ESPN

Street Beefs

In Virginia dozens willingly fight each other in a backyard ring to relieve stress and settle disputes where, they say, getting "punched in the face takes the pain away."


Chris "Scarface" Wilmore is the dictator of "The Yard" -- a narrow lot behind Wilmore's two-story home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where tree trunks are covered in vines, rusty clothesline poles stand next to a charcoal grill and punching bags hang from the trees. Sometimes people refer to it as "Satan's backyard."

In the center of The Yard is a patch where the grass has been ground to dirt and a makeshift boxing ring sits. A crowd gathers around Wilmore, who is dressed in his usual blacks and grays, a headband around his shaved head, as he announces the day's fighters. His voice carries -- you can hear it across The Yard even when he's not talking loudly.

This is the home of Street Beefs, a fighting event Wilmore started a decade ago as part of his "Guns Down, Gloves Up" crusade. "Let's give these guys who have a dispute some place to solve it," Wilmore says. A place where, he says, "They won't severely hurt each other or go to jail."

Wilmore, 40, isn't shy about his own criminal record, which includes assault and drug possession. By his own count, he has spent nine years in and out of jail. It was in juvenile detention that he learned to box.

His Street Beefs idea has evolved into something of a club. Wilmore calls it a "safe zone" where ex-convicts and recovering addicts "can be part of something." Last year The Yard hosted upward of 180 fights, and it has a YouTube channel boasting more than half a million subscribers and 142 million-plus views. The YouTube revenue has allowed Wilmore to quit his day job as a personal trainer to run Street Beefs full time. He says he hopes to soon start paying those who staff security, referee or assist with Street Beefs social media. Wilmore started the channel in 2009 with a handful of posts each year. In 2014 the video production increased and by late 2015 the channel was monetized. Street Beefs produced more than 220 videos in 2018. Its top video, with 20 million views, is from 2013.

Fighters aren't paid and there's no admission fee charged, so Street Beefs falls outside the jurisdiction of state licensing, according to state and local officials. Harrisonburg police report occasional noise complaints, but besides that, the gatherings are left alone. There are no professional medical personnel present, no physicals required and no blood testing. People just show up and fight. "It's essentially the same as if we want to go play backyard football," Wilmore says.

The men -- and yes, it's primarily men -- who gather are manual laborers, construction workers, furniture movers and the like. Most live within a few hours of Wilmore's renowned backyard. But some, having discovered Street Beefs via YouTube, drive from as far as Miami and Boston. One recent fighter said he'd flown in from Milwaukee.

They come to release stress and anger, or to pursue an improbable dream of being discovered online and embarking on careers as professional fighters. A few say fighting is simply in their nature. But they almost all talk about the test in the ring, how much they respect one another's willingness to fight for no money, the punches in the face, the focus, the pain, the adrenaline -- and more than anything else, in the calm aftermath of it all, the surprising bond they feel with their opponents.

Clover, aka Jeffery Craun

Age: 29, Day Job: Mason

"The first time he hit me, yeah, the first thought I had was, 'What did I get myself into?' Then, the second thought, 'I need to do more defense.' ... After that, I kept just wondering when the round was over. ... It felt like I couldn't breathe. It felt like my lungs were going to collapse. I was just out of breath, and my legs and arms felt like jello. The 14-ounce gloves felt like 20 pounds on my hands."

The Buffalo, (top) aka Chris Corbin

Age: 20, Day Job: Tree trimmer

"When I am pinning somebody, I have full control over the fight. It's one of the best feelings when you watch someone's spirit break, when they just give up -- I can't do this no more with you. ... What I learned to notice, when you take control away from somebody, you kinda watch them sink into a slump and then them just give up hope, and that's what I really like about it, watching somebody give up, knowing they can't compete. ... It comes from me being the aggressor. Even when I get hit in the head -- that guy, Dirty Harry, he was elbowing me in the head and hitting me in the face, and it didn't matter to me because I wanted to break him. I wanted to watch his spirit break even if it means I've got to rearrange my nose at the end. ... I like to be aggressive when the time is appropriate to be aggressive, like getting in a ring and fighting it out. ... Everyone needs a way to channel their anger into something ... I've always used sports as my outlet for my anger. ... It's hard to join a wrestling team when you are 20 years old and you're not in school. ... and there's a lot I am angry about."

