By Frank Owen
Photos by Janette Beckman
On a chilly December night in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the weather so cold even the drug dealers have retreated indoors, 100 or so rowdy young men and women from the adjacent housing projects have gathered inside a windowless garage. In the center is a brightly lit boxing ring stained with dried blood from a previous fight. Standing in the ring, two women dressed in street clothes and wearing martial arts training gloves are punching the frigid air.
In one corner the deceptively slender Danyel Portis (a.k.a. Do Her Own Motherfuckin’ Thing) is using her fingertips to lightly grease her pretty face with Vaseline. She resembles a young Dionne Warwick and wears an impatient expression that says: Let’s just do this. Danyel has no time for the prefight trash talking that usually accompanies these bouts. This single mother of three is not here to pop off her mouth. She’s here for one reason only: to win the $1,000 prize money so she can feed her kids.
In the other corner, a young woman named Aliya Zalk, who has maybe a 20-pound weight advantage over her rival, is also eager for the fight to start but for a different reason than Danyel: “You better make that money quick,” her boyfriend, who is standing at the side of the ring, urges her. “Don’t forget to cover your face.” She is from next door, Flatbush, and exudes pure courage. Brave is the white girl who steps into this arena in a neighborhood where the only pale faces belong to the cops.
Despite the numerous hard-looking characters hanging around, the atmosphere in the room feels more like a family picnic than an illegal fight club. While adults eat McDonald’s and sip Hennessy from plastic cups, baby-faced teenagers flash gang signs and pose for cell phone cameras and toddlers scream with delight, chasing each other around the echoing concrete space. Incongruous sights abound: a father sitting on a folding chair tenderly cradling a baby; a pit bull growling in a cage. Near the ring a film crew that has been hard at work on a documentary about the club prepares for the main event. By the entrance, two behemoths—one female, the other male—pat people down. Everybody gets checked for weapons. As soon as the last person has entered, the bouncers bolt the metal door shut. No one is allowed to leave until the event is done. If a fire breaks out, we’ll all be goners.
A voice in the audience yells, “Put your bets down now,” and $20 bills appear from baggy trouser pockets and are passed from one hand to the next. While there is no admission charge for the fight, the proceeds from the gambling pays the fighters and finances the evening’s festivities.
Jigga, one of the organizers and the MC for the evening, calls the women to the center of the ring. A lean 6'5", he is a popular figure in Brownsville, known as “the Mayor” for his talent as a peacemaker. That’s a critical skill when dealing with the boisterous fans who often support fighters based on which public housing development (Tilden Houses, Brownsville Houses, Langston Hughes Houses, Marcus Garvey Houses) they come from. He explains the rules of the contest to the combatants: “No grabbing. No kicking. No scratching. No hair pulling. No biting. Three rounds. Ninety seconds a round.” The fighters nod in acknowledgment. And with the blare of a car horn, the battle begins.
Aliya immediately goes on the attack, catapulting herself across the ring toward Danyel’s corner like a human cannonball. She throws a wild right, which fails to connect after Danyel ducks. Then she throws a left, which also hits air, but this time Danyel is ready and grabs her opponent’s arm in midflight and wraps it around her neck. Danyel is now strangling Aliya with her own limb. Aliya tumbles awkwardly to the canvas gasping for breath. In a flash, Danyel is on top of Aliya, her legs straddling Aliya’s chest. She pummels her face with both fists.
The crowd goes crazy with blood lust. Jigga spots that Aliya is in trouble and dashes across the ring to pull Danyel off her dazed rival and end the round. Jigga grabs Danyel under the arms, and as he heaves her up from the canvas, she gets in one last hard kick, direct to Aliya’s face.
* * *
The 1999 movie Fight Club is commonly credited with setting off the trend for semi-organized underground slugfests among teenage boys and young men, but informal female fight clubs, just like their all-male counterparts, have likely existed for decades in prisons, housing projects, and reformatory schools. In fact, the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club—born in Brownsville, the gritty ghetto that has spawned more top fighters than any other neighborhood in America—began in the late 1980s at the tail end of the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, when whole families lost themselves to the pipe.
“It started on the street with poor girls who desperately needed money to take care of their kids,” says boxer Zab Judah, the former welterweight champion who grew up in Brownsville. “A guy would tell a girl: ‘You’re a tough bitch. I’ve got $500. You fight my tough bitch.’ And the guy’s friends would bet on the fight. A lot of women thought: I got three kids. My lights are getting cut off. My rent is overdue. Where’s the bitch at?”
Then a group of local gangsters decided to organize these street brawls and move them indoors into a boxing ring. Today half the audience assembled at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is female. The brawlers are recruited from the street, and they fight at the club to further establish their rep in the neighborhood and to get a shot at the prize money. Why not get paid for doing something they would otherwise do every day for free?
