MMA Star Dada 5000 Talks About Knocking Out His Opponents

MMA star Dada 5000 talks about KOs in the first round.
ENTERTAINMENT  |  November 23, 2011By Davy Rothbart
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In a dusty backyard 30 minutes south of Miami, would-be MMA stars leave the streets behind to test their pain threshold in a brutal, bareknuckle fight club where the only thing flowing faster than the adrenaline is the blood. And as a no-holds-barred new documentary makes clear, at the center of it is the toughest fighter of all, the hulking, tattoo-covered goliath known as Dada 5000.

Blood was spattering all over my camera lens. At first I used my shirt to try to wipe it off, but that just smeared the blood everywhere. Finally, I got some paper towels and a bottle of water and washed it clean.” This is Miami-based filmmaker Billy Cor­ben, describing his first day on the set of his latest documentary, Dawg Fight, out this winter—a ferocious, point-blank study of the underground backyard fighting scene in Perrine, Florida, a gritty ’hood half an hour outside Miami. “We saw one guy get knocked the fuck out,” Corben says, “laid out cold. I was wondering if he’d ever get up.”

With its brutal violence and vivid drama, Dawg Fight feels like it could climb into the ring with Raging Bull, Rocky, or Fight Club and come out standing. The biggest difference is that every bludgeoned eye, flattened nose, and cracked jaw is real, and the blood doesn’t come from a makeup artist—it pours from open wounds. Dawg Fight chronicles a group of loco locals who are trying, quite literally, to fight their way out of the ghetto, hoping their DIY cage matches, staged in a steamy backyard and later posted online, will propel them to pro fighting careers, or at least put a few hundred bucks in their pockets. At the center of the mayhem as referee, emcee, and occasional brawler is a 6'3", 280-pound bear of a man who grew up grappling with his two older brothers here in his mother’s backyard, long before millions were tuning in on YouTube—a jocular giant named Dhafir Harris, also known as Dada 5000.

If you’re headed for Dada’s house from South Beach, you’ll soon find yourself leaving Miami’s glamour and glitz far behind. Before long, as the air turns swampy, you’ll veer wide onto an avenue lined with pawn shops, check-cashing joints, and fried-chicken shacks. Hang a couple of rights and you’re deep in Perrine, where small, brightly paint­ed homes cluster on one block and low-rise housing projects stretch along the next. A pack of middle-aged men in wheelchairs idle in the shade, while kids roam the streets in a pack. Pass a liquor store identified by its pink neon sign as the sto’, take your first right, and look for a tiny, Day-Glo green house with a shiny black Chevy SUV and two old Cadillacs parked in the yard. This is the house where Dada grew up, which he still shares with his mom. Knock on the door loudly enough and Dada is likely to appear in the doorway, sleepy-eyed but friendly; he’ll shake your hand and motion you in.

Sitting in the muggy kitchen, Dada—33, massive, bearded, swathed in tattoos, and rocking a fuzzy, misshapen mohawk—recounts the origins of his backyard fight club and his rise to notoriety, while his mom, Elea- nor, a kind-eyed Bahamian, stands behind him, humming to herself. Dada is engaging, funny, and supremely likable, alternately hyper and pensive. Neither he nor his mom can explain how she coined the nickname Dada; she’s just always called him that. The 5000 was his flourish. “The way I see it,” he says, with casual panache, “I’ll be remembered and talked about long after I’m gone.”

After graduating nearby Palmetto Senior High School in 1997, Dada scored a tryout with the Carolina Panthers. He had the size, strength, and speed, he says, but he’d never played organized football and he washed out. Back in Perrine, he began working with troubled adolescents and eventually earned an education degree from Barry University.

One afternoon in 2005, lifting weights in the yard, Dada saw a car drive slowly past the house, then back up. Out stepped Kevin Ferguson, a.k.a. Kimbo Slice, Dada’s childhood friend who’d grown up two blocks down the street. “Ferg,” as Dada calls him, had parlayed a viral video of a backyard knockout into a burgeoning MMA career. After chatting for a few minutes, he issued Dada an invitation: Roll with us. Dada leaped at the opportunity, joining Kimbo’s entourage as a driver, bodyguard, and right-hand man, flying with him to fights all around the country.

