By Gareth Davies
Special to ESPN.com
Some fights merit greater attention than two men attempting to prove their physical and mental superiority in a combat arena. Victory there is sweet, but transient. Some fights are about life itself.
Just ask anyone from the projects of South Philadelphia.
Dominick Cruz, the UFC bantamweight champion, and Charlie Brenneman, a fast-rising welterweight contender, were chauffeured into Wilson Park Apartments Complex on Friday morning to sample life inside a different cage. They were preaching from the fight gospel, and the message was heard by some 150 teenagers.
There is a shooting in these local-authority housing projects every night. Unemployment is high, hopes are low. Salvation is some way off.
Where MMA at times can be treated like the scruffy cousin of the mainstream sports world, the kids on the block at Wilson Park can identify.
The wider picture to associate with the visit — which was didactic in the sense that it was to teach that you can be tough, healthy and wise — is that MMA needs to embed its role with communities, become what the boxing gym once was — a refuge to change and shape young people’s lives which had become twisted and entangled in negative society.
Inside a community room, a fitness center had been set up, and the kids got to work out with Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre on a flat screen. Fun, engaging and geared toward fitness, the workout was followed by a signing session.
Given their penchant for supporting the U.S. military and other charity projects, it makes sense to move the sport into communities which could benefit from it. Civic duties are a win-win, pure and simple.
It was self-evident that the likes of Cruz and Brenneman, who might not be the ideal role models for the kids who sat — pretty patiently — listening and asking questions, have the facility to engage with alacrity. Their effect on the real role models — the 16- and 17-year-old â€œseniorâ€ kids in the project — is what really counts from this visit.
The summer camp is run by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia. Wilson Park is one of 11 units in the city of Philadelphia. The kids who come during the schoolsâ€™ summer break are between 7 and 18 years old.
“These kids are economically distressed, in any and every way you can think of,” said Harold Reed, director of the Wilson Park Summer Camp.
Harold, a tall, bright-faced optimist originally from Hawaii, admitted that when he started the camps, he routinely lost his wallet and his phone. Four years on, and he can put a wedge of 20 dollar bills on his desk in his office without nailing them to the table with a claw hammer.
“Sport is a way of teaching young people life skills. The right tools for caring, honesty, trustworthiness — and perhaps most importantly for these kids — fairness. Fairness because a lot of these young people don’t think that life is fair. We’re strict with them. We have to be — there is a lack of education, lack of jobs … it’s a vicious circle in this community. A lot of these children have good parents, but often those parents can’t do that much to help the children.”
Cruz and Brenneman advocated a balance between sports and studies.
“School and sport, make sure you do them both … develop a focus,” said Cruz. Brenneman disclosed he had been a Spanish teacher in high school before opening the floor to questions.
These kids were bright and engaging, but in their body language, you could see they were fighters — off duty, that is.
“Can you kick people’s teeth out?”
“Why did you stop teaching Spanish, what do the kids do now?”
“Do you get afraid being a fighter?”
“How do you compare to Captain America?” Plenty of hilarity.
Reed invited retired nine-time NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins to the Wilson Park project some time ago. He was a huge hit with the kids, but so too were the fighters. They speak the same language. One of the juniors, Darick Plummer, 11, admits his first love is basketball, but he was impressed with the two UFC fighters. “I thought they’d be mean … but they were cool.”
When the fighters packed up and went home, the older kids had to sustain their mission. You could see there was a respect for the two UFC fighters from the older kids, who will spread the same word in their communities.
“The kids were impressed. You could see that. The fighters presented themselves very well,” said Reed.
“It has taken four years to create a culture here, and some of the teens here would be dead now if we weren’t doing this. Some of them carry guns to protect themselves. There are warring factions here. This is a sanctuary from those gangs. They cease to be that. Stern but fair … ”
After our time spent in the inner-city projects, in a cab headed toward downtown Philadelphia, Cruz discussed how the visit made him reflect on his own life path. In Tucson, Ariz., he had grown up on the divide, dancing between â€œthe goodâ€ and â€œthe badâ€ sides of town. There are those who have no choice. He’d seen some of them at Wilson Park.
“The greatest lesson in life is realizing that whoever you are fighting, whoever you are up against, the greatest battle is with yourself,” Cruz said. “I hope some of the kids in the Wilson Park project get to see that themselves.”
We made our excuses and left. But MMA just made a new bunch of friends.