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Miami – “I used to sell drugs,” Miami-born mixed martial arts fighter Rene “Level” Martinez told Fox News Latino recently.
“I used to leave my house thinking I might not come back, but I never cared,” he admitted after a sparring session at MMA Masters, the Doral gym where he trains.
Back in the early 1990s, Martinez wreaked havoc on the streets of Miami, protecting his turf as the leader of the notorious street gang, Latin Syndicate – which he cofounded with seven friends.
Those days make up a big part of a documentary Martinez, now 42, has made titled, “The Warrior Level: The Rise of Street Legend Rene ‘Level’ Martinez.”
“We used to lay down the [other] drug dealers, but I never have targeted anyone innocent. We had morals – which was, not to hurt anyone innocent. If we were going to do something, it was to someone who was doing something bad.”
Martinez would film some of the violent activities the gang took part in.
“I got footage in [the documentary] from the ’90s,” he told FNL. “I used to record with an old school VHS camera. I got a lot of people getting knocked out in gang fights. I have some real crazy stuff.”
He hopes the movie helps inspire those living in a dark period.
“It’s my story, from when I was born to today,” he said. “I take you to when I was growing up to my whole gang life. I talk about my boys who have died and [have gotten] locked up. It is real deep.”
Born in Miami, Martinez faced hardships when young. His mother wasn’t around much, and the grandmother who cared for him died when he was 13.
“The streets raised me,” he told FNL. “At 16, we were homeless living behind a video store. We had to steal for food. It was crazy.”
His mother later found God, and she tried to convince her son to come to church with her. But for Martinez, time ran out.
“When I was 18, my mom accepted Jesus Christ,” he said. “She became a teacher, but for me it was already too late. I was a straight gangster. I was breaking into homes, stealing guns, drive-bys, shoot-outs and getting into fights. She tried to get me to go to church and get people to pray for me. I would laugh at her. I was ruthless. I was stone cold, boy.”
Martinez escaped death several times in broad daylight shootouts. He was arrested more than 15 times and witnessed the deaths of both allies and rivals.
The 6’ 1” fighter recalled a time when he and his fellow gang members stole a car and wrecked it.
“We were in a high-speed chase going about 100 miles an hour,” he said. “I ended up being in a coma for three weeks. I escaped death. I was in the car. All of us lived [except for] the drunk driver.”
The way he wound up getting into MMA was rooted in his gang past. Being known around the city for brawling and worse, he was offered an opportunity to participate in backyard fights, which would pay.
“I’ve always been an athlete,” Martinez told FNL. “I had a militant mindset. In our gang, if you smoked cigarettes that was a violation. If [others in the Latin Syndicate] did drugs, we would beat their ass.”
His backyard fights started getting posted on YouTube, and some of them were viewed nearly a million times, which caught the eye of a local promoter.
He started training at MMA Masters, and in 2009, made his professional fight debut at an Action Fight League event in September of that year. Since then, Martinez, who is also a rapper, has gone 6-1-1 in the cage.
His last fight took place in Nicaragua in August 2014. He defeated Sergio Ortiz Rodriguez by unanimous decision.
His highest-profile fight was against the Nicaraguan welterweight boxing champion Ricardo Mayorga in Managua in July 2013 – which was the main event at World Series of Fighting: Central America. It took Martinez 1:39 to dispatch the former champion with a guillotine choke.
His only loss came at the hands of Alan Arzeno in Dec. 2013.
At the moment, though, Martinez, who also runs a gym, is focused on his documentary – although he says he still has a lot more fights left in him.
And his mother’s wish finally came true. Martinez was baptized about two years ago, and he says he now devotes his life to Jesus Christ.
“It’s never too late for someone to turn their life around,” he told FNL. “I am blessed to be here.”
A release date for the documentary hasn’t been set, but it’s likely to be April of this year.