Here’s how amateurs created an underground fight club during the pandemic

A crowd gathers around a boxing ring in a backyard.
A crowd of boxing and MMA fans gathers in Los Angeles to watch a Backyard Squabbles bout.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Dusk was falling when Black Blade and Big Cheese strode into the middle of the ring and touched gloves. They were scheduled to go five rounds, three minutes each, before the evening was through.

The crowd went quiet — or as quiet as a hundred or so people in a small, concrete backyard near downtown Los Angeles can be when a DJ is blasting “Whoopty,” vendors are selling sliders and pasta, a barber has set up shop near the fence, and the next guys on the ticket are sparring with their trainers.

The appropriately named Big Cheese outweighed his slender opponent. They weren’t supposed to be fighting each other at all. But there they were, squaring off in a temporary ring in a backyard on West Jefferson Boulevard on the last Sunday in May.

This is what happens when the contenders are split between athletes with dreams and local guys with grudges. This is what happens at Backyard Squabbles, an underground, pop-up fight club born in the pandemic.

“I personally was gonna drop the Big Cheese fight and the Black Blade fight,” said Damian Gutierrez, founder of Backyard Squabbles. “Both of these guys’ opponents didn’t show up. But we matched them up because of the beef they had going on.”

A man in workout gear and boxing gloves hits the heavy bag inside a gym.
Albert “Black Blade” Marion trains for his first Backyard Squabbles fight card bout in Los Angeles. A few months ago, he won his first match at a Backyard Squabbles mixer.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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Gutierrez is 20 years old. He lives in Gardena. When he’s not arranging fights, he’s a security guard at a sushi restaurant. He is named after an uncle who was shot to death at a doughnut shop at Imperial Highway and Normandie Avenue nearly two decades ago.

That violence is part of what prompted him to start Backyard Squabbles in the first place; the fight club’s motto is “Guns down, squabble up.”

Hector “Aztec Warrior” Herrera thinks Gutierrez is onto something. The people who come to Backyard Squabbles “are all peaceful,” he said, at least outside of the ring.

“I think they all know that, like, you look to your right or you look to your left, there’s a fighter,” said Herrera, who trains fighters and boxes himself. “Like, ‘Should I talk s—? No.’ That’s about it. ... It’s pretty awesome.”

A man in a shadowed garage leans over a motorcycle.
Marion prepares for his morning motorcycle ride into work. Marion, like many others, lost his job during the pandemic but recently secured new employment.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Albert Marion brushes his teeth.
Albert Marion usually wakes up very early in the morning to squeeze in cardio and conditioning before he goes to work.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Gutierrez doesn’t know what the beef between Black Blade and Big Cheese was about or even what Big Cheese’s real name is. Two days after their fight, Albert “Black Blade” Marion wasn’t answering his phone.

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Marion is tall, wiry and 22. He lives in San Pedro, works for Dish Network, spends his free time playing video games and hanging out with his girlfriend. A normal routine for a young guy in the middle of a pandemic.

Next to a concrete-block wall and a tree, two men in boxing gloves spar.
A fighter who calls himself Golden Boy Matt, left, finds a spot in the corner of the backyard and warms up for his fight with the help of a friend.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A man pours water out of a bottle for three small dogs on leashes.
Dogs who accompanied their owners to the Backyard Squabble get a drink of water.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A portrait of a fighter in the ring, leaning against the ropes.
MMA fighter Granndaddy, in the backyard ring, aspires to take his fighting to the next level.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Two men grapple on the mat as a man in stocking feet and a Backyard Squabbles T-shirt stands nearby.
Granndaddy delivers a flurry of blows to Ram Donnis. Granndaddy continues to be undefeated in the Backyard Squabbles ring.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A man sits in a boxing ring, viewed through the bare legs of his opponent.
Zek sits in the ring taking a few deep breaths before his MMA match against Bundy.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Normal and “boring,” he says.

Albert Marion, wearing headphones, stands at an iron railing.
Albert “Black Blade” Marion listens to music to help settle his nerves before a fight.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

He was a “rambunctious” boy — at least that’s what his mom said. He had a hard time sitting still and finishing his homework. He’d even lose interest in TV. His mom’s solution was to keep him busy with physical activities such as tae kwon do and basketball.

As an adult, fighting has helped him focus.

A small man and a much larger man box in a ring.
Big Cheese fights in a higher weight class, but that didn’t stop Black Blade from accepting the last-minute matchup.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t mind getting hit,” he said. “When I get hit, it feels like a blessing. It’s like God is telling me, ‘You’re here,’ you know?”

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His first round Sunday night against Big Cheese had a slow start. Marion landed a few punches, held his own against his heavier opponent. He got winded in the second round. And he didn’t make it out of the third.

Marion was pinned to the ropes with five seconds left. Big Cheese landed a solid blow to his head. Marion crumpled against his opponent, slid to the ground.

And stayed there for two very long minutes.

A man lies on the boxing ring mat as other men gather around him.
In the final five seconds of the third round, Big Cheese landed a punch that sent Black Blade to the mat.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
A woman holding two water bottles in one arm puts her other arm around a man's neck for a close hug.
After being knocked out by Big Cheese in the third round, Albert “Black Blade” Marion is comforted by his girlfriend.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

End result? A concussion and the loss.

“I took a L Sunday had plenty excuses but dude was 100lbs heavier than me,” he posted on Instagram, along with video of the fight’s painful end.

And then he promised: “I’ll be back.”

More visual journalism from the Los Angeles Times

Times staff writer Donovan X. Ramsey contributed to this report.