Juice Box, (left) aka Justin Craun

Age: 21, Day Job: Cook

"First fight, I kinda showed up at a fighting match -- my brother was there to fight; I wasn't. I wasn't training or anything. This kid came down, his name's Sage, from New Jersey, and he wanted to fight and no one was going to fight him. So I was, like, you know what? Win or lose, you know, I got you. And this kid's like 6-foot, probably 200 pounds. He's got me by a long shot ... I'm 125, you know, 5-5 -- It's a big difference there. But I like to gamble ... I went in there and gave it my all and ... I lost. I went all three rounds with the guy. No one thought I was going to go three rounds. I didn't think I was going to make it past second round."

Filthy, aka Kyle Phillips

Age: 27, Day Job: Car salesman

"You definitely respect somebody more that you fought, regardless if you beat them or they beat you. It gives you a reason to respect them. They weren't scared, they didn't back down. I think everybody has this little thing that goes off before a fight where you feel like you want to throw up. It's kinda like anxiety. It doesn't matter who you are going against, any of that. It's just because you know you are about to get punched in the face or vice versa. ... That's a place to get my anger out. I don't have to do it at a bar or anywhere else. So, I can actually shake hands with somebody and it's more of a sport than, you know, than getting yourself in trouble for an assault or anything like that."

Codexx Abiff (left), aka Cody Tharpe

Age: 23, Day Job: Warehouse worker

"It's kinda weird when two grown men give it their all, lash out, it's kind of a little bit of mutual respect at the end there. Because not a lot of people are willing to do it, you know? And, if another grown man is willing to do it, he's earned my respect. ... We gave it a little hug there. ... Two grown men can definitely be able to be friends after they throw some hands. I kinda threw up a little bit in between rounds. That's kinda why the fight ended: I was throwing up in my corner there. I was in some bad shape. It's a lot of exhaustion. Once that adrenaline runs out, you just rely on cardio. You got adrenaline for the first round if you're lucky, but once you set on that stool and take the break, it starts running out and you're just relying on your heart rate."

.45, aka Justin Stevens

Age: 27, Day Job: Contractor

"I saw these guys on the internet, they don't know anybody from anybody. They just show up and they feel the same way as you do. Nine times out of 10 in a street fight, one person in that fight doesn't really want to fight. But when you show up for Street Beefs, you know that your opponent is coming there for the same reason you are -- to throw some hands and feel alive again. I grew up fighting. I grew up street fighting. To be honest, especially now that I'm 27, I have three kids -- I have to make adult decisions now. So, back in the day when I was 18 years old and, say, I go to the 7-Eleven and I come out the store and somebody bumps into me and they don't apologize, or they say something smart after they bump into me -- at 18, I'm gonna take off. I'm gonna punch the dude in the face. I'm gonna start fighting, but now, as a grown adult with kids, you know, you let stuff like that go. I feel like we've evolved from throughout the thousands of years we've been on this earth but fighting has always been an instinct that's within the human nature."

King Leonidas, aka Leonidas Fowlkes

Age: 33, Day Job: Warehouse and store merchandiser

"It's a peaceful event. If people have got, like, situations and they don't know how to handle it. They gotta go to violence -- that's a good place to go to because you can just handle it there, everybody goes home and back to their families -- nobody is arrested. It's good for people. People need that sometimes. I like the discipline of it. You have to be very disciplined. Train. Stay focused at all times. It's only you in there. Nobody can help you. Pretend all you want, but once you're in there, it's just you -- by yourself. It keeps you out of trouble because you know what to do with your energy -- your thoughts, the way you think."

Shooby Doo, aka Steven Shubert

Age: 26, Day Job: Fence installer

"You fight it out. And then, after that, you hug it out and you become friends. You know, you become closer, brothers, family. ... It could stop a lot of innocent people from dying. If you just come out here and take a couple of punches. If you get your ass kicked, you get your ass kicked. But you're not going out there and taking someone's life from 'em. ... It's really respect. You know, for people to see you and they're like, 'Wow, that guy really got out there and you know he's man enough to actually go out there and fight.'"

Big Rob (the Ref), aka Robert Franke

Age: 37, Day Job: Business owner in construction, laundromats and a restaurant

"When I got out of the military, I was a loner. It was hard for me to get back in the community ... what I do in the ring, it has helped me to actually come out of my shell a little bit -- to enjoy life itself. ... And getting me outside my shell is getting to know everybody, you know, talking with them. ... We've become more of like a big family, where if someone needs help, they can lean on us."

