In a large room on the second floor of a nondescript building in Chinatown late last month, a fight is about to go down. The space is dark and cavernous, the air thick with smoke and sweat. The light above the ring glances off the golden dragons and the dimmed, chintzy chandeliers and catches the inner scrum of a crowd of 700 screaming, seething spectators who’ve each paid their $20 to see blood. There’s a ref with a shaved head and a tatted-up doctor on-site, but the fights are unlicensed. And they can get ugly. Legiit, one of the fighters, arrives with a group of guys who look like they know how to rumble. He climbs up onto the makeshift plywood ring, gloves on, mouthpiece in, ready to battle Luke Todd, one of the boys from a gang of leathered-up, long-haired Brooklyn rockers who call themselves Big Gunz. The fighters touch gloves, flex muscles, then collide in a burst of concentrated fury.
The violence might be less shocking if Legiit and Todd weren’t both strikingly handsome, pretty even. In fact, most of the fighters in the lineup tonight are lovely enough to turn heads, and some of them have made money on it. It’s the seventh incarnation of Friday Night Throwdown, an underground gathering known for putting male models in the ring alongside street fighters and real boxers. Tonight, photographer Steven Klein and supermodel Josh Beech mingle with gangsters, rock-and-rollers, ravers, and anyone else in the know. They’ve come for the sheer violence—the wormhole back to a long-lost New York. But they’ve also come for the spectacle of beautiful boys stripping to the waist and submitting their features to a thorough pummeling.
Up next: Ian Jones, represented by ReQuest, star of campaigns for D&G (fall 2005) and Hugo Boss (fall-winter 2005) and a cover editorial in L’Officiel Hommes. Jones’s long brown locks are pulled back from his face, which now grimaces in the general direction of Juan, a Mexican amateur-boxing champion. It’s not an even match. Jones drops his gloves and pinwheels his arms while Juan, more compact and less erratic, dodges most of his punches and lands a few blows to the head. Jones stumbles, woozy and red-faced. The doc edges in. The fight is called, to Jones’s protestations and the crowd’s jeers.
To the two twentysomething guys who organize the event—both of whom worked as models themselves—the pretty-boy stuff is a joke, less a ploy to lure a crowd than a source of personal amusement. “I think it’s hilarious that the whole point of their being is to make money off what they look like, yet they’ll come throw down for a couple of hundred bucks,” says one of the organizers, who, for obvious legal reasons, does not want to share his name. Most fighters start out getting about $150. If they put on a good show, they’ll be invited back and paid two or three times that.
Before each event, the men are warned that they should train well and take the fight seriously. “I definitely tell everybody, ‘This is no bullshit. You’re about to get in front of 800 people. Get ready—and if you don’t, it’s still going to be entertaining for you to get your ass beat,’” the organizer says. Most take this advice to heart, and the fights have gotten more intense over the two years that the Friday Night Throwdown has been popping up in warehouses downtown. Rematches are now demanded. Still, the organizers are quick to point out that “a male model has never won.”
The exception is “Rockstar” Charlie, a 20-year-old kid from the Big Gunz crew with a lanky build and a long reach and eight years of boxing training. Charlie has won all five of his previous Throwdown matches. He once fought two in one night. And he didn’t even really consider becoming a model until he got involved with the event. “I’ve certainly gotten a lot of exposure for it, and it’s helped when I’ve gone in for things and can tell people in the fashion world that I’m a part of it,” he explains. One contact from Throwdown introduced him to an agent at Ford; another booked him for an upcoming show with Bijules. “I’ve been fucking decked at these things, but I’m not worried about it,” he says when I ask why he’d risk those cheekbones now that his career is picking up speed. “I wouldn’t mind if my face looked more like a boxer’s. It would give me some more character. I’m just like, ‘Come on, break my nose!’”
It’s clear some models feel they have something to prove—that despite their long lashes and the fact that they get paid to be dressed up like dolls, they are tough enough to pack a punch and crazy enough to take one. “The models that are doing this are basically the wild models,” says Joey Lopez, who did the Marc Jacobs spring-summer campaign in 2010 and fought in the previous Throwdown. Lopez is Puerto Rican and Irish, a combination that mixes well both on the runway and in the ring. “Everyone’s loving you, taking pictures of you. You walk around the streets of New York, and people stop you, like, ‘Yo, you’re the kid from fight night, right?’” Though Lopez has no trouble winning over the ladies under normal circumstances, even he was impressed with the attention. “When I was leaving the ring after I fought, people were screaming, ‘You’re sexy, you’re hot.’ And I walk back, and all of a sudden there’s a bunch of women—I swear to God—they were lined up. What the fuck is that?” He widens his blue eyes, still surprised by the ease of it all. “I got a few numbers, took one of them home. And, uh, yeah, you know what happens after that.”
No true supermodel has ever fought in a Throwdown. The ones who sign on are guys like Alex Smith and Zac Taylor, models who book campaigns erratically, who don’t necessarily rely on fashion to pay the bills, who have time to let a black eye subside before they go to the next casting. Lopez worked as a sales associate at the Marc Jacobs store in New York, even when his picture was posted in the front window. Charlie, when he’s not training fellow Big Gunz to land their punches, teaches preschool. Throwdown’s organizers say that one of the biggest male models around told them that he can’t risk injuring himself right now. “But when we find the right time and I stop modeling for a little while,” he explained to them, “I want to fight. I’d love to do this.”
Tonight, Charlie’s up against a kid called Staxxx who’s known for being a wicked street fighter. A couple of months ago, when the two first squared off, Staxxx showed up drunk, dressed like a gangster and acting cocky, and he got crushed. Since then, he’s been seriously training, and he now climbs into the ring looking cut and focused. This is the first solid fight of the night: Footwork is nimble, the men duck and weave gracefully, punches land clean. By the fifth round, blood splatters the ring and streams from Staxxx’s nose, which looks broken. Charlie’s curls drip with sweat. He suddenly attacks with a fake, a jab, and a right hook. Staxxx collapses onto Charlie, who then hands him over to the ref.
This turns out to be the last fight of the evening. By midnight, the owner of the venue, having gotten wind of the fact that this isn’t your standard rave, is ushering people out with an apology—“This is really cool, but it’s dangerous”—and eventually threatens to call the cops. “That was great,” someone says, stumbling out into the winter night. “Fuck Cirque du Soleil.”