The Gentle Combat of Mapes Avenue

At a jujitsu program in the Bronx, soft is hard and surviving is victory.

Makeba Higgins, 20, is surrounded by eight men, some armed with knives, most much larger than her. She cannot see them all at once, so she spins slowly, keeping her eyes moving to see which one jumps first. The first attack comes from behind. Thick arms wrap around her body. She steps back, grabs a wrist, turns, shouts.

He tumbles over and bellows as his body slaps to the ground. A guy makes a downward stab at her with a knife. She sidesteps, grasps the knife hand, and sweeps her heel against his. He topples. Another dude punches. She dodges, grabs, and spins. He flies. A second knife is jabbed at her midsection. She clamps the attacker's hand, brings it over her head as she turns in a circle, and sends him rolling down. Another punch is blocked. More bodies tumble. Finally, she's alone in the circle.

"Eight-man attack," says Sensei Will. "It's a confidence builder. A lot of people freak when somebody comes from one way, somebody comes from another."

photo: Greg Miller

Sensei Will�or Will Lawton, as he is known outside the door of the rec room that has become his Bronx dojo�has just shown his visitor a sword of tempered steel that can cut through human bone. On blue padded mats, another young woman is taking her place in the circle, and the eight "attackers" are getting ready again. At the other end of the room, Sensei Tony Thomas is schooling younger kids in the finer points of sparring�like not getting punched with your own hand. "Fists not too close to your face!" he yells. A timid boy gets smacked in the nose by a girl. "It feels like I'm going to sneeze now," he says, taking off his gloves and headgear. His father, looking on, shakes his head.

It's another night in the life of the Fight Back program at the Mary Mitchell Center, a buzzing community center on Mapes Avenue in the East Tremont section. Launched by Lawton eight years ago and sponsored by Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, Fight Back runs regular seminars for women's self-defense as well as these classes in which kids and young adults spar, practice with traditional weapons, and learn the art of tossing big men. A platform to one side displays towering trophies that Lawton's prot�g�s have taken home from competitions. Pictures on the wall depict some of the martial arts royalty that have saluted his efforts, like Don "The Dragon" Wilson and Eric "Weapons Master" Lee.

On this recent weekday evening, thousands of kids in hundreds of schools in all five boroughs are also practicing the arts of combat, with loud shouts of "kiai!," knuckle push-ups, and high- flying kicks. And reading from a generic Mr. Miyagi script, many of their instructors are duly telling the kids how karate and tae kwon do and kung fu are supposed to help them avoid fighting.

Fight Back is a little different. No one is slicing his or her hand through wood or kicking into a cinder block. The theme here is jujitsu, a Japanese fighting system that goes back 1,000 years to the samurai and translates roughly as "the gentle art" or "the science of softness."

The idea is that instead of overpowering an opponent, you can use his own force to defeat him. Sounds pretty. There's an appealing philosophy behind the technique: that weakness can become power, and disadvantages become strengths. When one of the older students is struggling to throw an attacker to the ground, the hands-on instructor Sensei Israel Gonzalez jumps in. "Too much strength," he observes, then takes the student's place. The attacker makes his grab. "He's moving," Gonzalez shouts. "I don't have to." Wham.

Like many other martial arts schools, Fight Back stresses discipline and concentration�sometimes just plain silence�to help kids focus in a noisy world. There are color-coded belts and plenty of bows. One expects at any moment that someone will postulate one of David Carradine's axioms from Kung Fu or mystically instruct the kids to "be like water, my friend."

That never happens.

"Don't look around," Gonzalez tells a girl in the middle of the circle of eight. "Always go for the guy who has the weapon in his hand. You can take a punch. You can take a kick." But you can't take a knife wound, not when they're real. Class ends, the kids bow, and Gonzalez bows back. His charges head out into the street. "Let's go to work," he says.

There's no time for nonsense on Mapes Avenue, grasshopper.

It's easy to see the harsher side of life in the area after only a few walks along East 180th Street. The poverty (about 40 percent of people in that community district live below the poverty line) is visible, and so is the anger. "Yeah, that bitch gonna be smiling when she gets the money for the kids," bellows one guy into a phone. Down the street a woman screams into her cell for someone to "come get your fucking baby," who is also screaming. A pack of teenagers races across traffic to pummel a chubby kid, then disperses. Turning onto Mapes, a little girl riding in a stroller leans over to pick something off the ground, and the woman pushing her goes berserk, shaking the carriage violently. "Don't be fucking leaning over like that!" she shrieks.

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