By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
But not everyone was entertained. Peter Carmel, a prominent neurosurgeon, said the fights were "about as close to murder as you can get"; Sen. John McCain famously dubbed the burgeoning sport "human cockfighting"; and dozens of states banned it. For years the sport sputtered along — staging bouts in Native American casinos and redneck bars — until 2001, when two Las Vegas casino magnates bought the near-bankrupt UFC franchise for $2 million.
Thanks to savvy marketing and rule changes (no groin shots or hits to the back of the head), the organization began to take off. Nevada started sanctioning bouts in 2001; Florida followed in 2002.
Today, UFC is the largest MMA organization and has surpassed boxing and wrestling in pay-per-view revenue. Its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, often draws more viewers than NBA and Major League Baseball games in the coveted 18-to-34 male demographic. Even critics have come around. "They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting anymore," Senator McCain recently told National Public Radio. "They haven't made me a fan, but they have made progress."
As mainstream as UFC has become, there is still a hunger for the bare-knuckled barbarism of the sport's early years, as evidenced by the rapid ascent of Kimbo. A 34-year-old Perrine native, Kimbo seemed like a comic book hero tailor-made for the Internet age. In dozens of clips available on YouTube, he took on all comers from Boston cops to ex-cons; he fought them near dumpsters and boatyards and in back alleys, knocking them cold or beating them to a bloody pulp.
A call from EliteXC, a UFC competitor, followed, and just like that, Kimbo was on CBS, headlining the first network broadcast of an MMA fight. Kimbo lost his last fight (some think he took a dive) and is now in Japan trying to salvage what's left of his fight career. While much of the MMA world has tried to distance itself from Kimbo — UFC's Dana White called him a step backward for a sport still fighting for credibility — Harris thinks differently. "Kimbo is an inspiration to a lot of cats in the hood," Harris says. "They see what he did and believe they can do it too."
Harris hopes to create the type of following that would allow him to take his show on the road to Atlanta, Austin, Memphis, and other Southern cities where underground fighting has a following. For Harris and the fighters he promotes, back-yard brawls are their tickets out of the Miami ghetto. But that's not all: Harris envisions attracting major corporate sponsors such as Red Bull, SoBe Life Water, and Gatorade and holding bare-knuckle fights at American Airlines Arena.
Harris isn't the only one who thinks the market for bare-knuckle back-yard fights remains untapped. The now-defunct Rio Heroes of Fort Lauderdale pitted thugs from the ultra-violent Brazilian favelas against each other, offering them a chance to go from the slums to MMA superstardom. Felony Fights, an underground fight club, matches up ex-cons in brutal, non-sanctioned events in which even biting is permitted. Clips of the fights are available on YouTube, and stores such as Best Buy and Sam Goody sell DVDs that feature full-length bouts.
Mike McGowan, a trainer with the National Karate Academy on Old Cutler Road, believes ex-cons and thugs represent the future of MMA. "These guys are real warriors," he says. "They step into the ring knowing they are not going to get medical attention. It takes a lot of balls to do that."
The question facing Harris is if he can carve out a place for himself in the already crowded landscape of mixed martial arts. McGowan is doubtful. Despite the sport's growing popularity, few MMA organizations have prospered like UFC. EliteXC, the league that signed Kimbo, went belly-up in October. International Fight League also folded this year.
The problem with back-yard brawls, McGowan says, is that there is no way to contain the mayhem and chaos that makes them appealing into something that can be taken on the road. "You are never going to get sanctioned for holding a bare-knuckle, anything goes tournament," McGowan says. "So that means no pay-per-view and no Madison Square Garden."
If anything, McGowan says, back-yard brawling leagues serve as a fertile ground to tap the next MMA sensation in the same way Kimbo gained recognition. Already, one fighter who started his career in Harris's back yard is on his way to MMA stardom. Josbel Rodriguez, aka "Jay Pressure," a Bronx-born Cuban American, caught the eye of an MMA promoter at Harris's last tournament in July. Rodriguez is scheduled to fight in an MMA event at American Airlines Arena in February.
