Today the buildings of the Wyoming State Penitentiary sit abandoned amid the brown hills of Rawlins off Interstate 80. But when Jermaine Andre was sent there in 1991, they housed around 700 of the state's most dangerous criminals.
The majority lived in medium- and maximum-security units, but the most incorrigible were sent to the segregation unit, an area inmates called The Hole. The worst cells in The Hole were the Pink Rooms, where convicts were sometimes stripped to their underwear and denied bedding. The color scheme was ostensibly intended to be calming. It wasn't, of course, and even the guards knew that wasn't the point.
Only a few weeks shy of parole in 1995, Andre found himself confined to a cell with walls the color of Pepto-Bismol. He received his meals through a slit in the door known in prison parlance as a "bean shoot"; his best friend was his only visitor: a mouse.
Having served four years for armed robbery, virtually on the eve of his release Andre had decided to protest conditions at the prison.
"They claimed I created a major disturbance," recalls Andre, now 34. At five-foot-seven and 198 pounds he's seemingly all muscle, with a mohawk of dark dreadlocks that reaches halfway down his back and a face that rarely betrays his emotions. "What I did is organize."
What he did got him two more years of hard time, beginning with 30 days in a Pink Room.
"My whole life story has been about standing up for something and then getting punished for it," says Andre. "But I believe as a warrior you have to be brave."
Andre, who describes life as a game of chess, adheres to the Code of the Samurai, an ethos that in 21st-century America can make him appear at once admirable and archaic.
Former warden Scott Abbott estimates that more than 8,000 inmates passed through the penitentiary while he was there, but he remembers Jermaine Andre clearly. "He carried himself well, and he was outspoken," says Abbott. "If he believed something was right, he stood behind it." As far as Andre's position in the prison pecking order, Abbott says he doesn't recall him getting into too many fights. "That means he must have been doing pretty well," he says.
From the Pink Room, Andre was moved to the segregation unit proper, where men on (comparably) good behavior were permitted to leave their cells for one hour a day and open their bean shoots to talk to one another.
He saw a few men go crazy in The Hole, and saw others combat the monotony by pouring pee onto guards or setting fire to scraps of paper and throwing them out their bean shoots. But he resolved to spend his time more productively.
He devoted himself to practicing martial arts.
Growing up he'd learned some moves from his brother and an uncle and picked up others from books and movies. Most of what he knew he'd learned through trial and error, in street fights in the north St. Louis county.
"I won't say he liked to fight," says Sandra Easter-Carter, Andre's mother, smiling as though she knows that's not quite true. "But he was always man enough to. He was always a little superhero, defending someone else."
In his cell, Andre worked on kicks and jabs and shadowboxed. Sometimes men would peek through his bean shoot to find him meditating. Other times he'd demonstrate moves for them to practice in their own cells.
By the time he was released back into the relative freedom of maximum security, Andre had decided to start a martial-arts school. Granted permission to use the gym, he recruited nine students. In the morning they'd weightlift and run; afternoons Andre would teach them moves and they'd spar, without pads, bare knuckle. Outside class they called him by his nickname, Bamm Bamm, but in the gym he made them call him Sensei and bow to show respect.
The plan was that after they got out all the men would compete in at least one professional match. "Jermaine's the only one who kept the dream alive," says Ray Williams, who describes himself as a "real knucklehead" back then, when he was serving time for burglary. "He made me more humble and more respectful," says Williams. "He pretty much changed my life."
By Williams' count, Andre's prison class has enjoyed a respectable recidivism rate: Only two former students ended up back behind bars. Williams, now 32 and living in Maryland, was one of them. "The next time I was locked up, I didn't find anyone like Jermaine to mentor me," he says. "Finding someone like him in prison is really, really odd."
Within months of his release in 1997, Andre was in St. Louis, competing professionally in no-holds-barred "cage matches," in which fighters employed techniques from boxing and various martial arts. By 2002 he'd gone from earning a few hundred dollars a fight to making $20,000 for a bout in a league called the World Fighting Alliance. That fight, which won Andre a world title, lasted 21 seconds and ended when Andre broke his foe's leg.
Today Andre operates a mixed martial arts (MMA) school in O'Fallon. Recently he and a partner, Rob Evans, opened a second gym in St. Charles. He has also been training two students to compete in a new St. Louis-based league called MMA Genesis. The league's first fight, back in December, drew about 4,500 fans. The second event took place this past Saturday at the Family Arena in St. Charles, and drew even more.
