Photos by Jessica Bal

On the rooftop of a seventeen-story building in the middle of a public housing complex in The Bronx, two fighters were battling it out. The roof has no railings, so anyone could easily have fallen off. Wearing only shorts and mixed martial arts gloves, they punched, grappled and kicked each other until one of them was beaten into submission and fell to the floor unconscious.

“That was the first rooftop fight I’ve ever seen,” said William H. Cavalli, an underground fighter, as he recounted the illegal bout that took place on a windy, wet day last February.

“I don’t like heights. It was kind of creepy. I wouldn’t fight on a roof.”

With only fifteen people watching, the fight ended after a quarter of an hour, when one of the fighters went down hard, his head thudding into the building’s roof. “Mind you,” said Cavalli, “there was no mat.” The fight had to be stopped.

As Cavalli described the story later in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, he seemed in awe of the fighters. “Dude, there was no fear on that roof. They did the pre-fight protocol, warm up, and then they just went in there and fought.”

William H. Cavalli practices a kick in his gym.
William H. Cavalli practices a kick in his gym.

At twenty-three, Cavalli’s ambition is to one day compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion company, which is banned in New York State.

Mixed martial arts is a full-contact combat sport that uses a combination of different styles of fighting such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling and kickboxing. Each fighter trains and develops his or her own fighting technique in several of the above disciplines, allowing them to become fully-rounded fighters. Most alarming to many spectators, in MMA, as opposed to in boxing or most other contact sports, a fighter is allowed to strike his opponent when he is already on the ground and continue to pound him.

In 1997, the State of New York enacted a law making clear that it would not issue a license for “professional combative sporting events,” which is how it described MMA fighting. However, MMA was never actually made illegal; there is a technical distinction between legal and sanctioned. Elsewhere, professional fights are usually sanctioned by the state and must be organized by an athletic commission, which provides referees, rules and insurance. It also administers blood tests to the fighters weeks before a fight. Since MMA is not licensed in New York, all fights that take place here are considered amateur, and thus are unregulated, because the state of New York tries not to interfere with amateur combative sports. Jim Genia, a NYC-based journalist and author who has been covering the fighting industry in New York for more than a decade, says, “Regulating amateur stuff is expensive for the state. There are far more amateur competitions than pro (in every sport), and that would require a huge budget and staff that the state just doesn’t have.”

Cavalli practices with a sword.
Cavalli practices with a sword.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has now spent several years lobbying the New York State Legislature to overturn its 1997 ban on professional MMA. In November of 2011, the UFC sued the state of New York in Federal court in Manhattan, arguing that the State was unjust in banning some professional fighting sports and not others. “If some professional combative sports can be sanctioned by the World Kickboxing Association then why not all of them?” asks Barry Friedman, the lawyer who is representing the UFC in the court case, which has so far not succeeded in overturning the ban.

In 2003, a fighter named Peter Storm took advantage of the loophole in the law that banned professional MMA leagues but left amateur ones untouched. At twenty-five, Storm created the amateur Underground Combat League (UCL). Even though the UCL is perfectly legal, it is not sanctioned by anyone. “The refs aren’t trained, the fighters aren’t insured, the rules aren’t set in stone, there are no medical personnel there,” says Genia.

Now ten years old, the UCL has created an avenue for fighters to compete, including Storm himself. Cavalli was introduced to Storm by a fighter he faced at a tournament in Queens. Storm was impressed by Cavalli’s skills and asked him to fight for his league. Storm calls him “a real fighter,” and one with an interesting style, rooted in Chinese martial arts. Cavalli competed in the most recent UCL fight, held on April 28 in a secret location. He won his fight.

*   *   *

On a chilly Monday evening in early February, I met Cavalli for the first time at a Chinese restaurant on Mott Street in Chinatown. A Brooklyn-born African-American with a lean physique and a quiet swagger, he wears only black. Cavalli is not his real name, but one he adopted while delivering parcels for Urban Express. The Italian fashion house Roberto Cavalli caught his eye.

“I thought it was cool,” he says, laughing. The first name and middle initial that he goes by, William H., is inspired by Bill Gates, via a Jay-Z song in which the rapper does the same.

That night, Cavalli wore a long black trench coat, and ordered bubble tea and fried chicken as he tried to explain the appeal of violent sport.

His love for fighting started in public school in Brooklyn when he was five, and was constantly picked on by older kids. “I couldn’t keep running,” says Cavalli. “I had to learn how to fight.” One day he grabbed a boy by his shirt - “I kicked this kid and hit his head on the gate.”

In high school Cavalli learned kickboxing and trained with a teacher who kept beating him up. “I just kept coming back,” he says. During his adolescence, he joined the notorious Crips gang. Members of the gang, including Cavalli, burned the letter “G” on their arms by constantly rubbing an eraser against their skin until layers of it fell off.

Fed up, his mother sent him away to a boarding school in Massachusetts to learn discipline and earn his GED, which he never got, although the change did get him out of trouble. He focused his energy and passion on Kung Fu, and began competing in MMA events in New York held by Manup Standup, an amateur, unsanctioned MMA league. I asked Cavalli what his mother thought of his fighting. “As long as I’m not selling drugs, she’s happy,” he says, adding, “My grandmother hates it. She doesn’t like to see me get hit.”

Unlike professional MMA, where health risks are taken into account and blood tests are administered to all fighters before a fight, UCL fighters go into the ring and risk being infected by diseases if they get cut and bleed during a fight. When I brought this to Cavalli’s attention, he seemed stunned. “I never really thought about it,” he said. “I just go in there to fight.”

The lack of payment or health screening is not of much concern to Cavalli and the other amateur fighters of the UCL. They are proving themselves in the ring, which is all they are after, and that’s enough to incite a highly competitive atmosphere.

