Tuesday, August 01, 2006

by Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY

ARLINGTON, Texas — The video shows two bare-knuckle brawlers brutally punching each other until one slumps, beaten, to the ground. The fight doesn't end there: The victor straddles the chest of his fallen opponent, firing rights and lefts into his face.
This is not a scene from the Brad Pitt movie Fight Club. Instead, it involves real teenagers in an underground video called Agg Townz Fights 2. Their ring: the grassy schoolyard of Seguin High School here. They're engaged in a disturbing extreme sport that has popped up across the nation: teen fight clubs.
This year, authorities in Texas, New Jersey, Washington state and Alaska have discovered more than a half-dozen teen fight rings operating for fun — or profit. These illegal, violent, often bloody bouts pit boys and girls, some as young as 12, in hand-to-hand combat. Some ringleaders capture these staged fights with video or cellphone cameras, set them to rap music, then peddle homemade DVDs on the Internet. Other fight videos are posted on popular teen websites such as MySpace.com and YouTube.com.
Some bouts are more like bare-knuckle boxing matches, with the opponents shaking hands before and after they fight. Others are gang assaults out of ultra-violent films such as A Clockwork Orange, with packs of youths stomping helpless victims who clearly don't want to fight.
"When you watch the video, you're appalled by the savagery, the callousness, the lack of morality," says James Hawthorne, deputy police chief of Arlington's West District, who's leading a crackdown on fight clubs. "This is an indictment of us as a society. It's not a race issue or a class issue. It's a kids issue."
Many fight-club brawlers are suburban high school kids, not gang members or juvenile criminals. Chase Leavitt, son of U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, was arrested for participating in a fight club at a Mormon church gym in Salt Lake City in December 2001, when his father was Utah's governor.
The younger Leavitt, then 18, pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and trespassing in September 2002 and was sentenced to 40 hours of community service, says Sim Gill, the chief prosecutor of Salt Lake City who handled the case.
According to Gill, Chase Leavitt laced up boxing gloves and punched it out with a 17-year-old opponent at the church, which is in an affluent neighborhood. Organizers handed out fliers advertising the fight. About 100 students from Leavitt's East High School paid admission before cops raided the premises. As the teens fled, they dropped a video camera with footage of several bouts that night.
"This is not something that just happens in poor neighborhoods," Gill says. "This crosses all socioeconomic bounds. It's happening in middle-class and upper-middle-class environments."
Secretary Leavitt and Chase Leavitt declined to comment, referring calls to attorney Loren Weiss. He says Chase Leavitt was "prosecuted for who he was, not what he did."
Fight clubs tap into a dark, nihilistic "part of the American psyche fascinated by the spectacle of blood and violence," says Orin Starn, cultural anthropology professor at Duke University who teaches about sports in American society. "This does seem a phenomenon of the Mortal Kombat, violent video game generation. The fight club offers the chance to bring those fantasies of violence and danger to life — and maybe have your 15 minutes of fame in an underground video."
Chuck Palahniuk, author of the cult 1996 novel Fight Club that was the basis for the 1999 movie, declined an interview request but said, "God bless these kids. I hope they're having a great time. I don't think they'd be doing it if they weren't having a great time."


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