The locker room of the South Broadway Athletic Club is all chisel and bruise. A dozen amateur mixed-martial-arts fighters cram the space with hulking, battle-scarred bodies; some perform pre-fight rituals while others ice the pulp left on their faces from the evening's earlier cage matches. The sweaty smell of testosterone wafts through the air as the gladiators unleash profanity-laced battle cries while marching out toward the red-lit stage.
Lost in the shadows of these towering men is a little girl. She's twelve years old, but with her slight, 74-pound body frame, she appears even younger as she gazes up — way up — to the faces of the men around her. Her oversize T-shirt spills out of her baggy jeans, and a tangle of auburn hair hangs from an Adidas ski cap. To the casual onlooker she looks perfectly innocent — shy, even — prompting the question: What's a sweet kid like her doing in a locker room full of wild fighting men?
Ask any of those men, and they'll tell you one of St. Louis' well-kept secrets: The little girl is perhaps the toughest brawler in the building.
She is Madeline Green, daughter of legendary scrapper "Mean" Mike Green, one of the steeliest men in the sport and a participant in Missouri's first officially sanctioned amateur MMA fight in 2002. Later this evening he will enter the cage for the show's headline match in front of a loyal fan club that follows him everywhere. Plucked out of obscurity a decade ago by a promoter with an eye for talent, Green, who grew up an untamed street fighter, has since worked to slay his childhood demons and repair a wounded soul.
Now 37, the bulk of Green's cage career is behind him. And in the not-too-distant future, he will pass on his legacy to his young daughter, who helped put him on the path to redemption. Raised by Green the only way he knew how, Madeline is now considered one of the top MMA prospects of the region and a poster child for the growing movement of MMA training for kids.
At a recent regional jiu-jitsu tournament Madeline was given the opportunity to fight boys. She made one of them cry and defeated another who outweighed her by at least twenty pounds. Last year she won every karate match she entered, against girls and boys. In a couple of weeks she will compete in the North American Grappling Association's first tournament in the St. Louis area, and, in April, she'll enter the cage for her first kickboxing match at an otherwise adult show. The event is expected to draw about 1,000 fans.
"I'm putting my signature on her now," says Tony Biondo, a ringside announcer for the professional promoter Strikeforce. "Here's this little girl who looks like she can audition for Pippi Longstocking and choking boys bigger than she is.
"When I go across the country, I tell people they need to see this young girl in the Midwest named Maddy Green, who kicks the shit out of the pads. She was born for this sport."
Twenty-five years ago, Mike Green peered into the future and didn't see much. He was just another angry kid trying to survive the rough-and-tumble streets of Carondelet, the southernmost tip of south city. Here, near a plot of land known as the Irish Patch, working-class teenagers roamed the blocks, and character was earned with fists.
"South Broadway was known for being a place nobody wanted to come down to," recalls Eddie Tucker, who's run Tuckers Bar & Grill since 1988. "It was rough. We had to break up four or five fights a night in the bar."
Undersized and unskilled in sports, young Green was an easy target for bullies. They'd taunt him about just about anything: for the large red birthmark on his arm, for his puny frame, for being sheltered by overprotective grandparents. (Green's mother had abandoned the family early on, and his father, who worked at a local plastic factory, was rarely around.)
"I was always the little guy being tested," recalls Green, his face decorated with scabby remnants of a long career in the cage. "I always had to prove somethin'. People didn't think I was about nothin' and wanted to try me."
So Green learned to defend himself, and that meant fighting. At first, he took his share of pummelings but eventually began proving he could hang with bigger scrappers. Before long he earned a reputation as the guy who'd never decline a street fight. "He'd fight damn near anybody," says fellow MMA fighter Timmy Connors, who runs the House of Hard Knocks gym in Mehlville. "You put your hands up, he said, 'Yeah.'"
[Editor's Note: A correction was made concerning this paragraph. Please see the end of article.] After graduating from Mehlville High School, Green spent a few years driving a dump truck. But his anger continued to fester, and he sought emotional escape by fighting in parking lots after dark. He recalls once causing an opponent's bone to rip out of the skin.