“Imagine a meth lab,” says Cavalli,” describing what the underground fights are like. “Very gritty, nasty, not pretty, very electric. Bunch of testosterone.”

*   *   *

Cavalli’s training gym is located in a residential building at the end of an alleyway in Bushwick. When I visit, it’s filled with a stench that seems to come from a turtle tank nestled on top of a dirty grey shelf. “This is my home away from home,” says Cavalli.

Where the magic happens: Cavalli's home gym.
Where the magic happens: Cavalli's home gym.

He lights incense sticks and puts on some ’90s rap music: Biggie, Tupac and Jay-Z. Without stopping to digest the chicken fingers he’s eating, he puts on his ankle weights and gloves. Then he straps on a gas mask, which helps him build stamina because it makes it harder to breathe. He starts doing lunges and pushups, followed by kicks and jabs to the punching bag as he twirls around and spins moves in the air. He seems to be struggling as he gasps for air under his mask.

Cavalli’s Kung Fu moves are inspired by Bruce Lee, but his favorite movie is Beauty and the Beast. “I don’t do things conventionally,” he says, stopping to munch on his food between lunges. “Everything I do is outta left field.”

*   *   *

A few weeks later, Cavalli was set to fight Desmond Nelson in an April bout. Nelson had beaten Cavalli at previous UCL event in November, and Cavalli was looking forward to the rematch. “Now it’s personal,” he said, promising to “do some damage.”

“Now I’m going to hurt that kid,” he vowed.

A twenty-one-year-old, soft-spoken African-American from Harlem, Nelson developed a passion for MMA by watching it on TV at the age of sixteen. Nelson has never met his father, is not close to his mother, and was raised by his grandmother, who, at eighty, watches the UFC with him on TV. While entirely self-taught, he is well versed in all styles of MMA fighting, including kickbocking, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. Since debuting with the UCL in July of 2012, he has already participated in five fights, which is quite an achievement.

“I don’t have a gym, none of that. I go to a teen center in the Bronx, on 149th Street where I have this guy who helps train me,” says Nelson. He originally met Peter Storm while attending a fight in which his cousin was taking part. 

“A lot of people have opinions about him and his league,” Nelson says of Storm. “But he still gives us the opportunity to fight and to test ourselves.”

“For me, I think if you’re fighting in the UCL, you’re passionate because you don’t get paid,” he continues. “It’s not really easy. You work with what you have when things are scarce.”

While he enjoys the underground culture of the league, he also notes that its lack of testing allows people who take steroids to participate, knowing there is no way to get caught. “The people in New Jersey who test positive for steroids, all they have to do is come across the water and fight for the UCL,” says Nelson.

Like Cavalli, Nelson has only recently thought about the health risks involved in underground fighting. “I just thought about it a month and a half ago. I thought, ‘Holy shit, it’s a big risk,’” he says. “If I’m fighting someone that might have something like hepatitis, that’s a big fear. But without the UCL, I wouldn’t get this exposure. It’s not like I have a gym or team to go to.”

Also like Cavalli, Nelson’s dream is to be in the UFC one day. “Every fighter’s dream is to be a champion,” he says.

Cavalli leaps off the wall of his gym.
Cavalli leaps off the wall of his gym.

Cavalli dominated all three rounds of their fight. “I remember getting hit once,” he says. “I knocked him down more than once. I set the pace of the fight and I took control.

“I showed more effort this time. I actually took advantage of every opportunity I had to hurt him. It felt good.”

*   *   *

One morning in mid-March, Cavalli went to watch the “Kings of New York” show at the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th Street. It was the first large-scale amateur MMA show in NYC in about ten years, coming after the State admitted in court that MMA is not actually illegal, as long as it’s amateur. A crowd of diehard MMA fans waited in line, battling the blistering cold.

Cavalli was approached by one of the promoters to see if he was willing to replace a fighter who dropped out at the last minute, but he replied that the weight class was too high for him and that he was not prepared. “I feel rushed,” Cavalli said.

After two hours, people began filling up the venue, and a singer made her way to the cage to recite the national anthem. The crowd rose to its feet. Soon after, the presenter announced the first fight of the night. A fighter, covered in tattos, came out with his corner men and the half-naked ring girls. He made his way down to the cage while the DJ played his trademark song, and his opponent followed right after.

The fighters were prepped by their corner men, who rubbed Vaseline on their faces to minimize tearing. Almost immediately, one of the fighters put his opponent in a headlock and beat him into submission. The crowd screamed, “Finish him! Finish him!”

Cavalli stood up, screaming and punching the air, so excited that he could not contain himself. One fighter’s eye bled, blood dripping down to his mouth. People were out of their seats, huddled around the cage, drinks in their hands, screaming.

During one of the fights later in the night, one competitor surrendered. His corner men ordered him to continue to fight, but he kept saying, “I can’t.” He was clearly exhausted and could no longer go on. He was carried out of the cage.

*   *   *

A few weeks after winning his rematch against Nelson, I asked Cavalli how he felt about his victory. Nelson is a tough kid, says Cavalli. “He would just keep getting up every time I knocked him down. He’s very resilient.”

In fact, Nelson was bleeding from his nose, but kept getting up until it was beyond clear that he was done.

“He was beat the hell up. People were like, ‘Look at his neck,' and I was like, ‘Oh shit’,” says Cavalli.

“When you fight someone like me,” he adds. “You can’t get tired.”

*   *   *

Dina Abdel-Haq is a recent graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her interests lie in international affairs and conflicts reporting.

Dedication: For Ana Paula Justino, the mother of an MMA fighter and a champion during her life and in her fight against cancer. RIP

Jessica Bal hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph, and film stories that she’s curious about.

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