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From The Cage To The Cage: A Pro MMA Fighter Describes His Experience In Prison

Kaream Ellington (on bottom) at The Ultimate Fighter 2 tryouts.
Kaream Ellington (on bottom) at The Ultimate Fighter 2 tryouts.

This is a guest post by Jim Genia.

It doesn't really matter what Kaream Ellington went to prison for. This story isn't about what he did or didn't do that got him locked up, nor is it a sermon on staying on the right path in life. No, what matters is that he ended up incarcerated, a guest of New York State's correctional system for three years and in that time a resident of Rikers Island, Groveland Correctional Facility and Sing Sing. Plus, there's the fact that when he went in, he was already an accomplished pro MMA fighter.

Kaream is by no means the first fighter to ever land in the clink. Former Extreme Fighting champ Marcus "Conan" Silveira did time for dealing ecstasy, UK folk hero Lee Murray is languishing in a Moroccan slammer, and TUFer Jon Koppenhaver, a.k.a. "War Machine", seems to be wearing orange jumpsuits far more often than civilian clothes lately. But Kaream, who hails from the South Bronx, is the one who knows the New York penal system from the inside, and since he's out now, struggling to find his legs in the outside world - and since he's accessible and willing to talk - his is the story that gets told.

When Kaream began his journey in MMA, the landscape was much different. There were no weekly Bellator events broadcast on MTV2, no seemingly-endless stream of UFCs, and no Ultimate Fighter TV show. There wasn't even a SpikeTV network. Still, he found fights at small shows, tiny sub-regional affairs in Rhode Island, Virginia and New Jersey with names like Rhode Island Vale Tudo, Excalibur Extreme Fight Challenge and BAMA Fight Night. When the national organization International Fighting Championship came to Atlantic City to hold a sizeable event at the Tropicana, Kaream entered their tournament and won handily. Adding to the mix were a few Muay Thai bouts and a purple belt in jiu-jitsu under Carmine Zocchi, and Kaream was well on his way to the "major league". But a couple losses derailed him, and it took a few years and a few bouts in New York City's Underground Combat League - and particularly, a win over future International Fight League heavyweight Bryan Vetell, who outweighed Kaream by over one hundred pounds - to bring the light-heavyweight back into the warm glow of big fights. In Atlantic City, he suplexed and kneed a Japanese PRIDE veteran into a stupor, and was soon flown to Costa Rica and Japan, competing for BodogFIGHTS. He even went to the tryouts for TUF 2 at Renzo Gracie's academy in Manhattan.

It all came apart on the streets of the South Bronx, though, and Kaream was arrested on September 7, 2008, on a weapon charge. He didn't come home until September 2, 2011.

Kaream details his prison experiences after the jump...

"There were some issues because of gang relations," says Kaream of his entrance into the correctional system, which began at Rikers Island in New York City. "Basically, I kind of had some issues with the majority gang that was in there, so I had to use my hands, feet, elbows, knees and even a couple chairs and tables on them. That resulted in them knowing I knew how to fight. And it wasn't just the gang relations as the reason we fought." He goes on to describe how some people wouldn't let him use the phone unless he paid them a "tax". "I really wasn't having it. I felt it was unfair because we were all inmates, you know?"

If his apparent knowledge in the ways of unarmed combat afforded him a bit of respect among fellow inmates, it had a similar effect with the corrections officers as well. "Some of the corrections officers were fans of mixed martial arts, so when they found out I was a real mixed martial arts pro, they kind of made things a little easier for me. Not anything against the rules, but they'd treat me more like a human being, which made it easier for me to act like a human being."

How did the corrections officers learn of Kaream's MMA background? "I had bumped into someone I used to train with," he says. "He caught some charge off a minor misdemeanor. Me and him started chopping it up (note: talking) and a CO (corrections officer) heard us talking about mixed martial arts and asked what we knew about it. We kind of looked at him at him funny, and I said, ‘We train.' I was kind of self-promoting in a way, but everyone in there you run into swears they're a mixed martial arts competitor for the image of being tough and everything. But I was the real deal, and he went home and Googled me, and the next day when he came in he was like, ‘Listen, just stay with your training, stay out of trouble and everything like that.' And it was cool."

