On the Level

Part thug, part street fighter, Rene Martinez flattens his opponents. Can his punch save him from himself?

Rene Martinez's shaved head glistens under the blazing sunlight that bathes the back yard of a lime-green house in Perrine, a predominantly poor suburb north of Homestead. His thick eyebrows burying a squint, his teeth clenching a mouthpiece, Martinez quietly surveys the crowd that has come to see him bang fists with Alfonso Griffin, a 28-year-old ex-con who left prison last year after serving 12 years for attempted murder.

On this steamy summer afternoon, the 35-year-old Cuban-American is the star attraction on a four-bout underground fight card. Since last summer, Martinez has notched an 8-0 record in Miami-Dade County's unsanctioned back-yard brawling circuit. The last street warrior to pull off an undefeated run? Kimbo Slice, the Perrine native who parlayed his bare-knuckle fighting career into a mixed martial arts million-dollar payday. Martinez, who goes by the street name "Level," hopes to one day surpass Slice's success.

Accompanied by his boxing coach, Martinez walks to a homemade fighting ring set up in the back yard's center. The arena is a 12-by-12-foot square made from black nylon ropes tied to four posts jammed into the ground. About two dozen spectators sit on plastic folding chairs arranged around the ring. Fifty more friends and fans stand behind the seated patrons. One of them, a heavyset Hispanic man in his 20s, yells out Martinez's catch phrase: "Level that fool out!"

Another supporter hollers, "Knock that nigga's head off!"

Griffin, the opponent, stands close to six feet tall and sports a stocky build and a flabby midsection. Martinez wears baggy black basketball shorts with white trim and black Adidas sneakers. He is shirtless, showing off the tattoos that cover most of his muscular 200-pound frame.

The body art is an historical account of his life. There's the self-portrait on his right calf that depicts him as a mujahid holding an AK-47 assault rifle. And etched into his lower back, the Roman numerals XII and XIX — which signify L and S, the 12th and 19th letters in the alphabet — represent the Latin Syndicate, one of Miami-Dade's most infamous gangs, which he directed for a decade.

Over the years, Martinez has added Jesus Christ's face to his right forearm, as well as the name of his 10-year-old daughter, Aliah, on his left pec. They are testaments to the moments that helped him realize he would die or end up in prison for life if his gangster ways continued.

A scar runs from the top of his cheek to his jaw line on the left side of his face. It's a reminder of his first brush with death, at age 14. He was in a coma for more than ten days, and doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival.

A little after 4 p.m., the referee signals the bout's start. Martinez and Griffin begin the dance. A left jab grazes the top of Griffin's forehead. He responds with a wild swing that whizzes in front of Martinez's nose.

Martinez connects with a left hook to Griffin's chin. Whap! His opponent falls to the ground; Griffin gets up twice, only to be knocked down again. After the third tumble, a winded Griffin kneels on the grass and refuses to continue. "I'm done," he gasps. The referee walks to Martinez and raises his arm into the air, declaring him the victor.

The audience erupts in jubilation.

That Martinez has become a street champion rather than a lifelong resident of the state penitentiary is something of a miracle. The son of an abusive father and dissolute mother, he has rumbled with enemies on South Beach and Coconut Grove streets, terrorized motorists who cut him off, thrown rocks and bottles at occupied moving vehicles, beaten up a girlfriend, and even shot at a rival outlaw in broad daylight. His arrest record reads like a thug diary. "I didn't care about anything," Martinez admits. "Period."

Today, Martinez has turned to God and reconciled with his mother. His goal: Become a professional mixed martial arts fighter. "I want to show the world how I turned a negative into a positive," he says.

Indeed, Martinez was recently recruited by Team Nogueira, the Miami-based MMA training academy that produced Anderson Silva, the current UFC middleweight champion. And on September 25, Martinez will make his pro debut at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood against another newcomer, Roy McDonald. Their match during "Rumble at the Rock" will be televised by SunSports Network, Fox Sports South, and Blackbelt TV.

The stakes are high. Martinez's defeat would likely mean a return to a life of thuggery and failure. But if he wins, he could become bigger than Kimbo Slice, says Carlos Lopez, event marketing director for Action Fight League, which is staging the Hard Rock rumble. "We are hoping he does good," Lopez affirms. "But if he loses, no one is gonna bother with him anymore. That's the reality."

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An '80s Buick Regal raced down NW 77th Avenue in the town of Medley just after midnight, March 12, 1989. Inside the two-door V8 ride, a teenage Rene Martinez and three buddies cracked jokes about the suckers at the Hialeah party they had just left. The teenagers had stolen the Regal hours earlier. Rene rode shotgun.

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