On the Level

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

In one of the videos, Martinez demolishes a dark-skinned New Jersey native named June. Seconds into their fight, Martinez lands a couple of hooks to his opponent's face. June tucks his head into his chest for protection, exposing himself to Martinez's punishing body blows. June tackles Martinez. After they are separated, Martinez hits his opponent with an uppercut and then a left hook. June waves his hand in the air from side-to-side, indicating he can't continue.

Page views are in the thousands. People recognize Martinez in public. "I was at Dolphin Mall the other day and some dude asked me for my autograph," he says. "That tripped me out."

By his third fight in Harris's back yard in fall 2008, MMA promoters showed up to see Martinez battle a ponytailed opponent named Silvio, whom Martinez pounded for a good four minutes. The born-again street fighter caught the attention of the organizers behind the Mixed Fighting Alliance, one of dozens of start-up mixed martial arts leagues around the state.

Rene Martinez
C. Stiles
Rene Martinez
Rene Martinez and his once-estranged mother, Ileana Vasquez, work together to achieve his dream of MMA glory.
C. Stiles
Rene Martinez and his once-estranged mother, Ileana Vasquez, work together to achieve his dream of MMA glory.

The Alliance partly paid for Martinez to learn MMA skills at American Top Team's Kendall training academy. ATT is among Florida's largest MMA training schools, with various locations in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Martinez was quickly added to the Alliance's event "There Will Be Blood," held last December 13 at the American Airlines Arena. But he broke his hand before the fight.

The recession has hurt MMA. American Top Team closed its Kendall location, and it appears the Alliance is in trouble. (Owners Peter Regalado and Jorge de la Noval did not return phone calls seeking comment.) This past January 5, Martinez returned to fighting in Harris's back yard. In that contest, he opposed a white pugilist named Jeremy, who was dropped four times by Martinez's hooks and uppercuts. But the challenger fought back, earning applause from the crowd. Still, Martinez won.

Three months later, Martinez ran into Luis Palomino from his old neighborhood. For the past ten years, Palomino had been a professional MMA fighter and a capoeira trainer for Team Nogueira. Palomino persuaded Martinez to train with him at the Nogueira gym at NE Miami Court and 16th Street. "I was always inviting him to come to our gym," Palomino says. "He is a natural brawler. It is only a matter of time before he becomes a good MMA fighter."

In July, Martinez got his second shot at his MMA dream when he met Action Fight League's Carlos Lopez, who quickly picked up on Level's popularity. "I wanted to give him his pro debut," Lopez says. "So far, he is doing everything right. I advised him to make sure he stays with Team Nogueira. He is going to learn a lot with those guys."

Martinez's mom is Level's de facto manager. "Everyone has to go through me," she boasts. "After all, who is going to do a better job of looking out for his interests than me?"

Harris, the back-yard fight promoter, says the pressure is on Martinez to put on a show. "It is on Level to come out and demolish his opponent," Harris notes. "We all know his stand-up game is legit. He will impress a lot of people if he finishes the fight with a guillotine chokehold."

As the sun begins to set in Harris's back yard, he and Martinez stand in the center of the ring. A couple of friends film Harris asking Martinez if he is prepared to destroy his challenger September 25. Sporting a tight, menacing scowl, Martinez looks squarely at the camera.

"I'm ready, dawg."

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