On the Level

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

On a couple of occasions, Vasquez tried to get her son to come with her to Sunday services. "He was uncomfortable with that idea because he felt all eyes would be on him, judging him," Vasquez recollects.

Martinez found a solemn place at Alpha & Omega, a born-again Christian mega-church in South Miami-Dade. An old acquaintance, preacher Michael Castillo, urged him to attend a massive Christian gathering at the Orange Bowl in 2005. He was born again there.

That afternoon, Martinez ran into the ex-leader of rival gang International Posse, a man he knew only as Fingers. "We squashed our beef and hugged one another," Martinez recollects. During the middle of the service, Martinez felt an urge to go to the front and pray. "I felt like I was high," Martinez says. "I didn't know why I was crying, but I felt peace."

But staying out of trouble hasn't been easy. The same year he accepted Jesus Christ, Martinez was arrested for kicking a man named Dionni Garcia in the face. Garcia had argued with one of Martinez's friends. The simple battery charge was subsequently dropped. Reached at his North Miami residence, Garcia declined to comment.

On May 8 last year, Martinez was nailed for punching a friend in the face at Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach. The friend had suggested Martinez had allowed another man to get stabbed on South Beach. Martinez claimed self-defense, according to the arrest report.

Martinez declined to talk specifics about those two incidents. Charges were dropped in both cases. "I'm not perfect," he says. "I do my best to stay out of trouble, but if someone challenges me, I am going to handle my business."

Castillo insists Martinez has come a long way. "I've seen him sharing his experiences with kids so they don't fall into the same trap he did," the preacher says. "To see how far he has taken his life in a positive direction is amazing. You no longer have to worry about him coming to your house to try and kill you."

He reconciled with his mother, who recently earned a master's degree in administration of programs for children and families from Nova Southeastern University. She also spent the past ten years working as a counselor for troubled youths at the McLamore Center for Children in Allapattah and other social service agencies in Miami-Dade that she declined to name.

Earlier this year, Vasquez started her own nonprofit agency targeting children like her son who come from broken homes or have been abused and neglected by their parents. "I want to help my mom achieve her dream," Martinez attests.

Working together has brought mother and son closer. This past Easter, they worshipped together. "I always prayed that one day I would see him praise God," she says. "And that day, I witnessed him crying, holding his hands up in the air, accepting Jesus Christ. I am very proud of my son."

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It's summertime 2007. Kimbo Slice is standing before the wood-finished garage door attached to his fancy mustard-colored house in South Miami-Dade. The burly ex-bodyguard wears a blue argyle baseball cap, a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt, and jeans. The cameraman asks, "What you got going on today, Kimbo? What's your prediction?"

"We gonna let these boys do their thing," Slice replies. "You know how it is. Another day a nigga gotta eat, ya feel me?" The camera cuts to a shirtless Martinez standing toe-to-toe with a stocky brown-haired man wearing a navy blue Adidas tracksuit. Martinez's opponent, an alleged karate master, closes the gap. Martinez swings a vicious left hook that connects to the right side of karate man's face. He crumples, his back landing on the stone-paved driveway. He is on the ground for six seconds. He wobbles to his feet. The referee, a large black man, inquires, "Can you fight?"

His mouth agape, karate man stares blankly. He's unable to even mouth a "yay" or a "nay." The cameraman attempts an interview: "You got nothing to say to the camera, buddy?"

Karate man, his mouth still open, nods his head no. He rubs the side of his face where Martinez walloped him.

"Wake up, man," the cameraman says. "You're all right."

He's done.

That was Martinez's first bare-knuckle brawl for money. He fought two more contests on Slice's property. Martinez declined to say how much he was paid, but back-yard brawlers can earn $500 (if they lose) to $1,500 (if they win) per fight. In June 2008, Martinez met Dhafir Harris, a former juvenile guidance counselor from Perrine who for a brief period was part of Slice's entourage. At the time, Harris, a six-foot-four hulk of a man, was hosting and refereeing a bare-knuckle fight in his mother's back yard.

"Level came by our event," Harris remembers. "I had never met him before, but he came up to me and asked me if he could fight at our next one. And he did. He really took off in our back yard."

Martinez fought in seven of his ten events, Harris says, including the win over Griffin this past July. Martinez has posted video footage of at least four of those contests on YouTube, where he has gained a cult following.

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