Thanks to his street rep, he was able to land a few security gigs at local bars. One evening in 1999, while working at the since-shuttered Lucky's on Laclede's Landing, there was a scuffle at the door. Green entered the fracas with a front kick to the chest of an unruly patron, leaving him splayed across the hood of a car.
One of the faces in the crowd that night was Randy Greenman, a well-known promoter of professional MMA fights in Illinois, where the sport was legal. (At the time, MMA was outlawed in Missouri.) Impressed by the young man's prowess, Greenman, who is now deceased, convinced Green to enter one of his upcoming matches. Green lost that fight but responded by entering another match, defeating his opponent with a first-round chokehold.
"He was just a street brawler who brought a south-side nastiness to the contest," recalls Biondo, the ringside announcer.
After winning a few more fights in Illinois, Green's fan base grew. At the time, promoters were lobbying the Missouri's Office of Athletics for the right to stage amateur MMA matches. In 2002, local promoter Jesse Finney called on Green for the state's first fight, scheduled as part of a kickboxing show. Finney, who runs Shamrock Promotions, knew Green had a reputation for being crazy. "He was always getting into trouble. He was never the most skilled in the world, but he was a natural-born fighter," says Finney. He christened his recruit with the nickname "Mean" Mike Green.
As Green continued fighting, he continued to succeed, winning most of his bouts and succumbing to a knockout just once. "There ain't too many people who could say they whipped me," says Green, showing a smile that exposes a front tooth permanently blackened from a particularly devastating blow.
"He's one of the top ten toughest fighters I've ever seen," says Brad Wick, director of the Combat Sports Commission, which sanctions fights in Missouri.
But despite the early accomplishments, Green still felt lost in the world, never able to overcome the psychological wounds of a mother who abandoned him — never finding a way to accept himself. "It drove me crazy," he concedes now. "I was mad at her. It pissed me off for a long time."
Rage boiled from within, and any faith he had in society had long been discarded. He hung out with drug addicts, disrespected his neighbors and continued to brawl in the streets when someone rubbed him the wrong way. "There'd be days we'd just ride through the county looking for fights," he says. He amassed a hefty arrest record for assault and was put on probation twice, he says. He grew depressed and, at times, overcome by hate.
"If there was a point to life, I didn't know what it was," he says.
Then, along came Madeline.
They call her "Maddy the Madness." There she is, in the home video her father proudly displays on his digital camera, clad in a black bandana and karate gi, circling her opponent on the mat.
The video, captured during last year's annual Veterans Memorial jiu-jitsu Tournament in Belleville, shows the Madness, then eleven, squaring off against her male opponent, who was at least twenty pounds heavier. (Earlier in the day she'd defeated another boy and made him cry.) Even on the tiny screen, it's clear: Her husky challenger has a smirk on his face. Who is this little girl, and is she serious about fighting me?
Soon, however, that smirk dissolves as the Madness pounces, gripping the boy's neck with a chokehold and hooking her leg around his back. The boy, suddenly worried, digs his fingers into his attacker's arm, desperate to loosen her death grip. But all he can do is stumble. Soon, the Madness uses the boy's momentum to heave him to the ground, digging her elbow into his chest. He is finished. After a final gasp, he taps his hand on her back, signaling submission. The Madness is the victor.
At four feet, six inches, Madeline is one of the smallest children in her sixth-grade class; some call her "Munchkin." But she can probably take down any guy her size in St. Louis.
"Maddy is the top MMA prospect in the Midwest right now — the best I've ever seen," says her karate coach, Sid Gee, an eighth-degree Hall of Fame black belt who served as an assistant coach in Chuck Norris' old World Combat League.
Mixed martial arts, which combines an assortment of fighting elements, such as wrestling, jiu-jitsu, karate and kickboxing, has come a long way in its short history. A decade ago, when the sport was in its infancy, participants consisted largely of street brawlers; those who were trained as kids usually specialized in only one of the various fighting skills.
But over the last few years, as cage fighting has become more mainstream, there has been a national effort to train young children in all MMA skills, in preparation for fight careers. As more kids have shown interest, youth classes have cropped up around the country, offering children a medley of martial-arts skills.
Insiders say Madeline is the surest bet out there. Think of a miniature Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby — only with four fighting skills instead of one.