Eazy E, aka Elric Wright

Age: 28, Day Job: Stagehand

"People just dying every day either [with] drugs or guns. So to be able to fight somebody and come out respecting him and building a friendship, I definitely look forward to that. It's like, when you have older or little siblings, you fight. And then, I don't know, you just become closer -- like, growing up with your best friend. You always had little bicker matches or a little wrestle-off, and it just made you closer. I feel like that's what happened amongst us. Like, I never met him, but definitely the homie for life now."

Lady K, aka Katie Phillips

Day Job: Direct support professional working with individuals with disability

"The first couple of times we started watching Street Beefs, I was interested in it and wanted to see myself out there. I keep watching my video over and over again. ... I'm shy. I am actually surprised I got out there and did it myself, honestly. But after it's all done and over with, you are actually proud that you went out there and did it, had the guts to do it. It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it matters that you went out there and put yourself in front of all of those people watching you. That's more respect than anything in the world. A lot of girls, they have a lot of fear, and that fear keeps them from pushing for what they really want to do. If you block all that out, and don't think of all the negatives, but think about the positives and what can come from that, that's all that matters. But fear gets in the way for a lot of people from doing things they want to do."

B. Rose, aka Brandon Rose

Age: 24, Day Job: Changes oil in autos

"It was going in the second, after the first round -- I was like, 'Yo, what did I get myself into? I gotta stop smoking, I can't f---in' breathe. I don't even want to go out there and fight, but I'm gonna do it. Let's go.' I am just trying to do something better for my life. I have a daughter. I don't want to work at Jiffy Lube for the rest of my life. I just want to do something with my life. I want to prove myself to my daughter. I'm just hopin', me coming out here, this will turn into something good."

Italian Tyson, aka Anthony Russo

Age: 22, Day Job: Mover

"I was bullied when I was younger. And that's when I started to learn how to box and do martial arts because I wanted to not get bullied anymore ... I was in sixth grade. I was the chubby kid in the class. And a lot of people were just picking on me about my weight, you know? A couple of kids would jump me if I was going to the restroom or the locker room. ... I was training for a couple of months, and one day this kid just pushed me and I just snapped, and I stood up for myself, and a lot of kids stopped messing with me after that. ... I knew it wouldn't be over after I got rid of the bullies. It was only a matter of time that I realized I wanted to be a fighter."

Juice Box, aka Justin Craun

Age: 21, Day Job: Cook

"I just feel like if we can step in the ring -- put your all in there, you know, when you're done, you can separate your differences and still walk away shaking each other's hands and just be a better person. I feel like society could do the same. I'm saying, 'Yep, talk about it, fight about it, whatever'. At the end, we're still the same. We're hugging, and there's no one different from anyone. ... We all have something in common.''

Brenzo, aka Brendon Burgwald

Age: 21, Day Job: Mover

"You gotta have your team there. That's like the biggest thing, the people that you really, you know, blood, sweat and tears every single day is who you want by your side -- who I want by my side. If you hear someone you really, really know, whether it be blood or somebody you've known for years -- if you even hear them or even see them on the sideline, it just makes you want to drive above and beyond. I wanna be a champion. I want to be the best in the world. I wanna be able to feed my family, and get everybody in a house and stuff like that."

Killa Kyle, aka Kyle Ray Alger Jr.

Age: 23, Day Job: Locates underground utilities

"You go into the ring thinking, 'I'm going to win this fight.' But then you go down however many rounds are going to go through, some go through one, some make it to three here. Once you get dazed, it kind of like takes your energy away, and you get back up thinking, 'OK, I'm hurt, but I still need to win this,' so you get pride in yourself."

Spyder, aka Wayne Soifer

Age: 41, Day Job: House painting contractor

"I've been in a lot of trouble, as an adult and growing up as a kid, and I spend a lot of my life in and out of jails and prisons. And this gives me a positive outlook. I've always resorted to violence to solve whatever it was I had to solve. I've grown up now ... I've got six kids and a beautiful fiancée. I'm just trying to live right. ... I can come up here and shake his hand before and punch him in the face a couple of times and knock each other down and get out and shake hands again and it's OK. I don't have to look forward to being away from my family for six months. It's a positive outlook and helps with the stress."