I ask him if there were opportunities to train during his incarceration. "There are opportunities to train anywhere, it's just how you train," he says. "I wasn't really able to hit the bag until I went upstate. On the Island (note: Rikers Island) I just started lifting chairs and eating consciously, so that way when I came out I'd be able to have my weight at a controllable range and still be healthy."

Eventually, his routine and reputation attracted others looking to get in shape and stay sharp. "Guys started training with me," says Kaream. "We formed a club or whatever. They kind of took me out of the house I was at and put me in the Crip house, so we all started training and everything. I wasn't trying to be on the soapbox or anything, preaching, but I was kind of letting them know that just because you've got a record, your life's not over, and mixed martial arts is definitely something that doesn't discriminate because of your background."

Did he meet any other MMA fighters during his tenure in prison? "I actually did. I met Rick Barany, who's a very accomplished and respectful individual. He's definitely got a future in mixed martial arts, he just needs the opportunity. I met him when I was in Groveland [Correctional Facility]. I saw the tattoo on his neck that said ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu'. We started talking and I let him know I trained with Carmine, and he actually knew Carmine. We kind of started training. In there you don't really get to spar or roll or anything like that, but we definitely hit the weights and definitely hit the bag. Hopefully he's doing good out here now."

As for veteran s of other combat sports: "I met a couple of boxers. They weren't title holders or anything like that. But they were in there. Especially in Sing Sing [Correctional Facility], they got a lot of boxers in there."

I ask him if he can recall any particular fights he had inside. "A lot of them I don't remember too well because they happened so quick - that's the thing about a correctional setting, things can go from conversation to offensive remarks in a matter seconds. It's the nature of people you're dealing with. I definitely had some run-ins in there, though."

Kaream does, however, remember a fight that involved three attackers. "They took a swing, and I cracked one dude's coconut," he says. "The other one, I showed him the value of takedowns and breaking falls, but apparently he didn't learn how to break his fall. The third guy was a CO and I didn't know he was a CO because he was grabbing me from behind. Things kind of got out of control, but it eventually worked out."

In his career as a fighter, Kaream managed to rack up wins employing both his aggressive kickboxing and his no-nonsense grappling. Which skillset is more useful within the confines of the prison walls? "It depends on the situation," he says. "If you're in the shower with a bunch of naked dudes, you really don't want to get into a grappling situation." He laughs. "Fights usually end up on the ground one way or another - either a CO is beating you down or you get jumped. But all fights pretty much start standing up. I would say it depends in the situation. If you're facing multiple opponents, definitely striking and grappling will come into play. Striking comes into play because you initially want to keep someone at a distance - people have a habit of pulling out weapons. Grappling comes into play because if a weapon is introduced into the situation, you want to control his weapon-hand and create a barrier between you and any other guys as well." He adds, "I definitely learned a lot about multiple opponents and weapons in there."

"Believe it or not, when I went into the prison system I met a lot of good people," says Kaream. "You know, you're in a situation where you don't have too much, and your options as to what you can eat, wear and do are limited, so you start to see the true character of people. And I met a lot of good people in there. People in there with a felony record, they're not exactly lifetime losers, you know. People make mistakes because of either circumstances or the decisions they make."
Despite the good people he met on the inside, Kaream - who was nicknamed "Gladiator" by fellow inmates - is determined to adhere to the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, he has yet to return to the cage, and the current ban on pro MMA in New York makes it problematic for him to find fights ("I would need special permission to travel [out of state] because of my parole status."). In the meantime, he hopes to get ring time by boxing and kickboxing locally.

"My goal is to stay out and make a legitimate living," he says, and already Kaream has secured a position teaching what he knows of fighting at the Judah Brothers Boxing Gym in Brooklyn. As for his own workouts, he trains with the Brooklyn Combat Club.

Will Kaream ever attain the levels of success in the sport that he'd reached before? Or will the call of the streets once more prove too much? Kaream is optimistic. But either way, he's proven to have the skills necessary to survive in no matter what cage he fights in.