems.” In fact, “At the end of the day, this isn’t violence; this is an alternative toward violence. These guys [are] fighting for a better shot, a better life.”
And there are the bits where the ladies in the neighborhood, a woman named Miss Janice and her friends, talk about how the backyard fights teach people, “Instead of running home and getting a gun, let’s duke it out.” And, “It’s taking it back to the old days. Put the guns down and pick up the fist and you settle it right there.”
But the reality cuts back against the rhetoric, not just in terms of fighter weight classes patterned after guns. One of the early backyard fighters, Chauncey, was shot with a .22 and killed. Another, Tree, was tasered by police and died in custody. And those connected to and supportive of BYB aren’t blind to the obstacles facing many of the fighters. Billy Corben talks about guys struggling to go pro amid the perception of not having other options, just trying to get money to pay a few bills, and asks, “But now what? Even if you win, you’re not going to do this until you’re 60.”
Even if a dozen fighters are winning and making $2,500 per month now, that still leaves the rest of West Perrine. And if BYB can lift them up, that leaves Cedric James’ Sunrise behind. And after Sunrise, there’s still Liberty City. And then there’s the rest of Miami. And all of them will need to learn to put down the guns and pick up the fists. (On July 14, Dada’s son Laquavius Hudson was shot twice in the arm. “How I knew he was trying to kill me,” he said, “is because he was barefaced.”) And even in harmonious neighborhoods with the best of intentions, the cops who oversee them will still be part of a system that feels it has to lock down gas stations because black kids are done with school for the summer.
Even without the boat, the distance Dada and BYB have traveled in the last five years is huge, but it’s uncertain how many people will continue to make the trip with him, and if there is enough of him and his attention and motivation to make sure no one falls behind.
“Not to say that [fighters] come from a bad family, but they’re unfortunate, you know? They don’t get the opportunities,” Somarriba tells me, holding his $2,500. “I’m fortunate enough to come from a family that had…more opportunity. Half these fighters here, they’re from the hood. They either make this money, or they go back home and they’re stuck. They’re stuck. It’s real.”