Andre refers to his fighters as Team Andre's Ground Zero ("the site of a nuclear explosion," asserts the training packet each member received at the outset of training). But martial arts moves aren't all the sensei demands from his acolytes. Team members are instructed to bathe in warm alcohol once a week, and to work to improve their handwriting.
"In ancient times," Andre explains, "if you couldn't write neatly, you weren't considered a samurai."
Andre's Mixed Martial Arts Academy is located just off Interstate 70 in a single-story structure that must have been a motel in a previous life. It opened in December; so far 5,000 square feet have been renovated, with another 6,000 under construction. The grand opening is slated for April 22.
Andre lives in a condo just down the street and drives to work in a seven-year-old white BMW with worn leather seats, a television monitor mounted on the dash and vanity plates that read "CAGFTR 1."
The gym walls are plastered with posters from Andre's fighting career. Most feature him shirtless, scowling and sporting tribal jewelry. His title belts are also featured prominently, on a sheet of black velvet.
"It's a shame I had to hurt people to show them I could help them," Andre says, sitting in his office as heavy metal blares in the next room.
Behind his desk he keeps a samurai sword. In one of the drawers is a photograph of him on horseback, taken at the Wyoming State Honor Farm, where he spent eighteen months before being transferred to the state pen. There's a story behind the photo, Andre says: He'd heard the horse, Thunder, was intractable and bound for the glue factory. Though he'd never broken a horse, he decided to try.
"He bucked me four or five times," Andre says. "Finally I just looked Thunder straight in the eye. I told him, 'I'm gonna ride you or they're gonna kill you.' He let me get on him and we just rode around the ring."
So far, Andre says, his St. Charles gym has attracted about 100 students (the O'Fallon gym has about 70) and eight certified instructors. A TV monitor in the reception area plays DVDs of MMA fights, many featuring Andre. In the ring he displays a ferocious grace. One second he's hoisting an opponent and dropping him so hard his body bounces on the mat, the next he's slamming punches into his opponent's head. He always fought with his mohawk tied in a bun because, he says, "That's how samurais wore it."
The new gym coincides with what Andre calls "the MMA craze."
Seven years ago professional mixed martial arts bouts were illegal in most states. Today promoters tout MMA as America's fastest-growing sport.
The sport arose out of the "no holds barred" fights of the early 1990s, literal cage matches marketed as battles to determine which fighting technique was the best. Sumo wrestlers were pitted against karate experts, boxers against kickboxers, in matches that had no weight classes, no judges and, as their name implied, virtually no rules. Eye-gouging was prohibited; kicks to the groin were merely discouraged. A fighter won by knocking out his opponent or compelling him to slap the mat and "tap out" (or his trainer to "throw in the towel") the equivalent of saying "Uncle" often because he was on the verge of breaking a bone or losing consciousness.
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship was organized in 1993 and dubbed UFC 1: The Beginning. Four months later came UFC 2, in which Remco "Grizzly" Pardoel defeated Orlando "the Gladiator" Weit by pinning him and slamming his elbow into Weit's head until Weit's legs stopped thrashing and went still.
It didn't take long for the sport to attract the negative attention of politicians, particularly Arizona Senator John McCain, who deemed it "human cockfighting" and commenced a quest to have it banned. He largely succeeded, though amateur fights were never criminalized, only professional bouts.
Promoters attempted to appease critics by prohibiting egregiously violent moves and instituting weight classes, but the sport was still struggling in 2001, when a company owned by three men, Dana White and brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, purchased the UFC for $2 million. After pouring $40 million into the failing company, the partners hit on the idea of turning the competition into a reality show.
The Ultimate Fighter, featuring sixteen fighters who live together and battle one another for supremacy, debuted on Spike TV in January 2005. An episode last fall drew 5.7 million viewers, beating out the baseball playoff game that aired that night among 18-to-35-year-old men. "The reality show was our Trojan horse," says White. "It helped catapult us into people's homes."
A typical UFC event consists of nine fights. Title matches go five five-minute rounds; non-title bouts go three rounds. The ring is an octagonal steel cage. UFC 68, staged in Ohio earlier this month, drew a crowd of 19,000 the largest MMA event ever in North America and raked in $3 million from ticket sales. (UFC broadcasts pay-per-view as well but declines to release revenue or audience numbers.) Where top UFC fighters once were paid a few thousand dollars per bout, they now can take home close to $1 million.
