Harley Flanagan was a little late to the game, but when he finally discovered the first two UFC events on VHS tapes at this local Blockbuster Video, he had the typical response.
“This can't be real,” he thought. “But it looks real. There are dudes in karate uniforms with blood on their faces. I gotta check it out.”
Flanagan may have been a stranger to mixed martial arts, but he was no stranger to fighting, having grown up in an environment on New York City’s Lower East Side where being table to take care of yourself was a prerequisite for daily survival. That, or being able to run fast.
“I was never much of a runner,” he laughs. “That's why I had to learn how to fight. I could never get away.”
Flanagan, 54, can laugh about some things about his formative years on the LES, including the possibility that he might have chased a certain combat sports writer through the neighborhood when both were teenagers. But there was little levity back in the 70s and 80s, when crime and squalor were a part of life for a kid who would ultimately become a hardcore legend as the founder of the seminal band, the Cro Mags.
“I got really mixed feelings and emotions on all that s**t,” he said. “It was so lawless when I was a kid. There were blocks in my neighborhood where you had burned out buildings where they sold smack, where there would be lines of junkies coming out of the building, wrapped around the block and going down the street. You had that type of s**t going on, and then you had the different gangs in the neighborhood who kinda controlled the drug stuff, and there were lots of divisions. Honestly, I got really bad PTSD from a lot of the experiences I had down there. There were a lot of situations that kinda made you feel helpless. And a lot of it is kinda rough when I think back on it. I didn't really like living down there when I was a kid. I felt kinda scared, and it was until I became a teenager and I grew into the violence around me and embraced it, and then it became my jungle. At that point, I loved it, but in hindsight, I got a lot of regrets from that whole period. I don't even like going down there to eat or walk through or pass through. There's not a block on the Lower East Side that I haven't seen something really crazy happen.”
By the time Flanagan was a teenager, he was already a staple on the local punk scene, having played drums for the Stimulators since the age of 12, rubbing elbows with the likes of Joe Strummer, Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol. It was a childhood that was no childhood at all,
“You throw a kid out into the world who really doesn't know anything except craziness,” he said. “I pretty much grew up in an adult environment. I'm 12 years old and I'm going to rock and roll clubs where Andy Warhol and Johnny Thunders and all kinds of lunatics are running around doing insanely depraved shit. As a kid, the adults are supposed to be setting boundaries for you.”
Couple that upbringing with the environment he was living in, and it was a recipe for disaster. Luckily, in the music business, disaster is often celebrated, and as Flanagan founded the Cro Mags, toured the world and released classic albums like Age of Quarrel, he found a way to make it all work for him. That doesn’t last forever, though, and as the years went on, he sunk deeper into a hole many don’t emerge from.
“There were times in my youth when I really just wanted to die,” Flanagan said. “My behavior was just an extension of that. You don't stick needles in your arm, you don't shoot things into your body that literally say on the bag, 'Body Bag.' That was a brand of heroin that I used to do when I was a kid. You don't shoot that into your body unless you sorta, kinda want to die. You don't smoke five bags of PCP unless you're trying to escape by any means necessary.”
Flanagan recalls a conversation with retired U.S.Navy SEAL Jocko Willink.
“He said, ‘There's a place in a black hole that's called an event horizon. Once you reach that point, there's no turning back. You're gone. I've known several people in my life who've gone to that point.’ He looked me dead in my face and said, ‘You have gone to that point at least 20 times.’ He said that in all seriousness. And I had to laugh because he's kinda right.”
Rock bottom came in the form of a phone call from an ex-girlfriend.
