The Gentle Combat of Mapes Avenue


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.”

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.

Only pockets of the area are really rough. But given the setting, one expects hard stares and cold shoulders inside the Mitchell Center, where kids in black gis are spreading out the mats and warming up before class. A few of the younger kids�seven- and eight-year-olds�come over and ask to write their names in a reporter’s notebook. They’re proud of the finished product, especially Samuel, who can do it in cursive. They smile and giggle. They are disarmed, even toward a total stranger. The children are�well, childlike.

So childlike, in fact, that it takes work to get them to focus. When all the students line up by rank and begin to stretch and punch in unison, a few are looking around
dreamily and chattering. Sensei Will moves to the front of the room. He’s a stocky guy wearing a trim beard, a skullcap, and a flowing black robe; “USMC” is tattooed on one of his thick forearms. The room quiets. Soon you can hear the buzz of the overhead lights. He has the kids assume a stance with knees bent and fists drawn back along each hip. Holding the position is uncomfortable. Some of the kids begin to grunt in exertion. “This is how you learn to focus,” he says. “I bet you can play video games for three hours and not even know it in that horse stance.” Later in the class, Will has to play the bad cop again. “When I started this, it was in a concrete basement,” he says, smiling. “You don’t really want to go there.”

Lawton, a 49-year-old from Savannah, Georgia, doesn’t like to talk about his time in the Marines, although it was during his stint in Japan that he was really drawn to the martial arts. “It’s like my life started over when I got here,” he says of New York, where he arrived in 1982. “This neighborhood was pretty rough. This field over here was empty. Three or four times a month, we’d see a coroner van there. I found myself often saying, ‘I’m going to go back down South to that quiet life.’ Then I said, ‘Let me give it some more time.’ ”

He used to hang around a couple dojos where he knew instructors, but it was never serious. Then a friend took him to the concrete basement�a subterranean room on Morris Avenue where eight men were practicing jujitsu. “I saw these guys throwing each other and said, ‘That’s what I want, right there,’ ” he recalls. The next day he showed up with a uniform. That was 17 years ago.

Nine years later, Lawton’s interior restoration business was on hiatus because he was injured. His wife was volunteering at the Mitchell Center, where a tae kwon do program had come and gone. Someone suggested that Lawton try to start a martial arts class of his own. He began with an after-school program, and it swelled into the night classes and women’s sessions�and widening recognition. Lawton is proud to show off photos of his students impressing martial arts bigwigs at tournaments, meeting with sports royalty like Edwin Moses and Monica Seles, attending galas. Last weekend representatives from Fight Back headed to Palm Beach on an all-expense-paid trip to a Jack Nicklaus celebrity golf tournament. Lawton and company have met politicians and been written up in corporate magazines.

It seems a long way from the concrete basement tonight in the rec room, where the older students are practicing their “mugs,” or situations in which each is attacked from behind. The different forms of attack are identified and practiced: arm around the throat, knee to the back, grasp around the waist. In this combat, subtle distinctions matter. If a dude is grabbing you from behind with his legs even with yours, you have to throw him forward; if his feet are staggered, backward. If there’s a two-arm choke from the front, you drive your fists into the nerves near his elbows, but you’ve got to know just where to strike.

The guiding principle, though, is that less is more. In class, four strong guys grab one of Gonzalez’s arms. Trying to pull away from them, he has no chance. But when he steps toward them and merely bends his elbow, all four let go. The harder they grip, he says, the easier it is to shake them. Force equals vulnerability.

So why try to block a punch? “What you do is, instead of stopping it, you let it go,”
he says. “You redirect it. That’s what causes the havoc out there.” He puts his two fists together. “It’s what you do with the hard and soft that eliminates that clash.” It’s pure self-defense, he insists: You can only work off your opponent’s moves.