"For her age, she's the most talented fighter I've ever seen, and that's for guys and girls," says one of Madeline's coaches, Brittany Anic, who's ranked No. 4 in the world in her amateur MMA weight class and will soon turn pro. (Maddy is often referred to as "the next Brittany.")
Anic is a leader in the MMA-for-kids training circuit, offering a twice-a-week class at Finney's Championship Kickboxing and Mixed Martial arts gym in Crestwood for children ages four to fourteen. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Madeline showcases her striking skills, whacking Anic's padded hands with furious jab-hook-knee combos that can be heard across the room. The twelve-year-old's shoulders are hunched, and her grimace is fierce as she pulverizes Anic's mitts with her tiny arms.
"She's an all-around ninja," says one of Green's teammates.
Madeline is now training for what will be her biggest two tests so far. On March 19, the North American Grappling Association, the largest of its kind in the world, will host a tournament for the first time in the region at Vetta Sports in O'Fallon, Illinois. Madeline plans to enter the intermediate boys' bracket. Then, on April 2, she will participate in her first kickboxing cagematch in an otherwise adult showcase, staged by Jesse Finney's Shamrock Promotions at the Stratford Inn in Fenton. Finney has splashed Madeline's picture on one of the promotional cards, highlighting her debut.
"Maddy is the Tiger Woods of the sport," says Gee. "She's being groomed for it."
Madeline Green's childhood is much like her father's in one big way: She doesn't see her mom.
When Mike Green met Christina Moran, he'd been rising through the amateur ranks with an eye toward the pros. He had little interest in a romantic relationship. But when the eighteen-year-old Moran told Green she was pregnant, the pair attempted to make family life work.
By the time Madeline was two, the couple split up. After a period of shared custody, Moran eventually took to drugs.
Green never wanted to raise a child; the world he knew was too painful, too haunting. There had never been an "I love you" in his life. Everyone, it seemed, would either hurt or abandon you. How would this little girl — small-boned and coming from a broken home, just like him — learn to survive the mean streets of South Broadway?
"I seen the way I grew up," reflects Green. "I seen the way my parents separated. It's lonely."
And so, fatherhood for Green began with the very first lesson he taught himself many years ago: Always protect yourself.
Green began teaching Madeline how to assume a proper fighting stance. He showed her how to throw a punch, how to dodge a punch, how to come at an attacker with a front kick. The two began spending hours inside Green's basement, sparring with mitts. "I always tell her to be on her toes," says Green. "Head up. Pay attention. You gotta always be ready for anything."
Pretty soon, Madeline started tagging along with her dad to the gym. She'd play with the punching bags while he worked out in the ring. Undersized like her dad, she learned to be quick.
When she was eight, Green enrolled her in karate classes with Sid Gee, who'd been Green's coach and longtime mentor. It didn't take her long to make his jaw drop.
"She took to it like a fish in water," says Gee. "It's in her bloodline."
In 2008, Madeline's mother landed in rehab, and Green agreed to take Madeline on a full-time basis, abandoning any thought of turning pro. Madeline has neither seen nor spoken to her mother since.
That's been her decision, not her mother's. Prior to that year, Moran says she was a good mom, though Madeline says she has very few memories of her.
Regardless, an isolated incident — the event that drove Moran to rehab — soured their relationship for good. Moran declines to get into the details of that event, but it's a day she won't forget.
"The hardest thing in life is not seeing her," says Moran. "I made some mistakes. But I was young. And I can't take anything back."
Now 31, Moran says she's completely drug-free, and although she's never seen Madeline fight, she's still a fan. "I couldn't be more proud of the kid, whatever she does," she says. "She's incredible. I could not be more proud."
As Madeline grew into her new role as a fighter, Green grew into his new role as a dad. He started hanging out with his daughter as much as possible, introducing her to his fighter friends, who adopted her as a member of their crew. "She became like our little mascot — but also one of the guys," says one fighter.
Eventually, Madeline would begin accompanying Green to his cage matches. "I didn't like watching him at first, because of the blood," admits Madeline. "When he got knocked out for the first time it was scary. His head bounced off the cage, and he started shaking." But now she's one of the loudest voices in the crowd, the first person to come to Green's corner between rounds to offer advice. Blood is no longer scary; it's a part of the life she's chosen.