"MMA combines what people loved about boxing, but it's way more exciting," says David Schwartz, a spokesman for Spike TV. "It's for a different generation, the MTV generation, that isn't looking to watch twelve rounds of a fight where guys are basically hugging each other the whole time."
In the wake of the UFC's success, hundreds of rival MMA organizations have sprung up.
That doesn't worry White. "Not to be whatever," he says, "but I don't see these other guys as competition. I see them as feeder leagues."
So far 29 states have reversed their bans on professional fights. Missouri may well be next.
"We don't want to regulate it to make money for the state," explains Tim Lueckenhoff, administrator of the Missouri Office of Athletics, which governs pro sports in the state. "There are so many [amateur] MMA fights going on that eventually there's going to be a problem."
Skip Ohlsen, CEO of the company that stages MMA Genesis, got into the business because he believes the sport is "taking off like a rocket ship." He, too, has developed a reality show (in which Andre's gym is featured) that will air later this year.
In a sport Ohlsen calls "the Wild West for ratings," it's not surprising that he and Jesse Finney, the St. Louis-based promoter behind an outfit called Shamrock Promotions LLC, are jockeying for local prominence.
In the testosterone-fueled world of MMA, principals have been known to settle their differences in the ring. But although Finney boasts, "I'll take him any time," Ohlsen claims Finney, whose fights at a budget hotel in Fenton typically draw about 1,000 fans, is trying to pick a fight with someone who's out of his league.
"We're doing broadcast television, he's doing the Stratford Inn," Ohlsen scoffs.
Sheridan is a small town in north-central Wyoming, just shy of the Montana border. It was even smaller back in May of 1991, when Jermaine Andre and his girlfriend burst into J.B.'s Restaurant clad in army fatigues and ski masks, armed with semiautomatic pistols.
Dressed in running clothes, the pair had parked on a side road about a mile from the restaurant and jogged the rest of the way in a drainage ditch. They crouched behind a cluster of garbage cans and changed into what Andre prosaically describes as their "robber uniforms." Once inside the restaurant, they herded everyone into the cooler at gunpoint.
"First this lady says she's cold and asks for her coat," Andre remembers. "I got it for her. Then this guy asked for his cigarettes. I got those for him, too. But then this other lady starts complaining about him smoking. I told him he had to stop smoking."
Making off with $2,800, they changed back into their running garb and jogged to their car. As they drove away, Andre dialed 911 and reported the crime. He said an officer had been shot, reasoning that it would provoke the quickest response: "I didn't want anyone to freeze to death."
They'd planned the robbery eleven days earlier, after two friends showed up at their house in the middle of the night, ski masks in their hands and pistols down their pants, and dumped a bagful of cash on the floor. They'd just robbed the 7-Eleven in Gillette locked the clerk in the bathroom and stolen a few thousand dollars. Andre says he'd known of the plan and had warned his friends it was a stupid idea. But seeing them and all that money made it seem more appealing. Ann felt the same way.
The two had met when Andre was a senior at Pattonville High School. Not long after he graduated, they'd moved to Sheridan so Ann could care for her mother, who was dying of cancer. Andre got work at a Hardee's as a shift manager, and then at a Holiday Inn doing setup, but after Ann's mother died he found himself out of job.
"I didn't know how we were going to pay for food or rent," says Ann, who agreed to a phone interview on the condition that her last name not be published. "That's how we ended up doing what we did."
Says Andre: "Me and the old lady kept asking each other how those hicks pulled it off. Finally she turned to me and said, 'I should have let you do that.'
"I was always loyal," he goes on. "I felt like it was my job to take care of my girlfriend. So I told her, 'Cool, I'll set something up.'"
If they'd stopped after J.B.'s, they might never have been caught. But three days later Andre and a partner robbed the same 7-Eleven his friends had hit. It didn't go well. Two women walked into the store and saw Andre's face. Aware that he'd likely be identified, he and Ann lit out for St. Louis.
They were caught a few months later, in a 3 a.m. raid at Andre's mother's house.
"The yard was lit up like a Christmas tree," Sandra Easter-Carter says today. "I thought, 'Oh, Lord, what has he done now.'"
Though Andre had often been in trouble for fighting, Easter-Carter had never known him to be involved in anything so serious. "I went to see him and I said, 'You didn't do this, did you?'" Easter-Carter says. "He started crying. That was how I knew they were going to take my baby."