The fights occur intermittently, publicized by word of mouth. The location, which changes each time, is kept secret up to the day of the fight. In the afternoon, word will start to spread through the housing projects that an event is in the offing, and people will begin to congregate outside the local barbershop; a car will pull up, and someone inside will announce where the fight is. Not everyone can attend. You have to know the organizers or someone connected to the fighters. Jigga refuses to identify who is behind the club. But it’s a safe bet to assume the people who really run the show have good reason not to want publicity. “When you got a certain system going, if it’s going good, why invite attention,” the 38-year-old Jigga reasons.
Grim doesn’t begin to describe the view from the peeling elevated railway on the corner of Rockaway and Livonia Avenues. Under a gray winter sky, a vast collection of faceless brown housing projects stretches as far as the eye can see. From the top of the projects, you can catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, which might as well be in another country. Brownsville is so insular that many of the residents never leave the neighborhood. As well as being one of the poorest places in New York City, Brownsville—whose unofficial motto is “Never ran, never will”—is also one of the most dangerous; the area’s thought to be so hazardous to human health that U.S. Army field surgeons train for the Iraq War at the nearby Brookdale Hospital. At the moment, however, the neighborhood seems uncharacteristically safe. On nearly every street corner, bored-looking NYPD officers stand in pairs, part of Operation Impact, which has flooded the area with rookie cops. While elsewhere in New York City, murder rates continue to fall to historic lows, last year the 73rd Precinct, which covers Brownsville, posted the only increase in homicides of any precinct in Brooklyn—up 37 percent from the year before.
No wonder, then, that this compact two-and-a-half-square-mile neighborhood has produced so many celebrated professional fighters. “Brownsville has always been a tough place, dating back to when it was a Jewish ghetto and you had [Mob boss] Meyer Lansky and Murder, Inc.,” says former WBO heavyweight champion Shannon “the Cannon” Briggs, who grew up in public housing in the neighborhood eating “welfare cheese” and wearing “Medicaid sneakers.”
During the 1930s, Jewish pugilists were the first to put Brownsville on the map as a boxing mecca. The most famous was Al “Bummy” Davis, dubbed “the Brownsville Bum” by the newspapers because of his dirty fighting style and the fact that his younger brother was a bagman for Murder, Inc. Davis’ 1938 fight with another Brownsville fighter, Bernie “Schoolboy” Friedkin, attracted 6,000 fans to Madison Square Garden, where Davis KO’d Friedkin in the fourth round with a left hook to the jaw. In 1945, when four stickup guys tried to rob a bar in Brownsville that Davis had recently sold, the fighter punched out one of the robbers and ended up being shot in the throat and killed. He was 25.
Two generations later, Mike Tyson emerged from the same hardscrabble neighborhood. The future Brownsville bomber was just a preteen when he established his reputation as a terrifying street fighter after a teenage gangbanger snapped the neck of one of Tyson’s beloved pigeons. An enraged Tyson beat the boy to a pulp. Another future heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe, lived nearby and attended the same school. Unlike Tyson, Bowe largely ignored the call of the streets.
Following in the wake of Tyson and Bowe, a new wave of Brownsville fighters rose to prominence, eager to use the sport as their meal tickets out of the ghetto, among them Shannon Briggs, Golden Gloves champion Danny Jacobs, and Zab Judah.
“Brownsville breeds the best fighters in the world,” says Briggs. “What other neighborhood has produced so many champions?”
As the ever-popular Jigga (real name: Jeffrey Shepherd) walks down the avenue on the way to the liquor store, interrupted every few steps by somebody wanting to shake his hand, he ponders the question of what makes Brownsville a nursery not only for tough guys but tough girls too. The surrounding neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, and East New York boast their fair share of warrior women who like to brawl in the streets. But Brownsville has a reputation for breeding hard-faced girls willing to “get busy” and “knuckle up” at the slightest provocation.
“You think an epidemic of violence is going to spread through a neighborhood and it’s just going to touch guys?” Jigga shrugs his broad shoulders. “It’s going to touch women too.”
“Girls in Brownsville don’t play,” adds Briggs. “They will tear you a new asshole. Brownsville girls are known for being quick-tempered.”Back at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club, round two is about to begin. The noise of the crowd is deafening. Danyel Portis is standing in the corner, her thumbs hooked in the waistband of her jeans, a look of grim determination spread across her face. All around her is chaos, as friends and relatives in her corner scream advice: “Keep her on the ropes. Choke her out.” Danyel tries to tune out the noise and concentrate on the task at hand. She knows she’s winning. She says to herself: Imagine you’re in a street fight outside.
The contest continues, as Danyel holds her fists up and jabs at Aliya’s face. Her punches show precision. Whack. She hits Aliya on the left side of her face, then the right. Aliya responds with a Hail Mary haymaker that again fails to connect. Danyel hits Aliya one more time in the face and then grabs her around the neck, holding her head like a football, and hauls her roughly around the ring.
Then Danyel loses one of her sneakers, and Aliya sees an opening. As Danyel bends over to pick up her shoe, Aliya attacks her. Danyel fends her off with a number of kicks until Jigga separates the two women and temporarily stops the fight. Jigga picks up the sneaker from the canvas and hands it to Danyel. The brawl resumes.
