LOS ANGELES — The cheers from the crowd of 200 turned to anxious chatter as the fighter lay motionless, stupefied by a right hook. For two minutes, he didn’t stir.
Joshua Brito, who helped organize this fight in a hastily constructed ring in a friend’s backyard, leaned in to get video to post on YouTube. Damian Gutierrez, Brito’s partner and the event’s M.C., climbed between the ropes to check on the fallen man.
The fighter’s buddies dragged him by his feet to the edge of the ring and eased him to the ground. Finally, he stood and spat water into the air, a sign that he was OK, or at least not an immediate candidate for an emergency room.
With the ring cleared, the D.J. cranked hip-hop music and two fighters warmed up for the next bout.
You could tell a lot about the event just by reading the words stitched into the jerseys the promoters wore that night. “Backyard Squabbles,” the logos said in script font. That’s the name of the homegrown boxing and mixed martial arts league Brito and Gutierrez dreamed up nearly a year ago, partly to elevate up-and-coming fighters. With the slogan “Guns down, squabble up,” they also aimed to provide an alternative way to settle neighborhood beefs.
“Showtime Championship Boxing” this was not. Brito, 19, and Gutierrez, 20, were inexperienced promoters — Brito is just a year out of high school — staging bouts between no-name fighters hoping to break through. They did not make much money, they said, and they did not seem to have a clear plan to do so. And there is no evidence that anyone climbed into the ring rather than start a gunfight.
But at the height of the pandemic, with many businesses closed and entertainment options limited, Backyard Squabbles became a minor sensation, its events attracting a small but devoted community of family members, fight fans and enterprising vendors. (You could get a fried chicken sandwich and a haircut at a Backyard Squabble.) Boosted by news media coverage, Backyard Squabbles grew its Instagram following to 29,000 after only five events.
Brito and Gutierrez hoped their start-up could be the next Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, big-time fight businesses that started small. Along the way, they said, they would help poor and homeless people, though those plans weren’t completely formed.
“It’s a real sick time in the world right now, and all I want to do is help,” Gutierrez said. “This can be worldwide one day, and I know we can get it there.”
But they soon drew a formidable opponent, and its name was the California State Athletic Commission.
The Dentist vs. the Ram
Gutierrez got the idea for Backyard Squabbles while working out in a garage with a cousin, Christian Padilla, a former mixed martial arts competitor. The family had a history in fighting: Another cousin, Christopher Padilla, appeared on a 2018 fight card in Bellator M.M.A., considered the second-largest promotion behind the U.F.C.
Gutierrez, who grew up in South Los Angeles and lost an uncle to gun violence, was concerned about the rise in shootings during the pandemic. He thought staging boxing and mixed martial arts events might keep people from getting into trouble in the streets. The lockdown gave him extra time to put on events. Besides, he said, he had thrown parties in high school, and was good at it.
Mutual friends introduced Gutierrez to Brito, who was enrolled in trade school to become a welder. They created an Instagram page — Brito has a passion for photography — and began recruiting athletes, relying on friends and Christian Padilla’s connections at local gyms. They scraped together a card with five fights, promoting it by staging mock news conferences they posted on Instagram.
A friend of Gutierrez’s allowed him to host the event in her backyard, and his barber connected him with someone who supplied a ring. The referee was Christian Padilla, and there was just one ringside judge, though Gutierrez and Padilla provided input on the decisions. The fighters, with nicknames like the Dentist and the Ram, received no pay, just a chance at victory. Spectators paid no admission fee and were given no seats. They stood around the ring and hooted with every punch that connected.
Brito shot video from the roof overlooking the ring, close enough to document every smack and grunt. With California’s strict stay-at-home orders limiting movement, Backyard Squabbles quickly grabbed an online audience.
“My life changed after that,” Brito said. “We blew up.”
Gutierrez and Brito began hosting so-called mixers, essentially tryouts for fighters to help with the matchmaking process. As with actual fights, they lined up competitors by weight and experience and loosed them on each other.
By the time they staged Backyard Squabbles 3 late last year, fans stood three or four deep around the ring, shooting cellphone videos and pounding on the mat when the action got heavy. Vendors paid fees to secure spots at the fights, and Backyard Squabbles sold merchandise.
Brito put off trade school to devote himself to Backyard Squabbles. He helped register it as a limited liability company in March. If it fails, welding will be his safety net.
“It will be cool to say that I did this at this age, even if it doesn’t last forever,” he said. “I feel like I’ll never have a midlife crisis because I did what I love.”
Backyard Squabbles’ grass-roots origins in some ways echo the beginnings of larger mixed martial arts organizations that fought for legitimacy in their early days. The U.F.C. struggled until Dana White became president in 2001, instilled more standardized rules and stabilized the organization’s business structure. That led more athletic commissions to allow bouts in states where politicians had criticized the sport as barbaric. Dave Feldman, founder and president of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, put on his first event in Wyoming in June 2018 after the state approved it.
But this year, Backyard Squabbles got some unwanted attention. The organization’s partners received a letter in April from the California State Athletic Commission, the state’s regulatory agency for combat sports. It said they were breaking the law by promoting and staging fights without a license. They risked being charged with a criminal misdemeanor.
“You are hereby ordered to cease and desist,” the letter said.
They did not cease. They did not desist. They responded to the letter the way an M.M.A. fighter reacts to a modest kick in the ribs. They ignored it.
‘I’m going for it’
On Memorial Day weekend, Hector Herrera and his family arrived at Backyard Squabbles in two cars.
