Where 'dawg fights' pay the bills

"The life you see in 'Dawg Fight' is where we are headed,' says Billy Corben, the documentary's director.

Story highlights

  • The documentary "Dawg Fight" shows men fighting in a Miami suburb for money
  • LZ Granderson: It's the only chance for some ever to reach the American Dream

LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)There's a steady stream of blood flowing down his face from a cut just above his eye. His rapid, open-mouth breathing inadvertently draws some of the blood inside, discoloring his teeth. He appears dazed, probably with a concussion. But there are no trained physicians around to evaluate. And even if there were, it's doubtful anything a doctor could say would stop him from fighting. The crowd that has gathered in this backyard of a Miami suburb won't let him. They have too much money invested. Besides, this illegal fight is the safest way he can make money. And his best chance of reaching the American Dream.

When I first saw this footage from the documentary "Dawg Fight," I recoiled. Here we are recognizing the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, and in the next state over there are desperate, unemployed black men beating the hell out of each other for a hundred bucks.
LZ Granderson
While the 1999 cult classic "Fight Club" made organized street fights look like a sexy form of psychotherapy for repressed men (and some of the guys who participate in street fights do fit the bill), the vast majority in the documentary just need the money. Because in the Miami area the poor reportedly live on $11 a day. And in West Perrine, the suburb where "Dawg Fight" takes place and where nearly 75% of the residents are black, unemployment remains high.
    "This is the future of America," said the film's director, Billy Corben. "When you look at the incarceration rate, especially for black men, and income inequality, the life you see in 'Dawg Fight' is where we are headed.
    "We have these ridiculous drug laws, which makes it nearly impossible to get a job once you've been arrested. And if you can get a job, it doesn't pay enough to feed a family."
    The numbers speak for themselves. The United States has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners -- by far the most of any country. Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2012, the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of all income growth. So while it is true unemployment is down and Wall Street is booming, the combination of a debilitating criminal justice system and low wages has created an environment in which men such as those featured in "Dawg Fight" feel backyard fights are actually one of the less nefarious ways they can make money.
    Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, have become interesting bedfellows as they work to address the country's runaway prison industry. This week, the pair, along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced a medical marijuana bill as another step toward decriminalizing the drug.
    This is a welcome step, because of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001-2010, nearly 90% was for simple possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And while whites and blacks use the drug at the same rate, blacks were arrested four times as often, the ACLU said.
    That's not to say all of the ex-cons in the 12-by-12 ring are nonviolent drug offenders. Some, by their own admission, have done worse. But they are out of jail now, and don't have the luxury of waiting to see if debates going on in Washington actually result in laws.
    "I don't promote violence, I promote hope," said Dada 5000, who started West Perrine fights in his mother's backyard and who was once a bodyguard for mixed martial arts fighter Kimbo Slice. "A lot of these men paid their debt back to society; they did the rehab, but they still can't get a job. They don't blame society for their life. ... (T)hey are back here in these streets, and they would like a second chance, a chance to do the right thing, but those chances are not there. We are an alternative to the bad things."
    I asked if the election of the first black President provided any inspiration at all, and he said, "Obama's black, but he didn't grow up black, not like this.
    "He never had to make do, to go without. He never was put inside those situations, those circumstances where desperation pushes you to the edge. He's had what he thinks are hard times, but it's nothing like this. If he came down here, he would be blown away."
    Corben echoes the sentiment.
    "The unemployment rate is all well and good for people in Washington, but those are not the people who are trying to make it," he said. "People think of Miami, they think of beaches and Ocean Drive and all of that. This is the part of Miami people don't want to talk about.
    "But you know what? Miami is not unique. There are a lot of cities like this," he adds.
    "Dawg Fight" certainly doesn't sugarcoat anything. The fights are raw, vicious. But then so is the reality in which it is based. Two of the fighters featured are dead -- including one on whom police used a Taser. With prize money as little as $100, the chances this lifestyle alone can elevate a family out of poverty is slim to none.
    But what are the alternatives? I grew up in a rough neighborhood on the eastside of Detroit. I was mugged in elementary school by a grown man. And even I don't claim to know the desperation these men see on a daily basis.
    "We don't have Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson coming down here to this level of hood," Dada said. "This is the real Miami. We may not want to acknowledge it, but it is.
    "And I bet if you go to some of the other cities where men don't have any skills, they don't have an education, they may have a record ... you'll find the same thing," he added. "What I'm doing isn't barbaric, it's a message."