Outside the cage, father and daughter started taking rides on motorcycles together. Green taught her how to change the oil, how to pump up a tire, how to maneuver a dirt bike on her own. They shopped together at Goodwill. He coached her sports teams and hosted gatherings at his house for her friends — all little boys; rarely girls. He even learned how to braid hair and made a few attempts to get her in a dress. (She refused.)
And somewhere along the line, Green found something he'd never known before: happiness.
By accepting her father — fighter warts and all — Madeline allowed him to accept himself. Now, says Green, "my whole standard of living's changed. I started looking out for the world better. She's made me a kinder person. She's made me appreciate life."
The boy who was picked on in grade school, the teenager who took out his anger on other people's faces, the young man who'd never known how to love — finally found it.
"She's the first person I said 'I love you' to, and she's the first person who told me they loved me and meant it unconditionally," he says.
Mean Mike Green, one of the toughest men in St. Louis, now has tears in his eyes. "I can't hardly talk about her," he concedes with a sniffle. Asked what chokes him up the most, he says: "When I see myself in her."
Mike Green made pains to ensure his daughter didn't feel forced into MMA fighting, which his friends confirm; Madeline says she made the decision to become a fighter on her own. And she's hardly alone for her age group. Across the country, as the sport continues to grow, more and more children are signing up for MMA classes.
"For years kids have grown up doing either tae kwon do or karate or judo, but MMA training mixes it all together and gives kids an avenue to see if these self-defenses really work," says Steve Crawford, the vice president of the amateur sanctioning body International Sport Combat Federation.
The youth movement hasn't come without controversy. Two years ago, a video was released depicting boys as young as six slugging it out in a converted garage in Carthage, Missouri. The fights were being staged by ex-professional MMA fighter Rudy Lindsey. National news crews parachuted in, exposing the fighting ring and spotlighting Lindsey, who asserted the operation was entirely safe. But doctors cried foul.
"There is great reason to have concern over a sport that places a growing person at risk for head injury," Dr. Matthew Dobbs, an orthopedist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, says today. "A lot of things can go wrong with a developing brain. The literature shows that repeated head injuries lead to behavioral issues, more problems concentrating in school and lower grades."
The video appalled enough people to force Missouri's Office of Athletics into banning organized MMA fights for kids younger than eighteen. Since then, all but a handful of states have outlawed such fights as well.
Even some MMA enthusiasts have applauded those decisions.
"It takes a certain maturity for kids to train in MMA," says Andy Foster, the director of the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission. "You're not learning how to throw a punch; you're learning how to break someone's arm."
Oklahoma-based youth trainer Piet Wilhelm recalls a time a few years ago when kids were trotted out into a cage in front of beer-guzzling yahoos. "To see kids get arm-barred and cry in front of adults who are yelling 'kick his fucking ass' — I don't want to see that," he says.
But now, those critics' voices are being matched by a chorus of trainers asking states to reevaluate their policies on organized competition for kids. Rebutting the assertion that the sport is too dangerous, these trainers point to a new generation that's seeking out MMA training — and finding it.
In Daddis Fight Camp gyms in the Philadelphia region, where kids fight in cages, youth enrollment has jumped from 150 to 500 in the last year. Capital MMA in Alexandria, Virginia, has witnessed a near quadrupling of youth applicants and now offers eleven children's classes a week. (Like Anic's Mini-Finney's class, the trainers at Capital MMA don't allow strikes to the head.) Las Vegas's TapouT Training Center, run by former pro fighter Shawn Tompkins, recently produced a video featuring eight- and nine-year-old brothers duking it out in a cage; the pair has been training since they were eighteen months old.
"We tried to teach traditional martial arts, but, oh, man, was it boring," says Brad Daddis, of Daddis Fight Camp. "Before, we were catering to parents who are now grandparents. Then we suddenly realized that parents are now our age. They have tattoos. They're familiar with MMA. They realize that traditional martial arts training, with all due respect, isn't very effective."
The biggest argument from MMA-for-youth advocates is that kids are already entering competitions testing individual fighting skills, including jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. Why, then, can't they enter tournaments that simply bring these skills together?
