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It's a sunny, arid afternoon in Perrine, a suburb in southwest Miami-Dade. At the corner of 179th Street and 104th Avenue, a crowd of about 50 people has gathered in the dusty front yard of a lime-green house. The sweet, pungent smell of marijuana wafts through the air as DJ PJ blasts underground Miami gangster rap through amp-size speakers, rattling the windows of the tricked-out Impalas parked on the curb.
Inside the house, Dhafir Harris is on the phone. The hulking 32-year-old is pacing in his mother's living room, counting the ways in which the day has already gone wrong. He runs a scarred hand through his Mr. T-like Mohawk and sighs.
"Two fighters aren't going to make it because they're in jail," he says into his cell phone. "I don't know what happened to my video guy either. And I can't start without the camera rolling."
Harris, a budding fight promoter, has for weeks looked forward to this Saturday after Thanksgiving. There will be five fights in the back yard in the next few hours. There are no rules and no doctors on hand, meaning there is nothing to keep the ex-cons now standing on the front lawn from seriously maiming, if not killing, each other once they get in the makeshift ring in the back yard.
Harris is the mastermind of today's event but looks like he belongs in the ring. At 6-4 with 255 pounds of hard muscle, he is a veritable King Leonidas. His long Roman nose, smooth cocoa skin, and chiseled cheekbones would make the Spartan war hero raw with envy. But he also carries the marks of a man who grew up in one of Miami's roughest neighborhoods. His knuckles are scarred from a decade-plus of schoolyard scuffles and back-alley brawls, his flesh is covered in tattoos paying homage to Perrine and a murdered uncle, and his massive chest bears the stretch marks of a man who can bench 600 pounds.
At first glance, his look is reminiscent of Kimbo Slice, the underground street fighter who became an Internet phenomenon five years ago, parlaying the millions of hits he got from his savage YouTube fights into a lucrative, albeit short-lived, mixed martial arts (MMA) career. Kimbo, born Kevin Ferguson, grew up in this neighborhood. In fact, Kimbo and Harris are boyhood friends, and Harris was part of Slice's entourage until earlier this year when the two had a falling out.
The way Harris sees it, Kimbo was more than a flash in the pan. He represents the future of anything-goes pugilism. "I'm taking street-fighting to a whole other level," Harris says. "The blood is real. The pain is real. Everything we do here is bare knuckle. And there are no rules, so either you tap or you snap."
If all goes according to plan, Harris could be on his way to becoming the Dana White of the ghetto. White is the pugnacious ex-boxing trainer who transformed MMA from a fringe sport into a multimillion-dollar business through his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotional company. Harris believes he can blaze a similar path by putting on back-yard brawls.
For the past year, Harris has built a small squad of street fighters who are ready at a moment's notice to pound fists inside his four-point square ring. Judging from video footage of the previous four tournaments, the hand-to-hand battles attract an average of 200 blood-lusting people. On YouTube, clips of the ex-cons and former outlaws beating each other to a pulp on Harris's property are averaging hits in the five figures. Even his DVDs are being bootlegged. Call it the Kimbo Slice effect.
Harris looks out at the fighters he has assembled, mingling on the sidewalk and in the street with friends from the neighborhood. An ex-con named Jimmy Thompson is bobbing and weaving in the front yard, kicking up dust as he boxes an imaginary opponent. His real challenger, a lazy-eyed mope with an average build, is not far away, leaning against a homemade dog crate made out of plywood. And the thick-necked mulatto with the bald head and full set of gold-capped teeth? That's Big D, the first guy to get his face pummeled by Kimbo on YouTube. Today, Big D is looking to restore some of his hood cred.
Harris hopes that somehow this motley crew can be melded into an event that will not only entertain the neighborhood, but also bring in a few thousand dollars and attract the attention of some MMA scouts, the media, and maybe some corporate sponsors. But so far, with two of his best fighters locked up in jail, things are off to a bad start. He can only imagine the way the afternoon will turn out.
The path from MMA's origins to Harris's back yard began 15 years ago at a sports arena in Denver. There, a legendary Brazilian jujitsu grandmaster named Hélio Gracie gathered eight professional fighters — including a boxer, a kickboxer, and a sumo wrestler — to determine which fighting style was best. There were few rules (no biting or eye gouging), no time constraints, and no judges. It was a primal spectacle that appealed to the basest of human desires, and the crowd loved it.