Twenty-three-year-old Omar Haidar is lean and muscular, with a neatly cropped beard and the kind of laid-back grin that suggests a peacemaker, which he is — usually. But there’s also a reason why his nickname is “The Iraqi Assassin,” and why he’s groomed a reputation as a man who will pummel your head into the dead leaves and gravel of an unkempt backyard in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Harrisonburg is one of those places that has a split identity, between the gentrified college-town vibe around James Madison University and the industrial, working-class brutalism on the (literal) other side of the railroad tracks. It was a relief, nonetheless, when Haidar moved there as a young teen in 2009, leaving behind his hometown of Basra, Iraq — the site of some of the deadliest fighting during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with violence from both U.S. forces and the Islamic sects vying for control in the conflict’s aftermath.
Fistfights were common in Haidar’s Basra schoolyard, but they took on a new meaning when Shi’a Muslim militias began infiltrating Southern Iraq in 2004, with the aim of purifying the region of Sunni followers. “I lived [in Iraq] ’til ninth grade, and you see things. You walk the street, and you see a man being grabbed by two other guys with AK-47s, getting dragged into a Mercedes. Then they find the guy floating in the river a week later,” Haidar says. “You see that kind of stuff so much that you become comfortable with it, but then you think hard about how to avoid ending up in that situation. You learn to pick your battles.”
Haidar fought kids he believed would rat out him and his Sunni family, but the chaos caught up to them: His sister and father were shot during a militia attack on a neighborhood mosque. They survived, but the bloodshed forced them to seek asylum under the U.N.’s refugee relocation program, which brought them to Harrisonburg.
Still, his appetite for brawling remained as he acclimated to life at his new high school. Haidar fought for the first time against a football teammate, and he sheepishly admits he’s now lost count of how many fights he got into at school. The big problem with such uncontrolled skirmishes was that they led to punishment, either from the school or from the cops. So an 18-year-old Haidar smiled wide when he heard about a fight club held at someone’s house nearby that was offering a safe venue for two people to resolve their differences. “High school, man, we fought about anything stupid. Me and this one guy particularly just never got along,” Haidar recalls. “So when I found Scarface, the guy who ran the club, I basically said, ‘Hey, I have an issue with a guy and I don’t want it to go down on the street or at school.’”
Scarface is 40-year-old Chris Wilmore, the man who founded the fight club named Street Beefs in his backyard in 2008. Wilmore is hard to miss, with a body like a block of sandstone and web-like scars that run from his shaved head to his soft almond eyes. He’s spent most of his adult life working as a personal trainer, and today he lives in an old, modest house with his wife Amy and four kids aged 13, 12, 2 and 1 (he also has a fifth child through a previous partner).
He explains in his gravel-laced Virginia drawl that the premise of Street Beefs was simple: In a working-class town where disputes could easily devolve into a stabbing or a shooting, sometimes in broad daylight, he sought to promote not just a private place to fight, but the belief that disputes could be concluded with punches and a handshake, not a dead body. “I saw it all growing up, man, and young people still don’t understand that while a beef can be temporary, a killing is forever. You can never go back,” he says. “I didn’t want to see it anymore.”
Anyone could bring their beef to Wilmore and Street Beefs, which was sanctioned and legal under Virginia’s state rules on amateur mixed martial art events. A handful of states require fighters in a promotion to be sponsored by gyms or take health-screening tests; many others, like Virginia, are more or less hands-off with regulations. So Haidar took Wilmore up on the offer, and brought in opponents who had messed with him in rugby practice, insulted his friends or just proved an interesting challenge. Four years and nearly 30 fights later, Haidar is one of the legends of Street Beefs, feared by newcomers and loved by online fans from across the country.
In his very first Street Beefs fight, he took on a local man who had harassed Haidar on-and-off for two years, cracking insults about his looks and ethnicity. He knocked out “Taz” in the second round with a flurry of punches that ended with a stiff right hook to the jaw.
Later, he challenged another local who had joked about Haidar being a “terrorist” one too many times. Watching the bout, it’s clear the men have raw technique — there’s not much of the patient reading and reacting that professional fighters display, or much precision in the way strikes are thrown.
The skillsets fit the humble venue, which Wilmore gave the tongue-in-cheek name of “Satan’s Backyard.” The makeshift ring grew over the years from a circle of spectators in a wooded yard to a janky assembly of boxing ring posts and ropes, but nobody seems to mind the low-budget gear — the homegrown flavor is part of the appeal.
