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Threat of fight clubs rings a bell

Times Staff Writers

A handful of reports about “fight clubs” in Southern California and across the nation have grabbed headlines and led to swift crackdowns by law enforcement.

In the fall, a loosely organized fight club in Palm Desert led to a 16-year-old boy’s death, and this week police filed gang and assault charges against members and associates of a club accused of a gang-style crime spree in southwest Riverside County.

Still, some Southern California school officials and child psychologists are reluctant to label the teen fighting bouts a new trend, saying that bullies behaving badly is an age-old schoolyard phenomenon.

Only now, those brawlers have adopted a new name, lifted from the 1999 film “Fight Club” starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton that offered a glorified look at underground fistfights and the mayhem that follows.

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“Kids getting together in peer groups and rewarding each other for bullying and aggressive behavior is something that’s been going on for thousands of years,” said Mary Jane Rotheram-Borus, director of UCLA’s Global Center for Children and Families.

“The idea of calling it a ‘fight club’ comes from the movie.”

Wednesday, police arrested eight former students of Murrieta Valley High School, including former football players who started a Fight Club in 2004. The suspects are accused by Murrieta police of waging a two-year crime spree of robberies, burglaries and assaults -- and proudly wore baseball caps with an “FC” logo.

In Long Beach, school officials last month broke up a short-lived Ten Second Fight Club involving six girls at a middle school, Long Beach police officials said.

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Girls who were at odds were supposed to meet in a bathroom to settle their differences in a 10-second scrap.

Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, said the recent flare-ups of fight clubs across the country should not be so easily dismissed.

School administrators are dealing with a newer, bloodthirsty generation of brawlers, and their antics are on display on popular websites such as YouTube.com, Starn said.

“It’s not an organized movement, but you search ‘fight club’ on YouTube, there are thousands of videos of kids and other folks fighting who identify themselves as part of the fight club phenomenon,” Starn said.

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The level of brutality practiced by today’s fight clubbers also sets them apart from a schoolyard brawls of years past, Starn said.

“Before, when the bully punched you out, you got a bloody nose in front of your locker in the hallway,” Starn said.

“But on YouTube, people are beaten to a pulp and have bones broken.”

Since the movie came out, fight club busts have been played prominently in the press. In August, USA Today ran a front-page article about police in four states cracking down on a half-dozen teen fighting rings.

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Still, while police raids on a handful of other clubs across the country have grabbed headlines, they are rare -- and parents have other, more important things to worry about, said Lt. Doug McGrew, law enforcement liaison to the Riverside County Office of Education.

“Things may happen at school, but they’re not secret fight clubs,” he said.

Psychologists said the ruffian behavior is increasingly showing up in cliquish adolescent girls, dubbed “mean girls.”

In Long Beach, no one was injured in the Ten Second Fight Club’s only bout -- the girls were cited for fighting on campus and suspended -- but the incident left police and school officials in disbelief.

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“I’ve never seen something like this before. It was shocking,” said Det. Rodney Tamparong of the Long Beach Police Department’s Juvenile Unit.

The same factor that drives other adolescent vices -- peer pressure -- is often the motive for joining a fight club.

“We’re putting it on TV and giving it attention and saying it’s OK to do this in our culture. We’re leading people to think everyone’s doing it,” Rotheram-Borus said.

Reality television shows, such as “The Ultimate Fighter,” have helped popularize one fighting style -- a form of bare-fisted mixed martial arts that once was an underground sport but has become more mainstream.

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Although the sport is practiced with discipline in gyms, reports of backyard brawls in southern Orange County have authorities worried that bouts could lead to serious injury.

In Los Angeles, organized fights among school-age children often have more serious consequences than just bruises and black eyes, police said. Reports of organized teen-on-teen fighting usually involve the “jumping in” or roughing up of new gang members as a form of initiation, said Lt. Paul Vernon, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

In Murrieta, what started as a fight club morphed into a gang, authorities said.

Founded in 2004 by a circle of football players at Murrieta Valley High School who allegedly injected anabolic steroids, the members started out challenging one another to fistfights outside the school and beating up students who “disrespected” their members, said Lt. Dennis Vrooman, spokesman for the Murrieta Police Department.

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Then they started casing homes while attending parties and returning days later to burglarize the residences, he said.

Starn, the cultural anthropologist, said the line between fight club and gang activity “is kind of fuzzy. Watching fights on YouTube and trying to see ‘Is this a fight club?’ or ‘Is this a gang rumble?’ -- it isn’t always clear.”

sara.lin@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.


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