Making Something Out of the 'Fight Club' Trend

Since the 1999 movie Fight Club, real-life "fight clubs" have been popping up all over the country. One group in California's Silicon Valley illustrates the violent trend. (WARNING: This piece contains graphic depictions of violence.)

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Earlier this year, boys in Council Bluffs, Iowa, were suspended from their junior high school for staging secret locker room boxing matches. They called those matches Fight Club after the movie staring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Ever since the film's release in 1999, and maybe as early as Chuck Palahniuk's novel was published in 1996, reports of real-life fight clubs have been popping up all over the country and in some improbable-sounding places. Reporter Nick Miroff found one in California's Silicon Valley and sent this portrait of fight club culture. A warning now: Some of the descriptions in this story are graphic.

NICK MIROFF reporting:

Along a quiet street of tidy ranch-style houses in the suburbs of San Jose, California, Victor Damion(ph) and his friend Chris Tom(ph) are cruising into battle.

Mr. VICTOR DAMION (Youth Counselor; Fight Club Devotee): I don't know. All day just try to stay real cool and calm and just focused and not worry about tonight.

MIROFF: By day, Victor works as a youth counselor in San Francisco. He's only 5'4", but a high school wresting career and a lifetime of martial arts training have made him something of a legend on the Bay area fight club circuit.

Mr. DAMION: And I love that feeling when I connect, when you drive your power down. But when you pop them and then you hear that `Oh,' that noise that they make when they get hit--I love it! I love it. I live for that. That's a great feeling.

MIROFF: Victor's friend Chris, a chemistry graduate student, is not as experienced, but he's a huge fan of the "Fight Club" novel and movie. And he's equally as enthusiastic about real-life fighting.

Mr. CHRIS TOM (Chemistry Graduate Student; Fight Club Devotee): It just feels primal. It feels right. It feels like something we're meant to do. And we don't have an outlet for that normally. We don't have a way to do that in this society, and this is where we get that out. And this is where we are ourselves, I think.

MIROFF: Chris says he likes the thrill of getting hit. But since Victor's going on vacation to Thailand soon, he's mostly worried about not breaking any fingers.

Mr. DAMION: I mean, we're little bit early, but man, I mean, whenever I get to this stretch right here and I cross these railroad tracks right here, I know something's going to go down.

Unidentified Man #1: Whoo!

Mr. DAMION: There it is.

(Soundbite of slapping)

Unidentified Man #2: All right.

Mr. TOM: It's going to be a good night.

Unidentified Man #1: Whoo.

Mr. DAMION: On.

MIROFF: Victor, Chris and nine or 10 other fighters who wouldn't give their last names, gather in the living room of a man named Gints. They stretch, rinse out their mouth guards(ph) and ready their other protective gear: fencing masks and motorcycle gloves. Gints is showing amateur fight videos on a big-screen TV.

GINTS (Software Engineer; Fight Club Devotee): Oh, I always put on some sort of, like, little background fight thing, either the previous fights from the week before or some other educational opportunity like, you know, the street fights or dump bumfights or cage fights or, you know, something just to get people to kind of congregate here in the middle and build up a culture of stuff that society ordinarily doesn't want to accept. That's kind of what we're here for.

MIROFF: Gints is a 36-year-old software engineer who looks more like a linebacker: 6'3", 230 pounds. He's got a broken finger from a recent fight, so luckily for the rest of the group he's just playing host and videotaping the action. Tonight's arena is his empty two-car garage with stereo speakers duct-taped to the rafters.

GINTS: So you've all been here so understand it, but I'll repeat it anyway. The idea is you play hard, fight hard. You're responsible for yourself. And if you get injured, we'll take you to the hospital. But that's kind of the nature of the game. If that's too much for you, just sit on the sidelines and you can root on. In here we just like to mix it up and use pretty much anything around us. On the hard cement floor be careful with the take downs. You can take them down hard, but you might hurt yourself. We have the hard walls so we don't break the garage.

(Soundbite of something crashing into wall)

GINTS: All right. Welcome to Gints' Fighting Club(ph). And since no one's new here, we all fight. Let's go!

(Soundbite of hand clap; music)

MIROFF: With techno music pounding in the background, the fighters line the walls in the garage, waiting for Gints to call them. There's Joe, a 300-pound giant, and Chin, dressed in a aloha shirt; Roger, from the Dog Brothers stick fighting group, works as a video game programmer, and the whole setup seems inspired by the likes of "Street Fighter" or "Mortal Combat." It's a good thing the contest only lasts for a minute or so, because here in real-life Fight Club, they fight with weapons.

(Soundbite of a stick fight)

MIROFF: This stick fight between Victor and Chris is one of the most intense of the whole night. The friction from the sticks clashing together fills the garage with the acrid stench of burnt rattan. Victor closes in on his friend and body-slams him onto the cement floor and pummels him in a corner.

(Soundbite of strenuous groaning)

GINTS: Time, time. Time to tell.

Unidentified Man #3: Whoo!

GINTS: Helmets off. Victor.

MIROFF: At the end of each fight, Gints rushes in with his video camera to ask each fighter about his decisions and techniques. The interviews quickly defuse any leftover hostility or aggression.

(Soundbite of music; sticks snapping)

MIROFF: There are two-on-one fights, fights with blunt knives, fights with short clubs, even fights with old tennis racquets and a rubber hose. One of the guys, a martial arts instructor in his early 40s, takes a stick shot to the hand and drops out, his finger swollen and crooked.

(Soundbite of stick fighting)

MIROFF: Gints cuts the music for this stick fight between Chris and Roger. After they lose their weapons, they wrestle and choke each other on the cement right up to the one-minute bell.

(Soundbite of grunts and groans)

MIROFF: The action begins to fizzle out after about an hour. Gints wants to stage a fight with soda cans placed in pillow cases, but by then most of the fighters are too exhausted and sore. Dog Brother Roger heads for the hospital with a two-inch shard of rattan lodged in his hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #5: Oh!

Unidentified Man #6: Oh!

MIROFF: Local authorities are reluctant to call private fight clubs illegal, but say if a fighter is seriously injured, they'd have to look into it. They also say the host of a fight club could be subject to significant civil liability if something went wrong. While the guys sat around in the living room drinking beer and watching video footage of the fights, I asked Gints what he thought.

GINTS: I've had martial arts teachers tell me that this is technically illegal. There are other organizations that have similar events and they make public announcements. But in any case, they do fall under protection in the Constitution, and that is a organization of the local militia. And so we are, in a sense, training to keep ourselves combat-ready for that. And so we can find a constitutional protection that legitimizes, you know, our activity.

MIROFF: Like Gints, most of the other fighters are experienced martial artists who say they're tired of sparring with pads. They want to put their training to the real test, and basically, they like to fight.

GINTS: I would like to do something in life that my neighbor doesn't, a unique activity that involves a group of people. Obviously, that makes it social. And when they look back at their lives they can say, `You know, of all the things I did in my life, I remember I used to go to this one guy's garage, and we would do these things.' So you're, you know, old--people talk about the good old days, and, you know, you need some material for that. So these are our good old days.

MIROFF: On the way home, Victor and Chris rehash the evening, comparing techniques and assessing the other fighters. Chris is so sore he can barely walk. But for Victor, it's been a good night. He's come off without a scratch, and best of all, he didn't break any fingers.

Mr. DAMION: Oh, it was good. The short club, I love that short club because the guy was--like, I was just listening to him--he's like, you know, I'm a--you know, I'm a...

MIROFF: For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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