Still, Tim Lueckenhoff, executive director of the Missouri Office of Athletics, doubts regulation will happen for kids, especially in light of the Carthage scandal. "The biggest concern is the manipulation of the joints – the twisting and the kicking," he says. "And headgear would be a nightmare to keep in place."
But Crawford believes that by instituting a clear set of safety requirements — no choke-holds or strikes to the head, for example — regulators could be persuaded. "We need to have a powwow with the parents and athletic commission," he says. "Because these kids want to fight. And they will."
But while dreams of professional fighting are exciting in the short-term, young fighters like Madeline will one day grow up and face a complex set of challenges. The risks of injury are a high price to pay for a sport offering little potential for glory or profit.
Right now there is nothing to suggest Madeline will not turn pro. But if she doesn't, she'll never make a dime in the sport. Amateur-level competitors earn nothing but battle scars and pride. Mike Green may be a legend in the gym, but outside that world, he is a bar manager.
Even for professional fighters, the chance for a payout is small. And for girls, the outlook is particularly bleak.
The sport's top promoter, UFC, still bans female fights, and in other professional leagues such as Strikeforce and Bellator, the best female fighters might make a few thousand dollars a match — if they're lucky.
Sam Caplan, who runs the MMA fighter blog fiveouncesofpain.com, says there are currently about five professional female fighters who make a decent salary, with another ten who are just able to scrape by. "MMA is still a fringe sport, and female MMA is the fringe of the fringe," he says. "Unless something changes, the prospects of women making money are very, very slim."
Even at birth, Madeline was a fighter, overcoming a cardiac defect called ASD/VSD, which is marked by a hole in the heart. After she was delivered via C-section, recalls her mother, Christina Moran, "she was breathing so hard you could count her ribs. She was so little and skinny."
Nurses said Madeline would almost certainly need open-heart surgery. But when Madeline reached six months, the nurses said they'd never seen a hole that large close so quickly.
One evening in February, Madeline stretches out in the puffy chair in her bedroom. She bears a striking resemblance to her Irish father, with large, deeply set blue-gray eyes and high-arching eyebrows. A collection of freckles is splashed across her face.
She may be a tomboy, but she's still adorable, quick to flash a wide, dimply grin. Her room is a wall-to-wall mess of old trophies, Disney posters, DVDs and sports paraphernalia. A Batman cape hangs in the corner, near some of her many hats. (She rarely leaves home without one.)
"It's kinda fun being one of the shortest people in my class," Madeline says in a faint Southern drawl, underscoring her carefree attitude toward life. She loves the Green Bay Packers, Katy Perry and St. Louis Blues player Cam Janssen — mostly for the way he fights. She likes to skip and jump on her trampoline. Her favorite phrases include "that's beast!" and "epic fail!" ("Eww, those nachos are soggy — that's an epic fail," she explains to a friend one day at her dad's gym.)
She also likes to roughhouse, to the chagrin of some of her friends. When she playfully lunges at a friend named Austin for the second time in one day, the boy puts up his hands and pleads for mercy. "I'm still sore from your last triangle!" he contends.
Madeline is energetic but also very shy; most of her teachers and classmates have no clue about her fighting talents, which, up to now, haven't been promoted. On top of her four-day-a-week training regimen, she's maintained a normal schoolgirl's life during the day, despite the black eyes and scrapes she sometimes carries with her. Her last report card showed all A's and B's. If she somehow isn't able to turn pro, she wants to enter a career where she can work with animals.
She calls her dad her hero. "He taught me to be prepared for anything," she says.
Asked about her mother, she pauses. "I don't really want to see her again."
Recently, though, Moran has been fighting for her daughter's forgiveness. Ever since rehab, Moran has struggled to absolve herself for youthful mistakes. She explains how difficult it is to face each morning without her daughter in her life. "It breaks my heart every day," she says between sobs. She comes across as sincere.
Last fall, Moran began texting her daughter. Sometimes Madeline texts back.
Moran says she's proud of Madeline's MMA accomplishments but worries about a fiercer set of opponents: junior high girls.
"Girls are so terribly mean," says Moran. "Mike's a great dad, but he doesn't know how girls are." Now is the time — just before puberty — when daughters need their mothers most, she says.
"At Christmas, I asked her what she wanted, and she said skinny jeans," she recalls.
Moran suggested they go shopping. But Madeline declined.