Despite the doubters, Harris is convinced he can succeed. "It is all about educating people that back-yard fights is a profitable business," he says. "There is a market for this type of fighting."
Back in Perrine, Harris is sitting in his mother's living room on a flower-print sofa, jotting down the revamped fight card with a Sharpie marker. He is already two hours behind schedule. If he doesn't start the bouts before sundown, his cameraman, who has finally shown up, won't get good footage for YouTube.
Harris walks into his kitchen where one of his fighters is waiting. It's a husky, baby-faced Carol City native who goes by Bolo. He is accompanied by his twin brother, who, like his sibling, sports a plain wife-beater, saggy basketball shorts, and intricate shoulder-length cornrows. Neither one says much. When asked why he wants to fight, Bolo nonchalantly responds: "I need the money."
Harris tells Bolo he's going to fight Big D, the first man who Kimbo pummeled on YouTube. "I'm gonna be honest with you," Harris says. "The money today is not that much, but you will get a cut of the side betting action should you win."
(Although Harris's fights are illegal for myriad reasons — they aren't sanctioned, zoning regulations forbid them, and gambling is illegal in the county — the police have so far turned a blind eye.)
Harris turns to another fighter named Chauncey, a stout Perrine local who resembles ex-Miami Heat point guard Tim Hardaway. Harris asks him if he wants to fight a strictly bare-knuckle brawl or a freestyle bout in which the combatants are allowed to use wrestling and mixed martial arts moves. "Whatever makes me bread," Chauncey replies. Harris warns Chauncey that his opponent will be allowed to take the fight to the ground and use arm bars, chokeholds, and knee shots. "I know you're a good stand-up fighter, but I want you to realize that this is a freestyle fight and I know you don't have a ground game."
Chauncey shrugs. "Man I'll fight anybody," he says. Harris has Bolo and Chauncey sign waiver forms releasing him from any liability from any injuries sustained in the ring.
"What I'm doing here is giving back to the community," Harris says. "This is a chance for them to put down their guns so they don't have to rob people to earn money."
While Perrine has its pockets of typical middle-class suburbia, many of the blocks surrounding 104th Avenue are ravaged by poverty. The town got its start as a railroad camp during the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway extension from Miami to Homestead, and was developed in a very segregated fashion, with the area to the east of the railroad tracks populated by whites and the area west of the tracks populated by blacks. When Perrine elected its first black mayor in 1949, the all-white city council succeeded in dissolving the city through the Florida Legislature.
Today, Perrine remains largely segregated, with blacks on one side of town and whites, many of them from the Keys, on the other. The median household income is $28,420. Harris's neighbor and friend Leonard Little, who has a scar on his right hand from where he was attacked with a machete, says young men growing up in Perrine are generally good children. "They go to church on Sundays and they don't disrespect grown folks," he says. "But we all grow up in the school of hard knocks. You learn how to fight in the streets."
Little and Harris grew up on the same street — 104th Avenue — which Harris pays homage to with a tattoo on his left arm. According to what Kimbo told media outlets such as ESPN, people who grew up on the street had to learn how to defend themselves from an early age.
"I must have gotten jumped like 40 times," Harris says, a wry smile forming across his face. "But even when I was getting the shit kicked out of me, I always made sure to hurt one of them."
Harris grew up the youngest of three sons born to Eleanor Stewart, a 58-year-old Bahamian schoolteacher. While Harris says he has little recollection of his father, he says his uncle filled in, offering male guidance Harris' mother couldn't. But there was no question who ran the household. Stewart formed a tight bond with her three sons that remains strong today. One of Harris's brothers now works for Homeland Security, while the other is a Miami-Dade corrections officer. Ask Harris what he thinks of his mother and he says, "She's my biggest supporter. She is always there for me."