As the students throw and get thrown, Gonzalez scrutinizes each component of the flowing movements. Growing up in the area, he remembers feeling like a time bomb, angry and aggressive. “If you asked me for my program card, I would have hit you with it,” he says. In 1981, a friend introduced him to Anthony Pereira, and everything changed. An Army sniper during WWII, Pereira studied martial arts in postwar Japan, and in 1960 he opened a school on East Tremont Avenue that eventually melded jujitsu with other arts into a new system called miyama-ryu (“miyama” means “three mountains,” as in “Tremont”). This form of jujitsu�linking Bronx streets to samurai traditions�survives to this day.

So do some of the conditions that shaped it. “There’s still a certain amount of stuff that goes on outside,” Lawton says, mentioning gangs in particular�not just the big ones, but the little factions that make it hard for kids to know who’s who. “This facility kind of eases the tension for parents. Every now and then we’ll get a parent who says their kid can’t concentrate in school. They bring him here not to fight or take care of business, but for that confidence building. They look a little shaky when they come in.” And that’s dangerous. “These thugs,” says Lawton. “They like to see somebody with low self-esteem.”

Sensei Thomas ought to know: He grew up a target, the proverbial 125-pound punching bag. Then one day his buddy Yogi got into a scrap with a school bully, and both kids threw a few karate moves. Thomas was stunned that his pal knew some of the stuff that Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly�of “Black Belt Jones” fame�flashed on the big screen. He signed up at a local martial arts academy, but his instructors didn’t see much potential in his small frame. “They gave me two weeks,” he recalls. “I was their first black belt.” He eventually moved to a hard-knocks school where space was limited and the competition towered over him. There was no room to move sideways, so he developed his trademark move: From a standstill, Thomas (at age 47) can leap over a six-foot opponent’s head and flick out a side kick faster than you can drop this paper. Every now and then, he says, he’ll enter a tournament just to make sure he can still handle anyone in the black-belt division.

Thomas’s role at the center is to teach the kids how to fight from a distance, using karate. Jujitsu, on the other hand, is for grappling close-up. In fact, some of it seems to be just for show, like kata� choreographed combat with an imaginary opponent in which the kids kick and punch invisible bodies. In unison, each student steps forward and back, blocks and punches, pausing between each move.

It’s the kind of performance that wins some of the big trophies in the room, but it looks pretty useless for a street confrontation. It makes you wonder. Training kids to use soft against hard, and fluidity versus aggression, sounds nice. The question is whether that approach works in a fight�or in life.

Stand-up sensei: Gonzalez (far left), Thomas (second from left), and Lawton (far right)

photo: Greg Miller

“It did come up once�I don’t know if I should talk about it,” Will Lawton says when he’s asked about when, if ever, he’s had to fight outside of training. “It was in the beginning. I ran into the wrong man. Wanted to impress his buddies. He was waiting for me outside. I told him, ‘Look, I’m old enough to be your father.’ Kid told me, ‘If I want you to talk, I’d ask you.’ I took a step back, but I knew it wouldn’t end there. So he had a chance to get his big swing off and I had my throw and I left him on the sidewalk. It took five seconds. Later on you feel bad. Twelve years, I’ve never had any problem since.”

Israel Gonzalez doesn’t detail his real-life experiences. “Twice,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of confrontations where you talk your way out.” Tony Thomas echoes this. It usually works just to “give ’em a stare,” he says. “Put it this way: People know who victims are.”

Except for this one time, maybe a decade ago, when Thomas got a ride home from work with a friend. They reached his block. Thomas’s car was parked just where he had left it. But as he and his pal chatted, Thomas noticed something odd: The interior light had gone on in the car. There were two guys inside.

Thomas stepped out of his friend’s car and began to approach, using his vehicle’s blind spot to cloak his movements and formulating a plan of attack: Jerk the door open and chop one of them in the neck. But then he noticed how pumped he was with adrenaline. If he hit someone in the neck, he realized, he might kill him. So he decided to kick him in the ribs instead. He reached the car and flung the door open. “One thing about the martial arts,” he recalls. “Things don’t ever go how you expect, so you have to adjust.”