"That killed me," says Moran.
Shortly after Christmas, she dropped the skinny jeans off at the doorstep.
The Carondelet neighborhood has undergone slight changes over the last two decades. A few dive bars have been displaced by coffee shops and art spaces, and new street lamps dot South Broadway. But residents say the area has further to go. Bums still drink, drugs are a problem, and local hookers — "nasty-ass whores," opines a local bartender — still look to score.
Above all, teenagers still brawl. "You don't really grow up around South Broadway without learning to fight," says one scrapper from the area.
But Mike Green has changed for good. A decade ago, he'd be the one littering in the alleys, but now he's the one picking up other people's trash. A one-time friend of the dope dealers, he's now trying to sweep them off the streets. (Two of his biggest pet peeves, he says, are people who don't recycle or cut their grass.) He no longer gets in street fights, and he has a tattoo of Einstein on his hand, reminding him to think before he acts.
Neighbors appreciate his efforts. "Mike is the godfather of the south side," says longtime friend Wally Frankovic. "He's the guy who will never do you wrong — as long as you never do wrong to him. Everybody on the streets shakes his hand."
More than a godfather, though, Green is simply enjoying his role as father. Each one of his teammates calls him the best dad they know. As one of them puts it, "Maddy comes first, and then there's everyone else."
"We best buddies," admits Green. Tattooed on his wrist, just below that dangerous right hand, is the word "Daddy." (The only part of fatherhood that he seems worried about is the inevitable talk about periods.)
On a morning in late January, however, Green's mostly preoccupied about his upcoming fight. It's the day before his headline match at South Broadway Athletic Club, and Green has been pitted against Daniel McKinney, a fresh-faced city kid with seven fights under his belt. "He's a young cat — looks like a brawler," says Green, his body jittery from a 24-hour fast prior to weigh-ins.
With a 38-18-4 record, Green is still dangerous in a cage, and he's an instant crowd draw. He's upped his training regimen to two workouts a day, and later this year he'll defend a local belt he won recently in his 155-pound weight class. "I'm not going anywhere anytime," he assures. "I never met nobody who could step on my toes."
But in the back of his mind, he's worried about losing for the second time in a row, which would be a first. A few months ago, he suffered his first knockout, alerting him to the sobering reminder that, at age 37, he's no longer invincible. Age lines have creviced into the scars encircling his eyes, and his withered knuckles have started to swell.
"There was a time when not a whole lot of people wanted to fight Mike Green, but today is different; he's not the Mike Green he was twelve years ago," says Biondo. "Now, his name is almost like a brand, and young kids want to fight him. He's turned a lot of people into MMA fans. He's a St. Louis story."
South Broadway Athletic Club, minutes before the St. Louis legend enters the cage for the headline match in front of a sold-out crowd.
Madeline, hyper all night thanks to the free Dr Pepper offered by her favorite bartender, has been selling raffle tickets and using a giant green foam hand to bop heads in the crowd. Her voice is hoarse from cheering; her tongue painted blue from a lollipop.
But now, in the late hours of the evening, she channels a fighter's mentality. She strides to the locker room door and assumes her position to lead Green's entourage in a parade to the cage.
The opening bell sounds; Green bows to his opponent. After a few seconds of dancing and warm-up jabs, the legend comes at McKinney with a karate kick to the chest. McKinney stumbles and goes down. "Let's see some blood!" shout the fans.
Like a tiger, the legend pounces on his victim and assumes a chokehold. McKinney wiggles free and flips the legend on his back. But the move is reversed. Soon, the legend is straddling McKinney's waist, unleashing a flurry of right hooks to the side of the head. One minute and 56 seconds after the opening bell, McKinney motions for surrender. He is done.
Maddy runs onstage and gives her hero a hug.
Eventually, the chaos dies down, and the fans retreat to their cars, leaving the fighters, girlfriends and club attendants behind. And sometime during those moments, Mean Mike Green, the fighter, transforms back into Dad.
He slings his gear over his waist, as Maddy tugs at his waist. It's past her bedtime.Correction published 3/4/11: In the original version of the story, we erroneously stated that Mike Green graduated from St. Mary's High School. Though he attended St. Mary's, he graduated from Mehlville Senior High School.
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