The Gentle Combat of Mapes Avenue

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

Jamar Flowers doesn't seem like he needed much of that kind of guidance. A poised and articulate 20-year-old, he's a sophomore psychology major at Hunter�and a brown belt who has done jujitsu for six years. "The practicality" is why he stays, he says. "At a lot of other classes, the teaching is geared more toward tournaments, so they teach you a lot of flashy kicks."

"Which is nice," he injects diplo-matically, then pauses and gestures to the blue mats. "This is what's gonna happen in the street."

photo: Greg Miller

At the front of the room, Lawton has just finished chiding the kids for failing to tuck in their thumbs when they punch. "If you don't keep a tight fist here, the first time you use what you've learned your mother will have to take you to the hospital," he says. Another move, the spearhand, has to be rigid so it can stun the windpipe of a would-be kidnapper. And when the students practice the "cat scratch," Lawton laughs at their flaccid swipes. "That's like you're waving goodbye, but that's not what it is," he says. "There's no kind of unwritten rule against scratching. That's why I've got some nails." He demonstrates how he'd do it, sagging into the scratch with his whole weight. "What's gonna happen with my nails? They're gonna rip him wide open." That's why, Lawton says, these moves aren't for practice or playing. They're serious business. Later on, Thomas runs a practical drill of his own, having the kids practice spinning kicks in the middle of the mat, with other action close on either side. "This will help you learn to fight in tight spaces," he tells the kids.

After the younger students leave, Gonzalez oversees the practice of wrist locks and arm bars that bring attackers to the ground. Demonstrating one sequence, the 43-year-old sensei takes a man down, drops another man while holding the first, and twists the attackers' arms together at the elbows. He leans his leg into their locked arms. "If I move my leg half an inch forward, I pop one guy's arm with the force of the other's," he says.

The moves look magical to an outsider, almost faked. It's hard to understand how a few simple movements can produce such violent contortion in an opponent. The secret is pain. When you grab Gonzalez's lapel, he'll rotate your wrist inward, gently flex your hand up, and then press on your bent elbow with another finger. From your shoulder to your wrist, your bones and joints feel stressed to the breaking point�because they are. That's the idea: Jujitsu is supposed to make your opponent want to stop before he gets damaged. "If it doesn't hurt," Gonzalez's slogan goes, "you ain't doing it right."

That's why he's not a big fan of tournaments. What he teaches is not for competition. "Basically, I train them to survive in the streets," says Gonzalez. "You do not take action if someone curses at you�words don't kill. But if they put a finger on you, you have every right to defend yourself. I teach them to attack what's attacking you. As human beings, we tend to want to punch in the face too much, or the body. If I punch you in the body, what does that do? If you attack me with your right arm, I'm going to break that arm. Then it won't attack me again."

Lawton believes that jujitsu is the perfect self-defense for women because it flips the usual male-female physical differences in their favor. For the rest of us, he says, it has other very practical qualities. Let's say somebody messes with you and you punch him in the face. If you end up in court, the guy with the broken nose gets the sympathy. "Jujitsu is just as effective, but you get to tell your side of the story, and he doesn't get all the attention," he chuckles.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that the purpose of Fight Back is to prevent violence. But there are ample reminders of that mission. The instructors inspect report cards every semester. They hold barbecues, take students to Knicks games, and often open their homes to kids for dinner. One night last week the whole class ate together after their workout. When older kids enter the dojo, they circle the room giving warm hugs to their colleagues. Everyone is quick with a smile. No one takes umbrage to gentle ribbing. It's a loving place. It feels like family.

Some of the kids, like Higgins and Flowers, don't seem like they needed straightening out. But everyone agrees that Mike Quiles did. Depending on who you ask, the wiry 13-year-old from the block was "a terror," "devilish," a truly messed-up kid. And that didn't change when he began taking the classes in 2003. So his mom pulled him out. "I made bad choices," Quiles says, like fighting and mouthing off at home. "But I stopped because I wanted to come here." It was his desire to fight at the Mitchell Center, he says, that curtailed his brawling on the street and brought up his grades. The change was so shocking that Quiles's pastor visited Fight Back to thank the instructors for turning the kid around. Those visits aren't uncommon, the instructors say: Teachers, parents, and former students are always coming back to say thanks for kids they saved.

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