Street Beefs is itself a minor sensation on YouTube, with nearly 500 videos, more than 300,000 subscribers and 86.2 million total views. The vast majority of those videos are unedited fights, shot with amateur production value. What happens after Wilmore starts the fight really depends on who’s in the ring — sometimes it’s two guys who know real striking or wrestling technique, other times it’s two guys who clearly haven’t even fought a punching bag in years. Some come out of the opening bell swinging, kicking and burning all their gas in one desperate, angry go. The experienced ones, though, tend to play it slower, eyeballing their opponent from behind raised gloves, waiting for the right openings to exploit. The men and women who are there to settle a grudge predictably tend to start fights hot with emotion, while those just testing their mettle in sporting bouts show a more measured approach.
Wilmore never imagined in 2008 that his little fight club could attract viewers from around the country. Raised by a single mother who couldn’t kick a drug and alcohol problem, Wilmore lived in a series of cities growing up, with Pittsburgh and Harrisonburg the most consistent stops. When he was just five years old, a fire raged through the three-story home he lived in. His mother was drunk, but survived. He walked away with burns on his face and torso — hence the name “Scarface.” His baby brother wasn’t as lucky and died.
Those traumatic early years evolved into a chaotic adolescence, when he fell headfirst into using and selling drugs and getting into thefts, robberies and assaults. But even as a young man, Wilmore says he preferred fighting by hand on the streets over flashing a blade or a pulling a gun from his waistband. Not that he didn’t ever wish he had a gun or a knife. Hell, he was stabbed in the throat at just 16. “I started boxing when I was 13 at a youth detention center, and it kind of matriculated from there. I did a lot of street fighting, and I just had a bad attitude, to be honest. It was also the people I hung around, and it always ended up bad for us,” Wilmore says. “I think I was 25 when I started changing my attitude toward the world. The birth of one of my children slowed me down.”
Starting Street Beefs was Wilmore’s way of trying to make sense of the wisdom he felt he had earned from his younger years. A tragedy in 2013 only reaffirmed the urgency of the task. A friend of Wilmore’s, Traman Turner, had split up with a woman but continued to visit her to see their son. A jealous boyfriend of the woman threatened that he’d hurt Turner if he kept coming around, Wilmore says. Undeterred, Turner returned on Christmas Eve, and was shot dead outside the house. “His son used to spend the night at my house. We all played football together,” Wilmore says. “I can’t forget how devastated his son was. It was so unnecessary for a child to feel loss like that. There are so many ways for a person to get killed, but this was a different kind of petty.”
That’s why Wilmore makes it a point to hit the streets himself, sourcing intel on potential feuds and making visits to arrange potential fights or just face-to-face talks, between people whom he believes are on the verge of violence based on what he’s heard from friends and acquaintances. A few years ago, he even paid $1,000 out-of-pocket to settle a beef over a perceived debt between two men.
Wilmore’s reputation has attracted a big, diverse crowd of fighters; black, white and Middle Eastern faces readily mingle at training sessions and fights. Many come because of a legitimate grudge, others just for the challenge of fighting. Some, like “Icy” Mike Pesesko, an MMA trainer from South Carolina, came to Street Beefs for a slightly goofy feud: One night he got drunk and started arguing on an internet forum with “Ninja” Ron Collins, a self-professed martial arts expert that Pesesko considered a fraud.
Pesesko would go on to pummel Collins in their matchup, but he stuck around to test his mettle in more fights. He works as a striking and self-defense instructor in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and figured some real brawls would serve as useful physical research. He was surprised by how much Street Beefs tested his mental strength, too. “After a bunch of fights, I went back-and-forth with motivation. But inside, on a primal level for a man, I think there’s a desire to be able to fight and defend or kill for food or safety,” Pesesko says. “These instincts are dulled these days, and you can be weak and still do well for yourself in civil society. But in situations that frighten us, don’t we still want to be the intimidating thing in the room? Fighting is part of our physicality as men.”
There’s an unwritten honor code to being part of Street Beefs, and you can hear the pride in Wilmore’s voice when he describes how the vast majority of fights — even grudge matches — end in handshakes and hugs. It often doesn’t matter how badly you get beaten in a given fight — the fact that you showed up and had the courage to stand in the ring is enough to earn you a place in the Street Beefs community. (Each fighter must sign a liability form waiving Wilmore, Street Beefs and their opponents from responsibility for injuries, which normally come in the form of black eyes and bloody noses; the worst incidents involved a fractured jaw and a badly bruised rib, Wilmore says, adding that nobody has gotten angry or confrontational over fight wounds.)
Men coming together to test their bravery in combat is a tale as old as the history of martial arts, as is the idea that the most honorable fights involve one-on-one matchups. Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary samurai who roamed Japan with no royal allegiances in the 17th century, gained fame for his skill in duels, slicing down 61 challengers before dying of cancer at 61. In the Western world, the most famous duel may be that between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, politicians who had ramped up interpersonal tensions over the course of years. It culminated on July 11, 1804: Hamilton shot first, but missed and hit a tree, and was mortally wounded by Burr’s responding shot. In more recent times, the one-on-one fistfight has been immortalized in the book and movie Fight Club, which led to a burst of copycat clubs around the country. (It wasn’t a major influence for Wilmore, though he sees the obvious parallels.)
