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Fight Club in Union Square: Wack Emo Hipsters, Berzerker Fury and Real Street Combat

May 28th, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon

Hey there, visitors — there’s more (and much better) photos of this here — check ‘em out.

Union Square Spartans 1

I got another cryptic text from a friend last Friday afternoon: “Fight Club in Union Square. GET HERE.”

For those who don’t live in New York, Union Square has historically been a giant meeting place for political protesters, social activists, and merchants of all sizes. In the days following September 11th, it was a meeting place for rescuers and mourners alike. Now it’s home to a multiplex, Ann Taylor Loft, a Whole Foods, and a Diesel store.

So really, it makes perfect sense that in the inner chamber of Manhattan’s consumer culture, right there in Union Square, there would be a massive, public fight club.

I was off the subway and taking the stairs two at once, faster than you can spell-check Palahniuk. Hundreds of people stood in a big ring right there by the Shoe Mania, cheering and chanting. All kinds of people: old people, moms with strollers, skateboarding teens, foreign tourists throwing Euros around.

They could have been watching some awesome breakdancing group or an unusually good street magician. But instead, two shirtless guys were flopping around on the ground, grunting and grating one another’s faces across the cobblestones. One guy pinned the other and a shirtless ref called the match. Both fighters leapt up, gave each other the universally-approved one-armed bro-hug and left the ring together, laughing.

A number of shirtless, scraped-up men paced the perimeter of the circle, alternately refereeing and answering questions. The rules were simple: find a partner, get in the ring. No face shots, tapping out ends the fight. No settling scores, just fighting for the fun of fighting. No experience or discernible skill required.

A couple of emo-hipsters in matching floppy sideways haircuts and matching white belts got into the act, proving that one does not inherit martial arts skill by simply being Asian.

One of them actually SMOKED during the fight, paradoxically making himself look both tougher and more ridiculous.

Union Square Spartans 3

You’ll note that a man scooted through the aforementioned fight in a wheeled office chair — this man:

Union Square Spartans 2

He acted as a combination rodeo clown and Sandman, scooting through the ring to break slow, weak fighters. But in his own way, he fucking brought it to the ring, too in a simplistic, berzerker style: one hand behind his back, the other swinging wildly, with a small stuffed bird tied to his belt. If you listen closely, you can hear his opponent yelling “You keep hitting my NUTS!”

Not all the combatants were ridiculous, though. Most weren’t. Fighting styles were mixed: grappling, boxing, various martial arts—anything that could bring somebody down. I spoke with a wild-eyed Marine who’d learned hand-to-hand combat during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Size won’t help you if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve seen little guys snap the arms off of big dudes who just want to throw their weight around. It’s about practice. Practice and just wanting it more.”

I’m not familiar with many combat techniques, but his seemed to owe as much to the Incredible Hulk as any sort of martial art:

“Legend” is petite and diamond-hard man with dreadlocks and a Tyson-esque lisp. He’s the apparent ringleader of the Union Square Spartans and claims to teach classes in martial-arts-influenced street combat. “We’re not trying to look pretty in a competition,” he said. “As you can see here,” pointing to the scars on his arm, chest and face, “I been in a few fights in the streets. I can teach you how to handle yourself, how to do what you got to do.”

He says classes are $50 per week, but beyond that, details are sketchy. Making an appointment to train is complicated. Union Square Spartans’ entire presence online currently amounts to a Myspace page that has three friends. I asked Legend for a phone number and got one that didn’t work. When I went back to the square, I got a different number. It didn’t work the first time I tried it, but later in the day it did.

Legend’s phone representative, a lanky, bespectacled 20-year old named Wraith, told me that fighters start showing up in the park at around 6 and generally train for a few hours. When I tried to find out hard and fast hours, I didn’t get hard and fast answers.

“Call me up at least a day ahead of time and let me know when you want to meet us,” Wraith said. “Someone will come meet you. A lot of people, they think they can miss a day and we’ll be there tomorrow, or like, we’re out here at the same time every day, and it’s not like that. They think we’re not serious about training people. But we are, we really are.” In a matter of time, Legend plans to open up a dojo, but for now, all interested parties can show up in the park.

Being moderately organized and being able to whip somebody’s ass real quick are not necessarily the same skill set. Sure, you’d want a little more overlap, but life doesn’t work that way.

The real fighting, among the Union Square Spartans and their peers was incredible, like an actual kung-fu film shot in New York in the early ’80s. People from all over the map fought with whatever they had — spinning, kicking and grappling in a fury of limbs and profanity. I saw jump kicks, back flips, and this: one man deftly caught another’s high kick between his hands, grinning. The kicker snapped his torso, spinning, to land on the previously captured foot while delivering a rib-crushing blow with the other.

In that moment, I would have given a tooth to be the guy that caught that kick in his hands and to his ribs. I stood there, fresh from work in my 3-piece suit and cuff links, feeling clueless and amazed. Like most white guys that work in the tech industry, I’ve never won a fight. Unless you count flame-wars on Digg as fights, but everyone loses those just for being there in the first place.

Public fighting is for everybody. It’s aspirational – even if you don’t get in the ring, you feel that pull. And no matter who you are, you stop and watch. Street fighting is a million times cooler than anything on TV has ever been, and New York’s the only city in America where a bunch of guys fight in public all weekend long while the cops watch and approve.

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