“We went so many places. I met so many people,” Dada says. “This was the life I wanted. And I realized, Hey, I’m marketable, I’m
athletic, I can do this, too.” According to Evan Rosenfeld, a Dawg Fight producer, Dada’s ring aspirations made Kimbo’s management team uneasy. They felt that Dada, with his natural charm and charisma, could eclipse Kimbo, and there might not be room in the pro fighting world for two guys with the same look from the same ’hood. When Dada sensed dark murmurs within Kimbo’s circle, he headed home to forge his own path.

Dada had seen the dividends that one short, simple YouTube video had paid Kimbo. With his mom’s blessing, he created a fight league in their backyard and found friends to film and post the action online. Dada had never lost a fight; his record in the streets, he says, was something like 38-0. Still, he had jitters before his first backyard bout, squaring off against a friend named Chauncey. “He was 260 pounds, straight outta jail, a real badass dude,” says Dada. “But I decimated him. After the fight he looked like the Elephant Man.”

Rattled by his own might, Dada withdrew from fighting and focused on flexing his promotional muscles. A Miami New Times cover story put Dada and his backyard operation on the map and brought Billy Corben and his filmmaking team calling, followed by the Miami Herald, ESPN, Telemundo, and a dozen other papers and TV stations. Soon fight day meant a turnout in the hundreds. Dada and his friends wrapped blue tarps over the fences around the yard and charged 20 bucks to get inside; every dollar went to whichever neighborhood toughs braved the ring.

“It’s 12 by 12,” Dada says. “Close quarters, designed to promote confrontation. Those guys know when they get in the ring, there’s no guarantee what shape they’ll be in when they get back out, if they get back out.” Each match ends one of three ways—someone gets knocked out, they tap out, or Dada stops the fight when the carnage gets out of hand.

When longtime boxing and MMA promoter Rick Finn first heard about the fights, he headed straight for Perrine. “I thought it would be out-of-control street fighting, like some back-alley brawl in a karate movie,” says Finn. “But there was a ton of genuine skill on display. And the excitement was palpable. It reminded me of the best of the small-venue boxing matches I used to see, where the people in the crowd knew the people fighting, and everyone was cheering their hearts out.”

“On a certain level, it’s barbaric,” says Carlos Lopez, an MMA promoter who’s become one of Dada’s closest advisers. “But you can never underestimate the human thirst for violence. Watching the backyard fights is like watching a real fight in the streets, except nobody breaks it up.”

Oddly, in a neighborhood where gunfire is the soundtrack to everyday life, Dada’s fights have become a form of relatively peaceful conflict resolution. Often when he hears that guys in his ’hood are beefing over drugs, money, or women, he’ll invite them into the ring to settle the score. “The way I see it, when you’re picking up your fists, you’re putting down your guns,” Dada says.

“We’re not the violence; we’re the alternative to the violence.”

For some Dada’s ring has become the stepping stone to a pro fighting career. Alfonso “Chocolate” Frierson, 22, remembers that on the day of his first match he wasn’t even scheduled to fight. “It took some courage to step in there and go at another guy with bare knuckles,” he says. “The money didn’t matter. For a lot of guys, there’s just a desire to be seen.” Even though Chocolate was pinned, his impressive debut led to a series of paid fights in the months that followed.

MMA managers and promoters began visiting Perrine, and before long René “Level” Martinez, Alex “Bruce Leroy” Caceras, and a handful of others were plucked from Dada’s weedy back lot to the MMA stage. Soon aspiring fighters were flying in from out of state to compete. MMA fans would drive all night to get a $50 front-row seat. Though the fights were blatantly illegal, the police in Perrine turned a blind eye, since any violence that went down was contained within the ring.

The only heat came from the Florida State Boxing Commission and its executive director, Thomas Molloy, who feared that without oversight, Dada’s unsanctioned bouts would have crowd-control problems, too much alcohol on the premises, or feature improper matchups. If someone were to get knocked out in Dada’s backyard and never get back up, Molloy has told Dada, there could be dire consequences. “I wouldn’t rule out a manslaughter charge,” says Molloy.

Eventually, after a year as backyard fighting’s Don King, Dada decided to channel his inner Mike Tyson and step back into the ring. At first it was hard to locate anyone suicidal enough to take on a guy who could bench-press 650 pounds without breaking a sweat. When at last someone took the challenge, Dada left the guy’s face permanently mangled. After a few more fights and a few more first-round KOs, Dada got the call he’d been waiting for—a pro MMA bout, scheduled at Hollywood, Florida’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino against an opponent named Cedric “the Killer Gorilla” James. Dada’s savvy intelligence, DIY hustle, and bravado had earned him a shot at the big time. But could he harness the moment?