According to his mother, Harris generally did well in school, but he did have a temper problem. "He got into a lot of fights," she says. "He gets his mentality from me. I don't let anyone get in my way." In the seventh grade, his temper got the best of him when a classmate threw his homework on the ground during an argument. "I busted his head open," Harris says. "I was arrested for assault and battery." He spent the next two years attending the Lee JRE Educational Center, an alternative school for troubled youths run by Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The summer of his freshman year, Hurricane Andrew leveled the southwest Miami-Dade house where Harris lived with his mother, his brothers, and his uncle Roland. They relocated to North Carolina for a year, where Harris took up football, before returning to Perrine in 1993 to the three-bedroom house where Harris now hosts fights.
By that time, Harris had left his troubled youth behind him, channeling the rage he sometimes felt into sports and academics. He didn't get in fights, and he steered clear of gang members and drug dealers who were rampant in his neighborhood.
"I could have easily fallen into that trap," he says. "But I had my mom and my uncle looking out for me."
After graduating from Palmetto Senior High, Harris obtained an associate's degree in education from Miami-Dade Community College and a bachelor's degree in pre-K and primary education from Barry University. In 1997, he tried out for the Carolina Panthers professional football team. He didn't make the roster but he was signed by an arena football team, the Memphis Xplorers out of Mississippi, and played one season. "It was a very racist town," Harris says. "The risk wasn't worth the reward, so I came back home."
He moved back in with his mother, got a job with the Miami office of the Children's Home Society of Florida, and then a year later as a counselor for ICARE Baypoint Schools, a group home in Kendall for troubled teenage boys.
One night in August of 2003 Harris was pulled over near his house and arrested and charged with a felony of burglary with assault and battery. Harris says it was a case of mistaken identity; he spent 19 days in the Miami-Dade Pretrial Detention Center.
While he was incarcerated, his uncle Roland — who had lived with him since childhood and had been Harris's father figure — was killed in the family's front yard by an unknown assailant who was trying to rob him. "All he had was $1.27 in his pocket," Harris says. "They didn't even take it. If I had been here, maybe that doesn't happen."
A few days later, the charges against Harris were dropped and he was back home. He tattooed his upper back with his uncle's name. Underneath it: "R.I.P."
One day in 2005, while he was mowing his mother's front lawn, Harris ran into an old cat from the neighborhood. It was Kevin Ferguson, aka Kimbo Slice, the man Rolling Stone dubbed "King of the Web Brawlers."
At the time, Kimbo was still working his transition from street brawler to MMA fighter, but he was already a celebrity in the neighborhood because of his YouTube videos. Perrine's most famous son invited Harris to join him as part of his entourage. "I was like 'of course I'll roll with you,'" Harris says. "After that, it was on and poppin'."
Harris traveled the country with Kimbo, working security with Kimbo for the IntheVIP.com porn site shoots. He met a slew of MMA superstars such as Randy Couture, Bass Rutten, and Randy Khatami. "I met a shitload of porn stars too," Harris adds. "And Jacob the Jeweler." (Jacob the Jeweler is the favored jeweler of hip-hop stars such as Jay-Z and Kanye West.)
Spending time with Kimbo convinced Harris that he could follow a similar path. That year he had quit his job with ICARE to take online courses at Barry, financing his education with money he made as a personal trainer. When he joined Team Kimbo, Harris believed that forging a career as a fighter would be a great way to honor his uncle. "I was lifting weights in my front yard with no purpose. Kimbo was an inspiration. He gave me the opportunity to see what I needed to do to build myself up."
In fact, Harris was on the same trajectory as his role model. He says Kimbo's handlers set Harris up with his first back-yard fight. "I destroyed the guy," he says. "But Kimbo was just blowing up and they didn't want to take away from his exposure so they never released the footage."
[New Times left four messages for Kimbo's manager Mike Ember seeking comment for this story. Ember did not respond to the interview request, but several neighbors and friends confirmed Harris was part of Team Kimbo. In addition, Harris posted on YouTube a slideshow of pictures of himself with Kimbo.]
This past February, before Kimbo fought Tank Abbott in his third professional fight, Harris left the big man's entourage. Harris said the friends had a falling out because Kimbo did not approve of his plans to start a back-yard league. "He tried to dissuade me, but this here is my time."
