By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
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."
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.
Soon, a Medley Police cruiser, its lights flashing and siren blaring, pulled up behind the Buick. The driver gunned the engine. The speedometer topped out at 85 miles per hour. The needle was past that mark. Martinez wasn't wearing a seat belt.
At an intersection, another car ran a stop sign and smashed into the Buick's passenger side. The sound of grinding metal and the smell of smoldering auto fluids filled the air. Rene flew through the windshield.
His crumpled, unconscious body came to rest on the pavement. Blood seeped from a huge gash on the left side of his face. Both femurs were crushed. For more than ten days, Rene was in a coma. Doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center told his mother, Ileana Vasquez, that her son had a one in 20 chance of survival.
"My conscience ate at me the entire time he was in a coma," Vasquez recalls. "What had I done wrong to put my son in the place he was in?"
Twenty-two years later, Vasquez sits at a table inside a Homestead country club, recounting the traumatic accident that dogged her and her son's lives. A middle-age woman with large round brown eyes and shoulder-length straight raven hair, she speaks in a soft measured voice. "I came from a strict Cuban family," she says. "I didn't want the same for my son."
In 1961, when she was 5 years old, Vasquez, her parents, and her older sister fled Fidel Castro's revolution. They settled into a brownstone in the Bronx. Her parents sent her to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Raymond's School for Girls. She graduated at age 16, the same year she met her first husband, Rene Martinez Sr. He was ten years older than she and suave. "A mutual friend gave him my number," she says. "He called me and I agreed to go out with him." Soon after the first date, Martinez proposed and she accepted. "My parents were going through a bitter divorce," she explains. "I wanted to get out of my house. And back then, a young girl was expected to get married and start a family."
In the mid-'70s, around the time Rene Jr. was born, the couple left the Big Apple for Hialeah. From that moment, Vasquez recalls, the marriage began to unravel. "We were very much in love," she says. "But Rene's father was a very insecure man because his mother had abandoned him when he was a young child. My husband could not share my love with Rene. He took out his frustration on our son."
Rene Sr. would verbally and physically abuse the boy, she says, adding that his father almost pulled junior's arm out of its socket one time. (Rene Sr. was killed in a car accident a decade ago.) In 1978, when Rene was 5 years old, his parents divorced. A 22-year-old single mom, Vasquez worked a full-time job during the day and attended class at Miami-Dade Community College at night. Three years later, she purchased a two-bedroom house near Kinloch Park on NW Fourth Street at 47th Avenue.
Vasquez's sister joined her in Miami and the siblings opened two video rental stores in West Miami-Dade. Vasquez began to party hard, making little time for her son and often leaving him with his paternal grandmother. "My priorities were all wrong," she acknowledges. "I did not discipline him."
That mistake haunted her after Rene was nearly killed in the Medley car accident. "I fell into a depression," she says. "There is no worse feeling than a mother who is powerless to save her son."
During the four months Rene was hospitalized, Vasquez lost her house and was forced to close one of the video stores. She converted a storage room at the other shop into living quarters. "I made myself a little apartment," she explains. "That is what Rene came home to."
Eventually, they closed the other video store and moved to Coconut Grove. Rene became a thug. He skipped school. He vandalized walls with graffiti, stole cars, and fought. Oh, how he fought. "His explanation was that he wasn't going to let anyone look at him hard," Vasquez says.
In adversity, the single mom turned to God, regularly attending Sunday mass at St. John Neumann's in South Miami-Dade. There she met the Prayer Warriors, a group of elderly Catholic women who led prayer groups for the church's parishioners.
Sometimes the Prayer Warriors would gather around Rene's bed when he wasn't home and ask God for help. "One time, Rene did not come home for a week," she recalls. "I went to pray with the ladies from the church, and one of them reassured me I would see him soon. That afternoon, he was waiting for me on the front porch."
Divine intervention didn't always save the young man. When Rene was 17 years old, on Christmas Eve 1990, Vasquez received another call from Jackson Memorial's emergency room. Earlier that evening, he and three friends had attended a Little Havana party and argued with a guest. "Pretty soon we were surrounded by all his boys," he remembers. "Some of them had baseball bats."
Rene was severely beaten that night.Welts covered his head, and a large bruise ran the length of his back from a whack with a bat. "I was all banged up," he says. "My face was all discombobulated."