One by one, Herrera’s sons — ages 14, 11, 9 and 3 — and his 13-year-old daughter spilled out of the vehicles with coolers containing fruit and Tajín seasoning. His younger daughters, 6 and 3 months, stayed elsewhere with other family members.
Herrera was scheduled second-to-last on an eight-fight card. He would use the time before his bout to prepare and sell fruit bowls, joining vendors who offered food, clothes and haircuts.
“I decided I was going to make some money, too,” Herrera said.
If you had to select an archetype for the kind of fighter who ended up in the ring at Backyard Squabbles, Herrera, nicknamed the Aztec Warrior, would be a good candidate. He has been trying for years to break into pro boxing, but has continually been sidetracked, often by the arrival of a new child.
Still fiercely determined at age 34, he works landscaping jobs during the day and trains as a boxer multiple times a week at a gym in Hawthorne, Calif. He hopes his appearances at Backyard Squabbles will lead to a professional bout, similar to the way Kimbo Slice, who died in 2016, and Jorge Masvidal entered the U.F.C. after earning reputations in backyard fights.
“I have my family backing me up on it, so I’m going to go for it,” Herrera said. “Backyard Squabbles allows me and other people to show our passion for the sport.”
When he was done selling fruit bowls, he entered the ring wearing a red-and-white poncho. He had fought in Backyard Squabbles before, and now was a fan favorite. The crowd cheered and turned on the lights on their cellphone cameras as he jogged across a concrete pathway and down a short set of stairs to the courtyard.
His opponent in the five-round bout was Fabian Lopez, an art acquisition specialist and photographer. Herrera set an aggressive pace for most of the fight, stunning Lopez in the last round with repeated shots to the head near the ropes. His supporters pounded the canvas joyfully when Gutierrez declared him the winner.
Most fighters involved with Backyard Squabbles are men, but it has attracted some women, too. Valinda Hernandez, an aspiring fighter, was at the May event to support a friend who fought, holding pads while he practiced his punching form ahead of his bout.
Hernandez, 27, said she had been looking for something like Backyard Squabbles her whole life.
“This was the best thing that could happen to a lot of us, a lot of people with our mentalities and our lifestyles,” she said. “This is our safe space.”
It is a haven Hernandez did not have growing up. She said that she knew she was gay since she was young, and that her peers sensed it and excluded her from basketball and dance. She said some people threw eggs at her and told her she would go to hell.
When she came out as gay to her parents in her sophomore year of high school, they did not take it well, she said, but grew to accept it after counseling.
She spent her anger and frustration on the heavy bag. Her grandfather introduced her to boxing when she was a child and she began to train regularly in gyms in 2012. She even cut her hair to make men more comfortable fighting with her, she said.
Hernandez, who works a late shift as a warehouse receiver, joined Backyard Squabbles in February after hearing about it from a friend. She said it promised exposure she could not find elsewhere and gave her incentive to keep in shape during the pandemic.
She would like to fight professionally and believes she will make it — if only someone will fight her. Four times Hernandez has been matched up against another woman at Backyard Squabbles, and four times her opponent has backed out.
“Everybody is trying to climb up, and all I want to do is fight,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know if they’re going to shut the world down tomorrow, so I want to do what I love while I still can.”
Down for the count
Brito’s mother, Veronica, has told her son since childhood that he needs “to be prepared for the consequences” of his actions. He soon may have to apply that lesson.
In July, a representative of the state’s athletic commission showed up at a Backyard Squabbles mixer. He served them with a second cease-and-desist order and told them how to become licensed. They would need a federal employee ID number and $50,000 in liquid assets, none of which they had.
The money is the steepest challenge. The pair rely on fees from local sponsorships and vendors, along with merchandise sales. They said they typically broke even on events that cost around $2,000.
“I’m not really gaining anything from this, all I’m really gaining is my platform getting bigger,” Gutierrez said. “Where is this money that they want from me going to come from?”
He said he felt “disrespected” by the commission’s action because he and Brito believe they are causing no harm.
The commission is focused on the harm that could come from people clobbering each other in random backyards with no standards and no medical oversight. In a statement, it said that it is “dedicated to the health, safety and welfare of participants in regulated combat sporting events, which is accomplished in many ways, including licensing, enforcement and health-and-safety standards.”
Brito and Gutierrez said they had stopped hosting fights. They said they asked the commission for more information about what was expected of them, but hadn’t heard back. They won’t wait forever, they said.
“They want us to slowly die down, but that’s not happening,” Gutierrez said. He said they were talking to potential investors and had started a GoFundMe campaign.
In the meantime, Backyard Squabbles fighters are looking for other opportunities. Herrera said he would scour gyms for other boxers to compete against.
“It’s a bummer because we had a nice ball rolling and then they just came in and shut us down,” he said. “It stopped everything, and we really have to wait.”
Hernandez found another pop-up fighting league and fought a woman there in July. But the league is in San Jose, about a six-hour drive from her home in Riverside. Hernandez said she would fight there while doing what she could to help Backyard Squabbles.
“I definitely don’t want to keep going up north,” she said.
Gutierrez said he and Brito would focus on the community aspect of their goals by hosting back-to-school drives and giving clothes to the homeless. They recently posted a video on Instagram seeking donations of backpacks, pencils and other school supplies.
“At this point, I feel like it’s more than just fighting,” Gutierrez said. “We’re promoting the movement. We’re just trying to help out a whole bunch of people who don’t have a lot.”