"He didn't want anyone else to come up like he did. He wanted to be the only one who made it out of the back yard. But he wasn't going to stop me."
Harris's first event took place in April, featuring four fighters in a neighbor's back yard a couple of blocks from Harris's house. "I had close to 200 people show up to see these guys battle it out. It just goes to show you ... violence will always sell."
For the second tournament, Stewart told her son to move the venue to her back yard. She told him: "If you are interested in doing these fights, then have it here in this yard so you can collect all the money from the gate."
Harris has promoted the league through word of mouth, flyers, text messages, and, of course, YouTube clips. He charges $20 a head and pays the fighters a few hundred bucks each using the proceeds from the gate receipts.
The most recent event, which took place in July, was filmed by Aurelio Roman, president of Miami-based Night Vision Productions. Roman wanted to work out a business partnership with Harris over the sale and distribution of 1,000 DVDs. But Harris did not agree to Roman's terms. "We had a contractual disagreement," Roman says. "But my plan is to get the DVD distributed in places like Blockbuster, Best Buy, and F.Y.E."
Roman says Harris does not get a cut from the DVD sales. So far Roman says he has sold only 150 copies of "Dada 5000's Battleground."
Still, Harris remains undaunted.
"Sex and violence are always going to hold its own, even in a bad economy. Most of these guys have been fighting all their lives. I'm providing them with a chance to stop robbing people and selling drugs on a corner."
With the fight card complete, Harris steps from his mother's kitchen into the back yard. At 4:15 p.m., he has about an hour-and-a-half of sunlight left for filming purposes. Twenty people sit on white plastic folding chairs in the roped-off VIP section around the ring's perimeter. Forty more patrons stand behind the exclusive area. The crowd is a mix of guys from the neighborhood wearing oversize T-shirts, baggy jean shorts, and Air Jordans; stout mixed martial artists from local gyms who train some of the fighters; and grandmothers and girlfriends who have come to show their support.
The turnout is a disappointment. Harris, known as Dada 5000 in Perrine, had hoped for at least 200 people, but he doesn't let his disappointment show as he steps into the ring. "Nobody doing it like we do!" he bellows. "Perrine stand the fuck up!" The smell of Chronic bud is stronger than ever.
He introduces the first two fighters: Jimmy Thompson, the ex-con who was shadowboxing on the front lawn a couple hours ago, versus Kevin Greer, the dude who was leaning on the wooden dog crate. "No grabbing," Harris instructs. "No groin shots and no hits to the back of the head. Y'all ready to run this?" Thompson and Greer nod in agreement. "Alright," Harris says. "Let's run it."
Thompson charges Greer, landing three blows to his face and knocking Greer to the ground. Thompson's girlfriend, a raven-skinned waif with her short hair pulled into a pony tail, jumps out of her seat. "Yeah baby!" she screams. "Represent Perrine!"
Greer stumbles to his feet and Thompson blasts him with a rapid succession of blows to the face, including a jarring hook to Greer's chin. Greer's legs buckle and he falls down, kicking up a plume of dust, prompting Harris to stop the contest. Greer rises from the dirt, blood and spit dribbling from his bottom lip, and says he wants to keep fighting. He wobbles around the ring.
One of the spectators standing inside the VIP section, a tall black man with cornrows smoking a flavored Black N' Mild cigar, shouts at Harris: "Dada let Jimmy finish him off!" Harris ignores him, instead helping Greer steady himself. "Kevin is done for the day," Harris says. The first fight is over in less than two minutes.
To the uninitiated, what follows is so savage, brutal, and raw that it is sickeningly violent. The next two fighters — one is from Overtown, the other from Miami Gardens — draw blood within seconds. The sound of cracking knuckles meeting bone emanates over people shouting "Get that nigga" and "Knock that motherfucker out."
A crimson splatter cakes the nose and cheeks of one fighter, who is dripping blood from a ghastly gash under his right eye. "Dig deep down dawg!" Harris implores. "Finish it!"