Rene also points to a surgical scar on his left elbow where doctors inserted pins. "I woke up in somebody's yard," he says. "An old man found me, and he took me to the hospital."
It didn't slow him down. "It just made me crazier," he says.
And his relationship with his mother had disintegrated. "He was very unmanageable by then," she says. A year later, when her son was 17, Vasquez remarried. Though still a minor, the boy moved in with a girlfriend in Leisure City, where he would transform into Level, Latin Syndicate's ferocious leader.
Rene Martinez pulled a black Nissan Sentra into the parking lot of a South Miami apartment complex early one cool spring night in 1995. He parked the car, cut the ignition, and got out to greet a friend, a young, fair-skinned man whom he knew as A-Dog.
Nearby, a black crack dealer named Zellie "Picklehead Pete" Carter caught sight of Martinez, walked over, and insulted him. "He called me a pussy-ass Cuban," Martinez recalls. "So I threw my hands up and challenged him to a fight."
Instead, Carter drew a pistol, Martinez says. So the Latin Syndicate founder backed off, got in his car, and drove away. About two hours later, he returned. This time, Martinez got out of his Nissan holding a 9mm Ruger. "What's up now, nigga?" Martinez howled at Carter, who whipped out his gun.
"We started bucking at each other," Martinez continues. The sound of gunfire and the smell of hot lead filled the parking lot. Four residents who had been outside scrambled to find cover.
Martinez ducked behind a green dumpster. He counted to three, emerged from the hiding spot, and unloaded his clip. Carter retreated into the apartment building. Martinez ran in the opposite direction, leaving his car at the scene. "I didn't get into my car because I knew Picklehead and his people would have shot it up on my way out of the complex," Martinez says.
A day later, Carter reported the incident to South Miami cops. He claimed he was unarmed when Martinez began shooting at him. According to the police report of the incident, Carter "stated someone in the crowd threw him a firearm and that he shot back at [Martinez] in self-defense." Carter and four of his friends took the officers to the abandoned Nissan. They found Martinez's wallet, with his driver's license, in the glove compartment. Martinez soon surrendered to South Miami Police. Two months later, he was convicted for felony possession of a firearm and two misdemeanors. He served 73 days in jail. It wouldn't be his last stint behind bars.
The desire to hurt others — which would evolve into his fighting career — had begun years before. At 12 years old, he and his friends would make homemade boxing gloves out of old socks and duct tape. The loser would have to pay. "We'd go at it for five dollars," he recollects. "We did that a lot."
When he turned 16, Martinez and eight friends formed the Latin Syndicate. "The original leader was this dude named Hammer," Martinez remembers. "I used to chill with him in the Grove on the weekends. And we all used to have beef with the same cats, so one day Hammer was like, 'We are gonna start a new clique.'"
The Syndicate adopted black and gray as its colors. A year later, Hammer went to prison for murder, and Martinez took over leadership duties, he says. He estimates the gang had 30-plus members. A 1997 Miami Herald article about gang violence in Miami-Dade pegged the Syndicate's numbers at 100 and claimed the gang was involved in selling crack in Kendall and North Dade. Martinez declined to expound on his gang's alleged drug trafficking.
Indeed, the '90s were dominated by headlines of youth gangs terrorizing each other and anyone who crossed their path. In 1992, a Latin Syndicate gangster shot and killed a rival from South Beach Posse in a South Beach parking lot. A year later, undercover Miami Police officers were inadvertently caught in a shootout between two gangs — and then undercover ATF agents busted four gangbangers for selling illegal firearms and orchestrating drug rip-offs.
Luis Palomino, an olive-skinned Peruvian who lived on the same block as Martinez in Leisure City for ten years, recalls those dangerous days. "We grew up in some really bad times," Palomino says. "Rene was in it deeper than I was." Palomino was not affiliated with any gang. "I would have to fight people in Rene's gang and his rivals," he adds. "It wasn't easy, especially when you don't have 10, 20 guys backing you up."
The Syndicate boys would hang out at Robert King High Park in West Miami-Dade or chill at Martinez's house, lifting weights and practicing their technique on an old punching bag. "We used to call my back yard 'the House of Pain,'" Martinez says. "My boys were my brothers. We were ready for whatever. We thought we were the shit. If you messed with us, we would fuck you up."
