The 69th Regiment Armory has no JumboTron and thus no instant replay, so if you blinked at an inopportune time last Friday night, you might have missed the highlight of the evening. You might not have seen rangy super middleweight and local favorite Elijah Clark use a quick flick of his left foot to send his opponent, Carlos Cruz, crumpling to the canvas. But in the moments afterward you would have seen Clark stand before the audience with arms outspread and a defiant look upon his face that seemed to ask: how could you ever doubt me? The spectators stood suddenly as if thrown to their feet by an unexpected groundswell and roared their approval.
Actually, that was only one of several notable highlights from a night of boxing and Muay Thai kickboxing at the old armory, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th streets. Besides the Cruz-Clark bout, there were 13 other fights, some freestyle rapping, a breakdancing intermission and plenty of right hooks and left jabs. The event was one of a series called Friday Night Fights (not to be confused with the television show of the same name) that dates back to 1997, when the Church Street Boxing Gym began holding exhibitions in its basement ring.
“What’s happened is that we’ve built an aesthetic that’s literally and figuratively an underground scene,” said Justin Blair, executive producer of Friday Night Fights and the owner of the Church Street gym. “It’s like an old school fight club, but we bring in good DJs and get a pretty hip crowd. It’s become one of those off-the-radar scenes.”
Not so off the radar that no one shows up, though. The small ring with its four rickety, overhanging lamps seemed laughably undersized at first amid the cavernous interior of the armory, but by the time several thousand spectators filed in, the scale of the setting seemed appropriate. And it didn’t take long for the crowd to adopt a raucous air.
Dozens of vendors wandered among the audience, selling beer for $5 a can. In one corner, a refreshment stand offered sodas, hot dogs and other snacks. In the other, a sponsor’s booth provided passersby the chance to play a boxing game on a Nintendo Wii. A DJ blared the latest hits, and vamps in low-cut clothes and high stiletto heels carried round markers across the ring between bells.
“I think it’s awesome, the whole spectacle of it,” said Dan Mock, a graduate student at Columbia University who came with several classmates. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever seen. I can imagine this was what it was like before fighting got big on TV. You’re closer to the action. It’s a little more real.”
For those who have only watched fighting on television, the small screen can obscure a contest’s visceral thrill. In person, the athleticism and tactical complexity are much more apparent. So is the essential violence of the sport-it’s hard to ignore the thwacks of glove meeting flesh. All fights, for the record, are officially sanctioned and include the presence of referees, judges and ringside doctors.
Still, there are frightening moments. Cruz lay on the mat for nearly five minutes after getting knocked out by Clark. He finally managed to regain his feet. Jay Ellis similarly took some time to recover his bearings after receiving a KO courtesy of Chris “Mr. Classic” Romulo, one of the night’s main draws. A mainstay on the New York kickboxing scene, Romulo was accompanied to the ring by an entourage that included a rapper rhyming out the fighter’s praises and engaging the crowd in a call-and-response cheer. Earlier, a breakdancing troupe got the audience fired up during a lull between bouts.
“I think people who could enjoy the sport don’t watch it on TV because of how it’s presented and marketed,” Blair said. “We’re trying to bring the fights back to their roots, to get to the essence of what makes it entertaining.”
For the most part, the fights were fairly even, with judges providing the majority of decisions. Clark’s knockout kick was one of the few exceptions. His victory cheered Jay Berberick, an IT worker from Park Slope who trains at the same gym with Clark and came to watch him compete. Berberick picked up Muay Thai-a martial art from Thailand that allows contact with the feet, knees and shins in addition to fists-about 18 months ago.
“It’s just a different way of working out,” he said. “I got tired of running. The interest in Ultimate Fighting and MMA [mixed martial arts] has really piqued people’s interest in Muay Thai.”
Blair, though, didn’t see a link between the increasing popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the success of his events.
“We’ve been doing this for years,” he said. “We don’t necessarily get a boxing crowd. We get people from all over across the spectrum, all socio-economic backgrounds and neighborhoods. People come because it’s a scene. We’ve definitely experienced consistent growth year after year, but I wouldn’t necessarily attribute it to the MMA explosion. I just think an event like ours is successful in New York because it’s a word-of-mouth type of town.”
The next Friday Night Fights event is an eight-person Muay Thai tournament that will take place on Oct. 24 at the Broad Street Ballroom in the Financial District. For more information, visit www.fridaynightfights.com.
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