Andre was extradited to Wyoming, where court records show that in November of 1991 he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated robbery and received concurrent sentences of five to seven years. Ann wound up serving eight months in a county jail.
Things didn't end well between the two of them. Today neither has much interest in revisiting that period. Now married and living in Denver, where she's applying to law schools, Ann says that while she and Easter-Carter remain close, she's no longer in touch with Andre.
Andre says he took the rap to protect her, but she says that's not the case.
"She's just playing it her way," Andre responds. "We were trying to figure out what to do so she wouldn't go to prison, and she was just sitting there crying like a baby."
"I was going through a lot at the time," Ann says, adding, "in Wyoming, he changed."
Easter-Carter, who divorced soon after Andre went to prison, now lives in a tidy apartment in north St. Louis, just down the street from her church.
Her living space is plastered with photographs of her four children. There are also photos off Andre's eight-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Hawaii. She clearly takes after Andre. The last time she visited him at the gym, he says, she dropped to the floor unbidden and started doing one-handed push-ups. A snapshot stuck to the fridge shows Ann, smiling widely and holding a dandelion. The most striking shot of Andre features him shirtless on a mountain, holding a samurai sword.
"I always said that I marked him when I was pregnant," Easter-Carter says. "I'm a huge fan of Bruce Lee, and while I was carrying him I was going to see three or four Bruce Lee movies a day. And he was kicking all the time."
Andre has never married. "I date," he says, "but it's hard, because I'm supposed to have this super-tough image."
Until recently, he kept a pet rabbit, Tricky. "People always asked me why I didn't have a dog," he says. "I'm the dog. I needed the rabbit to show my soft side."
Some would say the two had an unconventional relationship. For instance, Andre never picked up Tricky. "I kept my feet on the floor like a man," he says. "And so did he." Nor was Tricky housed in a cage. Ever since his time in solitary confinement, Andre has been unable to bear seeing animals in enclosed spaces. Even fish. "I can't look at those little guys," he says.
He trained Tricky to use a litter box and let him hop freely around his three-level condo. Only Andre's bedroom was off limits. That's where the problem started.
Tricky had been trained to come to Andre when he snapped his fingers, but one morning the rabbit failed to appear. Searching from room to room, he finally tracked down the rabbit under his bed. He poked a stick under the bed, but Tricky hopped away to the living room. He followed, but the rabbit scurried back under the box spring, where Andre discovered he'd built a nest.
"This happened four times!" says Andre.
Exasperated, Andre lifted the bed, frame and all and it fell on top of him.
Then he had a realization: Martial arts were developed to help a smaller, weaker person beat a bigger, stronger person. Tricky had beaten him at his own game. "He used his rabbit skills his speed and agility," Andre explains. "He beat me fair and square."
Dragging himself off the floor, the sensei flopped onto his bed and admitted defeat.
"You can tell more about a fighter when he loses than when he wins," Andre says.
MMA pros' records are hard to pin down; online sites peg Andre's at about fourteen wins and four defeats. His worst loss came in 2000, in his sole UFC match, when his opponent pinned him against the wall of the cage three minutes into the third round and kneed him in the head. The knockout is immortalized on a DVD entitled Ultimate Knockouts 1 & 2, an assortment from the UFC's first nine years.
"That was a loss where if his head hadn't been screwed on right, his ego really could have got in the way," Ron Smith, Andre's trainer, says in retrospect. "But he just took it as a loss and learned from it."
Andre doesn't fight much any more. (His most recent match, on October 4 of last year, he won in about twenty seconds; before that he hadn't fought since 2003.) "Fighting's cool," he says. "But I like teaching more."
Smith says he wonders if his star pupil retired from the cage too soon. "I knew he was one of the best fighters," Smith says. "But he didn't get a chance to show everybody."
Says Andre: "I'm like a retired dog. I see other dogs fight; it makes me want to get back in. But I got too much other stuff going on to just be jumping back in the cage."
He has a bodyguard company, Professional Protective Services, his two gyms and also a fighter training program. Those interested in joining receive an information packet that contains a list of 32 rules, ranging from moral imperatives like telling the truth ("Rule 1: Lies are the tools of weak cowards") to hygiene requirements ("Rule 20: Shower at least twice a day on training days").