The door was open and Thomas was rearing back to kick the perp in the side. But it was October; the ground was covered in wet leaves. He slipped and fell. He had to improvise, so he pulled the guy out of the car and started working on him. Eventually, he was chasing both men down the street. “Word got around. That gave people a lot more respect when they see me,” he says. One of the people who heard about the fight was Lawton, who had lived for several years in the same building as Thomas. The men started talking. If it hadn’t been for the guys who tried to rip off Thomas’s car and Thomas’s legendary counterattack, Sensei Tony might not be there on weeknights teaching kids how to avoid fights of their own.

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.”

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.

Not that it’s always that simple. Last Thursday, asked if he’d ever had to use his jujitsu in the street, Quiles answered, “Today.” He explained: “I fought a boy. He jumped me because I had fought this other boy in school.” His grades are better now. Maybe there are fewer fights. But, he says, the main difference is, “now you can hit me, it don’t hurt. It’s nothing.”

Most of the older students, however, say they’ve been able to avoid confrontations. What’s interesting is why. “I’d rather walk away,” says Higgins, a liberal-arts major at LaGuardia Community College, “because I know what I can do, and it’s frightening.”

The lesson here is not that knowing jujitsu means you won’t have to fight. It’s that knowing jujitsu means you will really, deeply not want to�because you’re so damn good at it. It’s a bit of a paradox: attaining peace through the practice of expertly executed violence, being nicer to people because you know you can wreck them. It’s about being more scared of yourself than of others. “The more you learn, the less and less you’re going to fight because it’s horrible what you can do to someone,” Flowers says.

Magdalena Sosa, a 16-year-old second- degree black belt, joined the program because she wanted to lose weight, but she credits it with saving her from the street. She says she hasn’t had to fight yet. “If somebody comes up to me, I don’t pay no mind. I walk away,” she says. But she adds, “Sometimes that doesn’t work. If you walk away, people get upset and attack you.” Indeed, there are things one can’t walk away from.

One night after class ends and the students file out, Lawton suggests that his visitor wait for a ride to the bus stop, it being dark and all. Outside, Gonzalez warms up his SUV, in which the three instructors will ride to the building where they all live. “I’ve got to sell this thing,” he says, shaking his head over a recent four-digit repair bill. He’s already selling another car to a guy in Canada. But he’s used to juggling stuff: weekends working in his parents’ grocery store as a kid, a brief first marriage, having two girls in college while raising a five-year-old son, dealing with the sudden death of his older brother in a freak accident last year. His family has moved to Florida, and there’s pressure to join them, but Gonzalez is standing his ground. He will tell you, unprompted, that he loves his life.

Thomas, always moving quickly, hops into the back. He used to make an epic commute to a high-tech job in Staten Island, but then he was downsized. So he and a pal set up a business that sells lottery information to people in 23 states, using patterns seen in winning numbers to predict what the next moneymakers will be. Seems weird, but he says it works. “Like me doing training,” he explains, “I don’t give up.”

Will, looking a little weary, rides shotgun. He is leaving early (that means 9 p.m.; he gets in around 10 a.m.), and everyone in the place knows why: A close relative is having cancer surgery in the morning.

The SUV pulls out, and Mapes Avenue turns into Tremont. They drive past the place where Pereira brought jujitsu to the Bronx decades earlier. In the blocks around, Fight Back students are fanning out to wage their myriad battles. Lawton sizes up his own. “It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow,” he sighs, softly.

Another “victim” has entered the eight-man circle. The drill proceeds as before, but the teenage boy in the center doesn’t dispatch every attacker right away, like Higgins did. He takes a few punches first. Gonzalez shrugs this off. Jujitsu isn’t a fortress, after all. It’s a life raft. For anyone, but especially for kids in a neighborhood where the odds often aren’t in their favor, it’s a way to get by�in fights and in life. “Are they gonna get hurt?” he says. “Sure, we all get hit, all get hurt sometimes. But they stay alive.”