In the early 1990s, while Dada tussled with his brothers in his backyard, an hour up I-95 but worlds apart, three junior-high pals in North Miami Beach—Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman, and Dave Cypkin—each received video cameras. They began to spend all their free time filming in the elaborate tree fort in Cypkin’s backyard: SNL-style skits, Mel Brooks movies, mini-odes to Hitchcock and Spielberg. Just as Perrine’s backyards bred fighters, the Cypkin family’s comfortable backyard spawned a trio of ardent, passionate eighth-grade filmmakers.

In high school the guys got serious, launching their own production company, which they dubbed Rakontur. “We all had pagers,” Corben remembers. “Everyone thought we were drug dealers. But we were filmmakers!”

For college Cypkin headed to Tallahassee to study film at Florida State, while Corben and Spellman stayed close to home at the University of Miami. In their junior year, they heard from pals in Gainesville about a video that had surfaced of some University of Florida frat boys filming themselves with a stripper, having forceful sex with her that bordered on rape. What was most compelling about the tape, they felt, was the polarized response it seemed to elicit. “One friend tells us it wasn’t rape,” Corben says. “He thinks it’s horrible that the woman’s trying to ruin these guys’ lives. The next friend says the tape’s absolutely disgusting.” The three decided to take a semester off and headed for Gainesville to investigate the case.

The result, a ready-made firestorm called Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, earned raves and a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, making the three 21-year-olds the youngest filmmakers ever to garner an invite. Spurning deals in New York and L.A., they soon set their sights on their next project, a study of the Miami drug trade in the ’70s and ’80s called Cocaine Cowboys. More documentaries have followed, including The U, about the Miami Hurricanes football teams of the ’80s; Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, a kind of THC-infused prequel to Cocaine Cowboys; and their latest doc, Limelight, which recently played to enthusiastic crowds at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Miami remains home to Corben, Spellman, and Cypkin, so when they caught wind of Dada 5000 and Perrine’s backyard fighting subculture, they were immediately hooked.

None of their crew had ever been to Perrine. As Rosenfeld explains, “There’s some rough ’hoods in Miami, but at least they have a downtown view. It’s something to aspire to. But Perrine’s known as a place with no hope.” Before their first day of filming, the Rakontur gang made careful plans for how to evacuate if gunplay broke out. But over time they found themselves welcomed by Dada and the crowd as honored guests—even with hundreds of people around, Corben notes, not one piece of equipment went missing.

“The fights are a community event,” says Cypkin. “You have vendors selling food, watches, purses; neighbors selling parking spots in their yards.” Overhead, kids hung in the branches of a neighbor’s towering tree, while thick Miami bass rumbled from giant speakers on the lawn below. Cypkin says, “Fight days feel like a street fair, a block party. Everybody’s radiating positivity.”

On the second afternoon of my South Florida visit, I roll with Dada to his friend Lucky’s barbershop, which is simply a lone barber’s chair set out on Lucky’s front porch, surrounded by a ring of white plastic chairs, where stalklike old men chitchat, doze, and wave flies away with a rolled-up newspaper.

Every two weeks Lucky restores Dada’s ornate, Spartan-helmet-style mohawk to its full splendor. Often local kids gather to watch, shyly gawking. To kids in Perrine, Dada and his fighters are real-life superheroes. “I recognize how much these kids look up to us,” Dada says. “All they want is to please someone, and for most of them there’s no father in the house. Me and the guys, we’ve taken on that role.” As encouragement, Dada provides cash bonuses to the kids on his street when they do well in school—a dollar for an A, 50¢ for a B, a quarter for a C. “By the end of report-card week,” he laughs, “I’m ready to take out a loan.”

Talk turns to Kimbo Slice, Perrine’s other native son. After Dada bowed out of Kimbo’s circle, Kimbo’s MMA career stumbled, careened, took a dive. Dada says he’s learned from his mentor’s mistakes. He believes Kimbo got famous too fast. He went from sleeping on an abandoned bus to riding in limos, living in a mansion, and having his name in lights: He was doomed to self-destruct. “He’s a cool guy,” says Dada. “He didn’t know how to handle certain things. I’m glad I got to watch the dos and don’ts so I won’t make the same mistakes. I thank you, Mr. Slice!”