The Syndicate's main rival gang was Kendall-based International Posse, although Martinez and his boys would battle with other bands of hoodlums from Miami Beach. The black-and-gray bangers stockpiled all kinds of firearms, from AK-47s to MAC-10s and AR-15s. In a self-made two-minute documentary-style video Martinez posted on YouTube, he included photos of himself and friends posing with their arsenal. "I used to love carrying guns all the time," Martinez says. "The 9mm Ruger and a .357 Magnum are just two of the guns I collected."
(Martinez provided cell phone numbers of two of his former Syndicate brothers for interviews. However, neither responded to repeated voicemail messages requesting comment.)
According to his criminal record, Martinez and fellow Syndicate members wreaked havoc from Leisure City to Miami Beach between 1990 and 1998. During that period, Martinez was arrested 21 times.
For instance, on August 8, 1992, Miami Beach Police officers descended on 15th Street and Ocean Drive to stop a gang fight. The cops found a then-19-year-old Martinez and 15-year-old Ludwig Barquim hurling rocks at members of the South Beach Posse. Martinez was arrested and subsequently convicted for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence misdemeanors. He received a 30-day jail sentence.
Two months later, on October 4 at 2:25 a.m., Martinez was again collared for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. In the arrest affidavit, an officer reported seeing Martinez and friend David Donakan breaking beer bottles "in an attempt to cut other combatants." Martinez served another 30 days in lockup.
Soon after his release, on December 9, 1992, Martinez was driving a black 1984 Chevrolet Caprice when he got into a traffic dispute with two men in an old Chevy van at the intersection of SW 16th Street and Ludlam Road. The men in the van drove off. Martinez gave chase.
After catching up, he allegedly smashed one of the van windows with a stick and then challenged the occupants to a fight. They fled and flagged down a state trooper, who arrested Martinez. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the case after he spent two weeks in jail. Martinez could not recall the incident.
In 1993, he racked up arrests for trespassing, marijuana possession in a school zone, aggravated battery, throwing a deadly missile into an occupied moving vehicle, and loitering and prowling. The following year, on April 12, Martinez drove by a house near Red Road just north of Eighth Street and began arguing with two people. According to the arrest report, Martinez got out of his car and produced a blue handgun from his waistband. The report claims Martinez pointed the gun at the victims, who were not identified. He allegedly screamed, "I'm your fucking problem. I'm Level. Latin Syndicate. No one fucks with Level."
He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm while engaged in a criminal offense. He got probation. Martinez denies brandishing a gun and claims one of the victims was related to a detective in the Miami-Dade Police gang unit. "They did me dirty on that one," he says.
Through police spokesman Det. Alvaro Zabaleta, the lieutenant in charge of the gang unit would neither confirm nor deny their investigations into Martinez.
The violence escalated in 1996, when members of the South Beach Posse conducted two drive-by shootings aimed at knocking off some of Martinez's Syndicate homeboys. In one incident, at 84th Street and Byron Avenue in Miami Beach, no one was hurt. On another night, on South Beach, the intended target was struck in the shoulder and wrist, but survived. That year, Martinez claims, he saw at least 25 of his friends go to prison, get seriously injured, or die. Five homies perished in one week. Two were shot to death. Another one was stabbed. A fourth pal overdosed on heroin.
"The last one committed suicide," he says. "He hung himself in front of a mirror and watched himself die. I heard he had been tripping on acid."
Martinez continued to find trouble. On July 21, 1999, he was arrested for falsely imprisoning a girlfriend. According to the arrest affidavit, he showed up at her house at 8:30 a.m., demanding sex. She refused. When she tried to call 911, Martinez forced her back into the apartment and kicked her in the back. Then he bit her on the arms and legs. He was convicted November 3, 2000, and put on probation for one year. Martinez's ex declined to comment and requested her name be left out of this story.
Four months later, Martinez began to slowly change his behavior, he says. That was when his daughter, Aliah, was borne by another woman he had been dating. (They broke up shortly thereafter.) In a rare moment of vulnerability, Martinez cried in the delivery room. "I was so happy," Martinez says. "That's when I discovered the meaning of life.
His mother noticed some subtle changes in her son in subsequent weeks. "He stopped wearing his gold teeth," she says. "He stopped going out with his friends. Instead, he would spend a lot of time with his daughter, which helped him build some self-esteem." Martinez shares a close bond with his daughter, who has some of her father's facial features, including his round brown eyes and pouty lips. He spends weekends with her at places such as Rapids Water Park in Palm Beach County. "I'm only soft around her," he says.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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."