“I had gone through a lot of really rough stuff in the 90s and I got really wrapped up in drugs, I was wrapped up with a lot of different chicks and a lot of madness, and I just really fell off,” he said. “I think part of me was just trying to end. So when I started writing my book, I started documenting my life because I didn't think I was gonna live much longer. And when I die, somebody's gonna write the book because my band has been at least notable enough to where someone's gonna write this s**t and they're gonna get it wrong. And they're probably gonna lie, they're probably gonna just paint me out to be this, that, the other, so I might as well start writing the s**t down as I remember it. Basically, I would just sit around ans write things I could remember, and then I'd sit around writing what I was doing at that moment, which at the time was probably some pile of drugs or some form of depravity. It became a journal of insanity and memories. And the working title at that point was 'The Longest Suicide Note Ever Written.' Because I really didn't think I was gonna make it out. Then at one point, one of my ex-girlfriends had a baby and I was on the other end of the country at the time, and she told me that the kid might be mine. And then she went on to tell me that she had contracted AIDS. All at the same time - you might be a father and you may have AIDS. Whoa. I got tested and kept getting tested every six months for years after that. I got some money together and flew out. I knew the mother was a mess and I started taking care of the kid and that's when I got off drugs. That's what cleaned me up. This chick's gonna die and this kid might be mine, and even if it's not mine, this kid is gonna need some sort of a responsible adult to make sure she lives.”
Around that time, Flanagan rented the two UFC tapes and watched them.
“I'm like, ‘What the f***? This is amazing,’” he laughs. “I was bugging out. How did he do this? I'm rewinding and rewinding, trying to figure it out. And I'm like, if I ever get a chance to learn this.”
Flanagan proceeded to hit every martial arts magazine he could find, hoping to find an ad saying that one of the members of the Gracie family was teaching in New York City, showing the art that Royce Gracie used to dominate those first two UFC events. Ultimately, he stumbled upon an ad for an academy run by Royce’s cousin, Renzo. It was early 1996, and Flanagan’s life was about to change.
“When I first walked in to his academy, I didn't know what the behavior or the formality was,” said Flanagan. “I didn't know if you were supposed to walk in and bow to the flag like some sort of traditional thing. What do I know? I'm a dude who gets in fights on the street and smashes people. What do I know about martial arts etiquette? And I obviously had this slightly confused look on my face and here walks up this guy with a big smile and he says, 'Hey, you come to train? Come here, my brother.' And he gives me a big hug and walks me in with his arm around my shoulder. I'm like, this is cool. Little did I realize that that was the dude.”
That dude was Renzo Gracie. There were only two of his instructors in the room with him, yet Flanagan was hooked. There was no ego, no idea that he was going to walk into this new world and take over the place using the streetfighting skills he had obtained over the years. He was going to be a student.
“I went in there knowing that I was nobody,” he said. “I had already seen what these people were capable of. They had only had the first few UFCs and I had watched these things religiously over and over. So I knew that anything that I thought I could try to throw at these guys, I knew they were gonna just tie me up in a knot. I was very humble, but I didn't know what to expect from them personality wise and all that. I come from a very chaotic world - there's not a lot of discipline, and I never had a lot of respect for authority. (Laughs) I knew it was gonna be interesting, but I went in there with total humility and total respect for who this guy was. When I met Renzo, I didn't even realize that was Renzo.”
The journey had begun. As for the little girl who was the catalyst for his life change?
“I wound up raising her for a few years as she was a baby and then I wound up being able to place her with her grandparents,” said Flanagan. “To this day, we are still in touch, she's now 26 and me and her are in touch regularly. I rescued her from a crack house that her mother abandoned her in. These people were like, ‘You can't take her.’ I said, ‘Try to stop me.’ I took her and I took care of her for almost three years.”
Now it was time for Harley Flanagan to start taking care of himself.
“I went down there and that was it for me,” Flanagan said of his trip to the Renzo Gracie Academy. “It saved my life in a lot of ways because it gave me a place to find myself again, to rediscover that I was alive, that I was a physical animal, that the beast in me was still alive. I still wanted to fight. The drugs and the self-abuse and the self-torture hadn't robbed the fight out of me. And finding people with strength and character, I was home. It was like I was lost and I found myself again with my brothers.”