When the fight is over, the loser, a guy who goes by the name of Tree, slumps down on an empty plastic chair. He leans his head back and stares at the sky. Nearby, his grandmother Emma Baker silently watches. She is a petite, soft-spoken 67-year-old with red curly hair. "I thought we were going to an arena and that he would have protective gear on," she says. "I don't know why he wants to do this, but if it is what he wants to do, I will support him."
After he's gotten his bearings, Tree admits that he had slacked off on his training. "I wasn't running it like I was supposed to." Still, he made $200 for a few minutes of work. "Next time it ain't going down like that."
The final fight is between Bolo and Big D, whose only claim to fame is his much-talked-about ass-kicking from Kimbo Slice on YouTube. Today, Big D is here not just for money, but for pride.
As soon as the introductions are over, Bolo charges Big D, tagging him hard on the left side of his face. A bulbous knot protrudes under Big D's left eye. Blood streaks down his face. Big D sucks in his air, tucks his chin and delivers a nasty right hook that jars Bolo's jaw.
Bolo steps back, wobbly kneed, and spits up blood. He walks over to his twin brother standing outside the ring to tend to his wounds. The soft-spoken pair, who have come here solely because they need money, have their backs turned to Big D, who is going berserk, jumping around the ring and screaming at the crowd. "That bitch is scared!" Big D bellows. "He ain't got the heart to keep running it!"
Harris tries to get Bolo's attention. "You giving up?" Harris asks, but Bolo ignores him. Meanwhile, Big D has turned from the crowd and is taunting Bolo, standing a few inches from his face. "Let's go nigga!" Big D spits. Bolo ignores him, staring off into the distance, but his twin is enraged. He shoves Big D, who stumbles back and then retaliates by punching Bolo's brother in the face. A melee ensues, like something out of WWE SmackDown: The siblings rush Big D, who unleashes a flurry of punches at Bolo in defense. At the same moment, five dudes hanging outside Big D's corner rush through the ropes and join in, punching and kicking Bolo's brother in the head. Bolo and his twin retreat over the ropes and run to the front yard.
The riot is over as quickly as it started. Only a few chairs were knocked over and no one in the crowd was hurt. Harris's security detail, consisting of two hired guards and his friend Leonard Little, push Big D's posse out of the ring. Big D, however, is still in the center square, dancing and thrusting his pelvis as if he was having unbridled sex, perhaps relieved that he now has another claim to fame besides being the first man Kimbo Slice beat up on the Internet. He sticks his tongue out at the photographer snapping pictures. "Aaaaah!" he yells. "Perrine stand the fuck up!"
Meanwhile, a stone-faced Harris stomps over to the DJ booth and grabs the microphone. "Everyone get out of the yard!" he orders. Everyone files out except Big D, who repeatedly slaps his head. "Aaaaah!" he screams, pointing at his injured left eye. "Aaaaaah! That nigga hits like a bitch! For all my haters, I love y'all!"
About 30 minutes later, six uniformed Miami-Dade Police officers clear the street and the sidewalk in front of Harris's house. The back-yard brawl is over. Sitting in his living room, Harris announces that he is no longer going to pursue his plans to create a league of back-yard brawlers. Maybe the doubters were right. No one would ever sanction something like this.
Harris sits back, dejected by the way his event ended. His dreams of stardom have gone up in smoke. "I tried giving people an outlet but it is not going to work out," Harris sighs. "My resumé is complete. I don't need to do another big event."
But it won't be the last of Dada 5000, Harris vows. Maybe he can't be a fight promoter, but he can always fight. His place is in the ring, not outside it. "I already have footage I can put on the Internet, but I need something bloody on YouTube to get the people excited. That's what I'm gonna do."
Harris gets up from the sofa and walks into his bedroom. He shuts the door and doesn't come out.
In the back yard, one fighter remains. His name is Bernard Williamson, a former Killian football star who was next up on the fight card. Thanks to the melee, his fight was scrapped. He stares quietly at the empty ring. His moment will have to wait.