It’s a summer Friday night in Union Square. A short-haired preacher shouts about the perils of using the Lord’s name in vain. A high-on-something teenager listens for a moment, then flips off the evangelist with both middle fingers. The kids standing around them laugh, but only for a second. There’s a commotion by the subway kiosk at the southeastern corner of the park. It appears to be a fight. Two young men are locked together, their arms on each other’s shoulders, muscles and tendons bulging. The man on the left is a twentyish white guy, about six foot two and maybe 220 pounds, with bushy brown hair. He wears camouflage shorts and a T-shirt that reads I’M THE GUY YOU SHOULDN’T GO HOME WITH BUT WILL, SO WHY NOT JUST GO HOME WITH ME NOW? He could be a surf punk, except that he’s too big for that. The other man—a slightly darker-skinned guy, maybe a little younger—is massive, too, but he’s got a smooth, red-cheeked face and a layer of baby fat that make him look vulnerable, if not a little scared.
The two men wrestle some more, then separate and start throwing punches. Surfer Guy throws a hard right that lands on the other man’s kidney with a sickening thwack. A crowd has gathered, but no one tries to stop the fighting. Instead, people snap pictures with camera phones. The older man hoists the younger one over his shoulder. There’s a millisecond’s midair pause, then—thump!—both men crash to the concrete. The crowd lets out a cartoonish “Ooh!”
A friend of the younger man starts screaming. “Louyi, roll over him! Roll over him, and put your fingers in his eyes.”
Louyi does as he is told. He wriggles off the ground, grabs hold of the other man’s T-shirt, and spins on top. Surfer Guy gasps for air and whimpers.
“Finish him,” someone shouts.
Several hundred people are now watching; they’ve formed a circle. Across 14th Street, shoppers fill the windows of the Whole Foods and Filene’s Basement stores, turning them into luxury boxes. Louyi doesn’t stick his fingers in the other man’s eyes. He merely presses his fists into them until Surfer Guy surrenders.
Louyi stands up, flashes a Li’l Jack Horner smile, and pumps his fist.
The crowd is silent, slack-jawed. Midtown office drones, girls carrying Forever 21 bags, German tourists—no one knows quite what to say.
Now a black man with short dreads walks toward the fighters. His chest is bursting out of a tight white tank top, and a dog collar hangs around his neck. He squints at the onlookers with a wild stare. Everyone gives him a wide berth. But then he breaks into a childish grin. He’s just fucking with people.
“That’s Legend,” a bystander whispers to a man standing next to him.
Legend gives Louyi a benedictory soul shake. Louyi beams.
Then Legend turns toward the crowd and seeks out another black guy who was filming the first fight. He’s wearing long jean shorts and a baseball cap with spikes on it.
“Science, you ready?”
Legend and Science go at it themselves for fifteen minutes, exchanging a series of kicks and punches and an assortment of other cinematic martial-arts moves. When they’re done, they bow and embrace.
The crowd claps. Legend speaks. “We’re the Union Square Spartans,” he says. “Who wants to fight next?”
Ever since Chuck Palahniuk published Fight Club in 1996, rumors have circulated about illegal underground fights held in the basements and boiler rooms of New York and elsewhere, modeled after those in the book and, several years later, the Brad Pitt film of the same name. The most quoted line from the movie was “The first rule of fight club is, you don’t talk about fight club.” That’s not the Spartans. They fight in public, outdoors, at one of the city’s busiest crossroads. They want to be seen. Where Palahniuk’s characters were mostly middle-class white guys, the Spartans are mostly black city kids, some of them homeless. They put their fights on YouTube. They know many among their growing body of fans take voyeuristic pleasure in watching them fight, and they’re somehow looking to make money off the whole business, but they are warriors without a business plan.
Legend is leaning against the brass railing that surrounds the George Washington statue. The neon glow from the Coffee Shop lights up the night behind him. It’s been an hour since he and Science fought. He’s shirtless and drenched in sweat. He has his arm around a pixieish white girl whom he calls Strawberry, except when he calls her Snowflake.
Buzzing around Legend is a tiny tough-talking kid throwing kicks in the air. He looks 12, but he’s really 16. Everyone calls him Chucky. The high-on-something preacher-hater reappears. He introduces himself as Shadow. He’s a Spartan, too. The rest of the happy few go by names like C.J., Two-King, and Joker.