By now Danyel is feeling winded. She can’t believe that after all the punishment the girl is still standing. Why won’t she stay down? When it comes to technique, Aliya is not much of a fighter, but neither is she a quitter. This white chick sure has heart, Danyel says to herself.
* * *
Sitting in a shabby steam-table restaurant on Rockaway Avenue is a 33-year-old woman that Zab Judah calls “Brownsville’s top bitch.” Kia Hayden (a.k.a. Bloody Ass Knuckles) arrives for the interview dressed like a rap star in a sparkling winter white outfit complete with rap star attitude. She is a legend in the neighborhood, known for her unparalleled ferocity both in and out of the ring.
“Kia has more fights under her belt than Hagler,” says Jigga.
Kia was raised by her grandmother, along with nine sisters and brothers, all in a two-bedroon apartment in Brownsville. By her early teens, she was beating and robbing people, often sending her victims to the hospital. “They say I’m mean and I’m a troublemaker,” she says. “A lot of niggas out here can’t stand me.” But Kia is unapologetic about her long track record of brawling with other females, even the time she punched out a pregnant women on the street. Asked whether she might have harmed her opponent’s unborn child, she looks up and sniggers: “You ain’t pregnant in the face.”
Kia’s epic tussle two years ago with Danyel Portis at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is still talked about the way old-school boxing writers remember the Ali-Frazier bouts of the 1970s. A brutal contest that pitted the underdog Danyel against the odds-on favorite Kia, for a while it looked like the Bloody Knuckles had the upper hand, knocking Danyel to the canvas and generally dictating the course of the fight. But by the end of round two, Kia was gasping for breath. Much to the crowd’s surprise, she got up off the stool and left the ring. It was Bloody Knuckles’ first and only loss at the fight club.
“I would have won,” says Kia. “But I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t going to kill myself for a corny fight.”
Kia says she’s tired of fighting and yearns for a better life (“an office job, a nice house”), but in the next breath this high school dropout with a criminal record describes a recent incident at a local nightclub that ended with her repeatedly slamming a rival’s head into the DJ’s turntables.
Lack of self-esteem. Poor impulse control. The stress of ghetto living. Whatever the root cause, violence begins early in Brownsville. Little Keisha (not her real name) is Kia’s niece. She’s used to witnessing mayhem. Last year she saw her mom and her friends involved in a major fracas with the cops in the local park. “I was scared,” she says in her squeaky little voice. “I started crying. The cops sprayed Mommy with mace.”
Keisha is only eight years old, but already she has numerous fights under her belt. “Dozens,” she claims. She says she wants to be a math teacher when she grows up, a goal she’s unlikely to achieve if she continues down her present path. The pretty little girl whose hair is freshly braided and beaded has spent the day at home in the Brownsville Houses watching cartoons on television after being suspended from school for her latest infraction: a brawl in the school lunchroom with a child the same age. “She was drumming on the table,” Keisha says. “I asked her to stop, and she kicked me in the leg. So I punched her in the eye.”
“I fight all the time,” says Keisha. Who taught her that? “I got it from my mother,” she says a little meekly, the violent habits of one generation begetting the violent habits of the next.
* * *
As the third round begins, both Danyel and Aliya are obviously exhausted. Street fighters tend to lack stamina and pacing; after all, a typical corner brawl is over before you know it. Here a fight lasts three long rounds. Danyel rests her left arm on the ropes and tries to fend off Aliya with her right as her supporters scream in her ear: “Just knock her out. You can do it.”
Meanwhile Aliya’s boyfriend is leaning into the ring offering his own advice: “She’s tired. Stay on her. You just got to keep working on her.”
Danyel’s sister hears what Aliya’s boyfriend says and screams across the ring: “Fuck you! She’s not tired. She’s gonna fuck your bitch up.”
Jigga pushes the girls together and warns them if they don’t fight harder, no one gets paid. Within moments both girls are on the floor. Rolling around near Aliya’s corner, Danyel climbs on top of Aliya’s back, and with a renewed spurt of energy, grabs her ponytail with her left hand, lifts up Aliya’s head, and proceeds to smash the side of her face repeatedly with her right fist. Aliya struggles free and staggers to her feet. Her face and neck are covered with scratches and welts. Danyel proceeds to wrap both arms around Aliya’s neck and forces her back to her knees and then chokes Aliya till her eyes bulge and her mouthpiece pops out onto the canvas. Aliya, who looks like she’s about to draw her last breath, desperately grabs at Jigga’s shirt. Enough is enough. Jigga declares the fight over and Danyel the winner. The $1,000 is hers. Danyel’s kids will go to bed with full bellies tonight.
Soon after the fight, Danyel retired from the ring and put her $1,000 in winnings toward resettling her family in the less perilous environment of Delaware. “I can’t change the world, but I can change my situation, making it better for my kids so they don’t have to feel like they always have to defend themselves, always have to have their guard up,” she said recently from her new home.
“It’s just growing up in Brownsville. You have to know how to defend yourself. You’re taught from when you’re young, if someone hits you, you hit them back. They grow up fighting, then teach their kids to fight, and it keeps on going and going.”
By Frank Owen