Yet many historical figures also have argued that fatal encounters with weapons corrupt the purity of two men facing each other with fists, a concept that was distilled with the creation of modern boxing. John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry and a major influence for modern boxing standards, wrote to The Telegraph in 1873 and noted as such: “I have no objection to see a good fight with gloves, or without them for the matter of that […] England may regret someday that her sons should substitute for the use of their fists the first deadly weapon that comes to their hands.”
One of the crucial aspects of Street Beefs is that it involves two opponents agreeing to a time to settle their differences, outside of the original incident that made them angry. Andrew Smiler, therapist and an expert on masculinity, notes that an initial rush of anger after an incident can lead to people reaching for a weapon or just not knowing when to stop in a street fight. “If you’ve had two or three days to calm down and schedule your fight, you’re not going into it angry. You’re going in with a reasonably clear head, so you can exercise some judgment. If you’re victorious, it’s easier to say, ‘I’ve beaten this guy enough, I don’t need to grind him into the concrete,’” Smiler says. “And on the receiving end, you can say, ‘Whoa, I’m kind of out of it. I’m gonna tap out.’ That’s a better outcome, but it’s hard to know that when you’re mad.”
Generally, Smiler and other mental health experts note that indulging anger with physical conflict can be counterproductive, adding fuel to an emotional fire that ought to be quelled. But Smiler also acknowledges that “some people are wired” to feel most relief after releasing aggression through physical action — he even keeps a punching bag in his office, so that men in therapy have an outlet when they can’t verbalize frustration. “Now, if that’s the only way they can release their anger, then that’s an issue,” he adds. “If you need to fight someone every week because you’re always pissed off and it’s your only outlet, that’s problematic.”
Many of the men and women in Street Beefs grew up around street fights, Wilmore observes, but only around 20 to 25 men have chosen to fight multiple times in Street Beef matches, with the majority phasing out after their first bout. Even the “OGs” don’t last too long, for myriad reasons. Pesesko grew a big reputation for his finesse in the ring, but is no longer taking fights (“My girlfriend would kill me”), instead choosing to help run the Street Beefs Facebook page, giving advice to newcomers and helping Wilmore with administrative tasks. Haidar is focusing on his truck-driving career — 70-hour work weeks make it tough to have the energy to fight all the time. And Chris Yarborough, aka “Mighty Mouse” and Wilmore’s right-hand man, has graduated from longtime Street Beefs OG to professional fighter, with his own budding YouTube channel and fan club.
Yarborough is an ex-con who spent more than a decade in prison, in two separate stints, after racking up a rap sheet with 50-plus charges, getting busted for selling cocaine, burglary and beyond. His probation finally came to an end in 2015, and he has tried to catch up on the years he wasted away. Today, he’s married and has a 3-year-old and a 12-year-old he supports by fighting for cash and running a tractor-trailer business. (His YouTube channel provides some money, too.) He credits Wilmore and Street Beefs, however, for giving him and other men valuable exposure they never would have gotten otherwise. “If you look at most pro and amateur fights, they get no views. I got eight or nine million in Street Beefs, and even my YouTube videos get 3,000 or 4,000 views. Unless you’re in the UFC, I don’t think most sanctioned fighters even sniff that,” Yarborough says. “We’re tryna take it to the next level with Street Beefs, since we have attention from all around the country. Maybe it could even be a reality show, but a positive one.”
Wilmore has indeed gotten an offer to make a TV show out of Street Beefs, though the planning is still in the earliest stage. In any case, gaining exposure for exposure’s sake isn’t what captures his imagination. The income he gets from YouTube views has been a helpful addition to the pay he gets as a personal trainer, making it easier to pay monthly bills and buy gear for Street Beefs, but he won’t allow the fight club to become a spectacle with slick production and better fighters, he says, adding that the whole point is to see average people fighting and finding mutual respect.
Nearly a third of Harrisonburg residents live at or below the poverty line, which informs why Wilmore hosts fights for free and recently transformed “Satan’s Backyard” into an exercise space with weights, a bench press and a sweaty shed for working punching cardio — Satan’s Makeshift Gym, if you will. The fights have been moved to a nicer ring on top of a hill a block away, on a property owned by a friend. It’s slow growth, but growth nonetheless, and Wilmore hopes it will attract young people from the city to see that even a bunch of former felons and street brawlers can rally around the Street Beefs philosophy and provide a community.
“These are fights with a message. That may seem contradictory. But you can be a tough guy who gets out frustration but still walk away with heart, morals and respect,” Wilmore says. “A lot of kids out there think it’s all about being savage and going all out. But if we raise a generation like that, it’s gonna all be downhill from here.”