By June, up to 300 people were watching Spartan fights on a Friday night. Baristas at a nearby Starbucks, who had banned them for rowdiness, now welcomed them to use their bathroom. There was even a rumor that ESPN had contacted the Spartans about filming their bouts and airing them as the ultimate-fighting equivalent of Harlem’s Rucker League.
Still, Spider insists the group doesn’t fight for the attention. “We fight in public because we have nowhere else to fight,” he says. “And we fight because you get that rush of ‘Oh, shit, did you just see that move?’ That’s the same rush, whether there’s three or 300 people watching.” Besides, he says, “if the economy keeps going bad, we could be in a civil war in two years. We’re gonna need to know how to defend ourselves.”
It’s a hot weeknight. Legend and Science lead a wiry 19-year-old called Munkey and a newcomer called Mexican into the ring. Munkey expertly uses his lower center of gravity to his advantage, and within a minute, his opponent topples. Legend is impressed: “Munkey, way to use the leverage.”
Then two cops shoulder their way through the crowd. The police have more or less ignored the Spartans for more than a year now, but the crowds the group has started attracting seem to have engendered a change in policy. One of the cops has a crew cut, and he approaches Legend and Science. “We’re getting calls saying there’s fights going on in Union Square. You can’t do this here.”
Science tries to reason with him. “We’ve been doing this for a year. It’s just sparring. There are no blows to the face. Everybody does t’ai chi here. It’s the same thing.”
“I thought we were going to have a roundtable meeting about this,” Flow says. “This isn’t a democracy,” says Legend. “So why don’t you shut up, and let us handle it?”
“Look, we can argue all night,” says the cop. “Next time we come back, we’re arresting people.”
Science tells him that they’ve applied for a permit. The cop laughs. “You think you’re going to get a permit for fighting in Union Square? That’s never gonna happen.” The cop stares down Science and laughs again. “You know, if you were doing this as a fund-raiser for the troops, you could probably get a permit.”
The cop and his partner walk away. The crowd disperses. The Spartans regroup under the George Washington statue. Everyone looks depressed. Legend glares into the distance.
After a minute or so, a Spartan named Flow speaks up. He’s a medium-built, studious-looking black guy, in his mid-twenties, with a Star of David necklace around his neck.
“I told you putting this on YouTube was a mistake,” Flow says. “We’re moving too fast. This wasn’t supposed to be about us getting famous.”
In the brief history of the Spartans, there has been relatively little dissension. But now, Legend, Science, and Spider surround Flow. Legend speaks first.
“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” He looks at his two lieutenants for confirmation. “What do I keep saying? It doesn’t matter what the pawns do. We know the king.”
Flow looks confused. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“We know a guy who knows Ray Kelly,” Legend says. “We’ll be fine. We just ignore the pawns.”
“I thought we were going to have a roundtable meeting about this,” Flow says. “What happened to that?”
“This isn’t a democracy,” says Legend. “You’re not part of the Triangle. I tell everyone, ‘Do the things you love, and we’ll all get rich.’ We’re splitting everything with equal shares. I am not getting one dime more than anyone else. So why don’t you just shut up and let us handle it?”
“This isn’t what I wanted out of this,” says Flow.
Legend balls his fists. He has to be held back by Spider and Science. “Where do you think I grew up? It was Brooklyn, and it wasn’t Flatbush, I’ll tell you. It was Bed-Stuy.” Legend points at the indentation on his forehead. “Look, put your hand here,” he says to Flow. He tells him the story about the baseball bat. “No fucking reason,” he says. “That’s what life is about.”
Flow shifts his feet. Legend gets back in his face. “You’re either with us or I’ll cut you off. I’ll cut off your legs and leave you in the woods.”
Flow drifts off. Then Legend repeats the same line to no one in particular: “I am an antisocial sociopath who hates base behavior. I am an antisocial sociopath who hates base behavior.”
At the moment, you believe him.
A few days later, I come back to Union Square at dusk. Legend is standing in the same place where he and Flow had been arguing. But tonight, Legend is feeding a bottle to a cooing baby boy in Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls. The baby’s name is Xavier Jr.; he’s the son of two Union Square regulars. Strawberry handed him to Legend a few minutes before, but now he doesn’t know where the parents went.