Kimbo’s clearest misstep, from Dada’s perspective, was a lack of focus when it came to training: Kimbo was distracted by girls and partying. Dada, on the other hand, doesn’t blow his time chasing girls; he’s been with the same girlfriend, whom he met at church, for the past few years. After getting the call for his first pro MMA fight, he threw himself into the work of becoming a better fighter. His trainer, Raymel Llerena, a young, stocky Cuban, says he’s never seen someone so motivated. “I tell Dada to meet me at 4 a.m.,” says Llerena, “and he’s there at 3:50.” By the time Dada stepped into the ring for his MMA debut, he felt rigorously prepared, though he and his trainer still had butterflies. Kimbo Slice looked on from beside the ring, and the Rakontur crew was there to film the action.

Dada’s opponent, Cedric James, was a bruising grappler known for his ground game. Early on he took Dada to the mat, locked in a submission hold. The fighters clutched each other, unable to come out of their stalemate. Then, just as James worked his hand free and began raining punches down, the referee pulled the men apart. James’ corner was furious, but the fight went on, and with each blow Dada landed, his confidence swelled. Finally, bloodied and beaten, James collapsed, and Dada lifted his arms in victory. As Dada’s adviser Carlos Lopez recalls, it took James two full minutes after the fight to lift himself off the mat.

Boxing promoter Rick Finn, who’d put together the bout at the Hard Rock, remembers that before that night, a lot of purists expressed their doubts about Dada’s abilities. They felt his brand of backyard brawling had no place at a big-ticket MMA event. “But it was the most exciting fight of the night,” Finn says. “They won’t admit it openly, but those same guys who were doubting Dada—they were the first ones begging me afterward for a tape of his fight.”

Over the years, since Dada deserted Kimbo’s camp, there’d been some public shit-talking with Kimbo and his crew. Some expected that once Dada won his first pro bout and was handed a mike, he’d seize the moment and level a challenge to his mentor and lifelong friend. Instead Dada offered him heartfelt thanks. But now, after a second, more decisive victory, Dada feels ready to take Kimbo on. “I guarantee you, I’m gonna knock him out in the first round,” Dada says.

It’s a little hard to reconcile Dada’s jovial nature with the warrior lurking inside of him. Lucky tries to explain: “See, Dada’s the kind of guy who’ll greet you, knock you down, and then help you up. I’ve seen the transformation. It’s like the sky before a big storm: It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, but when the storm hits, you better be secure.”

“Yeah,” Dada agrees. “I’m generally peaceful, a real soulful dude, but on fight day I throw a switch. And I tell you, I’m gonna be
the last man standing. Kimbo’s going down.”

Over the past few weeks, Dada says, the details of his long-awaited battle with Kimbo have started to come together. They’ll likely pound it out in Las Vegas or Orlando sometime this January. The winner will earn the title “King of the Streets.” The loser will be left to pick up the pieces and find a new path to follow. “Everyone’s got an opinion, but nobody knows for sure who’s going to win,” says Chocolate. “If Kimbo can keep the fight on their feet, he’s got a chance, slugging it out. But if Dada takes him down and works the ground game, Dada’s got him beat.”

Lopez, Dada’s manager, is more emphatic. “To take out Dada,” he says, “Kimbo’s gonna have to kill him. I’ve never seen a fighter with Dada’s heart—he refuses to lose.”

Dada, already counting on a victory, is looking past Kimbo. He’d like to try boxing and challenge for the heavyweight crown—the dearth of appealing contenders has dealt the sport a blow, and Dada believes he can spark its resurgence. But he’s also excited for more MMA bouts, and he’d even be open to pro wrestling. With Llerena he’s opened a fighting academy called Brawlers Extreme, and he’s begun to edge into the hip-hop world, recently recording a fighter’s anthem called “Puttin’ ’Em Thangs on ’Em.” Even Molloy, director of the Florida State Boxing Commission, seems to admire Dada’s magnetism. “He’s a thinker,” says Molloy. “Once he leaves the backyard behind, he’ll succeed at whatever he wants to do.”

This evening, though, the future hasn’t quite arrived. Dada says peace to his barber and his trainer and walks off down the road to pick up some beans and rice for dinner before settling in to watch Rocky IV and keep molding his dreams. Across the street, in a vacant lot, a group of kids flipping each other around in the dirt pause to watch him recede into the gathering darkness, until at last he disappears out of sight. Then they resume. “Nuh-uh, you always get to be Dada,” one of them cries. “Now it’s my turn.”