Rule 32: "This type of fighting can lead to permanent scars, broken bones, concussions, paralysis, death and other complications not described."
"If you're hurt, you can't complain," Andre elaborates. "You put yourself in the position to get hurt. You are a man. And this is the most macho thing a man can do."
Not that Andre believes martial arts are solely the province of men. In addition to sparring and grappling classes, he teaches women's self-defense. In 2003 he self-published a book he'd begun in prison, entitled Andre's Secrets to Women's Street Defense.
"As a woman you are always carrying something a male attacker wants," he writes. "And I'm not talking about your purse."
Accompanied by black-and-white photographs that illustrate potential situations (Andre plays a mugger in one) are tips such as, "Stomp your heel on his toe like it's a big, ugly cockroach." Elsewhere, Andre advises women not to bathe at night: "Shower during the day, with a weapon in the bathroom and the door closed."
Jose Salinas, a stocky heavy-equipment operator who helps Andre teach self-defense classes, says he uses the restraining techniques he learned from Andre when he works the door at Club Buca. "The recent kidnapping of that young kid?" Salinas says, referring to the events leading up to the arrest of alleged molester Michael Devlin. "I guarantee you, if he had had some of Master Andre's training, he would have been able to run away."
When Andre began recruiting his MMA Genesis team, the first hurdle candidates faced was a "fighter training test" that included push-ups, a sparring match and a "pain test."
That last one Andre administered personally, pushing one pressure point after another while watching the aspirant's face.
Only one man failed. "He was the most muscle-bound, intimidating-looking guy we had," says Andre, shaking his head. "It just goes to show, I guess, that all those muscles and drugs, they don't really build a man."
Ultimately, though, Andre whittled his team to two fighters. He'd work the corner with his old trainer, Ron Smith, a former kickboxer he met in 1997, after he walked into the latter's gym, having found it in the yellow pages.
"He could already fight, but I polished him up a little bit," Smith says today. "He was quiet, but he didn't come in trying to be tough. He came in listening."
At age 52, Smith has long muscled legs and a closely shaved round head. Traditional Thai music plays in the background as students spar in his Maplewood gym. When he isn't there or working at the day job he's had for 30 years as a clerk at the St. Louis Law Library, he can be found salsa dancing or constructing dioramas. His most recent stab at the latter involves tiny Spartans locked in mortal combat in front of crumbling stone towers.
Smith's unorthodox teaching methods were well suited to Andre, who excelled under the trainer's extreme version of tough love. Once while Andre was practicing, Smith began beating him on his back with the blunt side of a wooden samurai sword. "I was crying, because I knew what he was doing was because he cared about me," Andre recalls. "He was trying to beat me so hard so that no one else could hurt me."
Before Saturday night's MMA Genesis event, ring girls imported from the Penthouse Club in Sauget stood at the entrance of the Family Arena in St. Charles, clad in fishnets, tight black T-shirts and platform boots.
With legislation to legalize professional fights still pending approval by the Missouri Senate, the bouts were strictly amateur, but that didn't seem to hurt turnout, which promoter Skip Ohlsen says numbered 5,000 or more. In anticipation of a taped broadcast set to air this Saturday on FSN Midwest, a video camera on a long boom hovered above a circular steel cage in the middle of the floor. The announcer wore a tuxedo. "A new era of MMA has arrived!" he shouted. "And its name is Genesis!"
The evening was not without technical glitches. The short videos that played between matches froze several times, and someone forgot to turn up the sound during some post-bout interviews. Overall things ran smoothly, though, as pair after pair of fighters strode into the ring and went head to head. The ninth match, which ended with a knockout only eight seconds into the first round, brought the crowd to its feet.
Next up was Andre's first fighter, Matt Norris; Match Ten ended when Norris' opponent was disqualified for an illegal move.
East St. Louis native Darryl Cobb, who has trained with Andre for three years, fought second to last on the card. "He's more than a trainer," Cobb had said earlier of Andre. "He's like a father, a brother and a friend. It's like he's putting himself into me."
It was soon apparent that Cobb's foe, Wentzville's Wayne Pitman, was overmatched. Within minutes blood from Pitman's broken nose was everywhere. At the end of the first round, Pitman fell down and couldn't quite stand up. He tapped the mat.
"That's what you paid your money for!" shouted the announcer.
With little effort, Cobb lifted Pitman and carried him around the ring.
Then he turned to Andre, brought his hands together and bowed.