Blood Boat: Inside a Florida Fight Club’s Quest for the High Seas
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.