It’s Fight Night at the clubhouse―the East Bay Rats’ clubhouse. Two hundred screaming fans squeeze up against the open-air boxing ring. They’re baying for blood. Adam Small Pants, a member of the famed Oakland motorcycle gang that hosts this event, is slugging it out. Stripped to the waist, his elegant Japanese backpiece glistens under a layer of sweat. Jerking his head back to avoid a vicious uppercut, Small Pants slams a right hook into his opponent’s head. For a second, the man looks stunned, then, with the crowd roaring, falls back in a long, slow arc.

The East Bay Rats are not your usual motorcycle gang. Sure, they all like getting tattooed, drinking beer and organizing rides, but the Rats have an aesthetic all their own. No spanked-up Harleys with a ton of chrome for these guys. Rats put all their money into making the bike go faster, not looking better. “A ‘Rat Bike’ is usually a derogatory term,” explains Rat’s president, Trevor McMahon. “It means an ugly bike. But we prefer one that’s been crashed a lot and held together with duct tape or fiberglass. That shows we’re really going for it.”





The Rats’ unusual aesthetic also extends to their clubhouse activities. How many motorcycle gangs do you know that host cocktail parties and have their own boxing ring? Their legendary Fight Nights, a.k.a. “smokers,” have become so popular that the Rats’ testosterone- and booze-fueled action has attracted big-league media attention, features in GQ, Loaded and the Discovery Channel. “Our motto, when it comes to the fights,” explains Trevor, “is ‘Never for money, always for fun.’”

As I sit having lunch with the president and two other Rats, Trevor explains the rules of Fight Nights. “It’s three-minute rounds with a minute in between,” he says as he chomps on a hamburger. “And although there is a referee, he doesn’t decide the fight. It continues until somebody gives up.” The Rats prefer it this way, as it encourages a really good scrap. “We’ve seen guys get in there who don’t know how to fight, and they get the crap beat out of them. But they don’t give up,” says Trevor. “Eventually the other guy bows out due to sheer exhaustion. The man with the greater spirit wins.”

Although the fights are strictly amateur, they’re intense. Anyone can fight. Contenders step into the ring, announce their weight and taunt anyone of similar weight to try his luck. After a few serious punches hit home, it’s amazing to watch the fighters really go at it. The adrenaline kicks in and the action can quickly get bloody. “We get knockouts,” states Trevor, “but it’s more common for untrained fighters who smoke and drink to be totally bushed by the third round.”






Fighting at least three times is something that a prospect, or Rat on probation, has to do before becoming fully “Ratified,” if you will forgive the pun. Prospects can’t wear the famed rat ‘n’ wrench patch on their leathers. This privilege is reserved for the fully initiated. One such prospect is John Firpo, who takes a break from doing door duty to jump into the ring. He is the first fighter of the night to put on the gloves and is scheduled to face a much larger opponent. After three energetic rounds, his combatant has had enough and Firpo punches the air with joy.

Firpo is no stranger to boxing. His grandfather, Argentinian Luis ÁngelFirpo, fought heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in 1923, one of the most famous boxing matches of all time. The event is memorialized in a beautiful tattoo on John’s back. Based on a painting by George Bellows, it shows Firpo landing his famous punch, knocking Dempsey out of the ring and into the press row. The fight, which took place in front of eighty-five thousand fans, has gone down in history as one of the most exciting of all time. Firpo managed to knock Dempsey down several times but, in the second round, Dempsey knocked Firpo out for the count. Despite this loss, Firpo returned to Argentina a national hero.






The Rats are an all-male motorcycle group, but they like to see their girlfriends fight, too. “The best bouts,” states Davey Fuller, a Rat since 2003, “are when the women bring something special into the ring.” “And what might that be?” I ask, innocently. “Unrestrained passion,” says Davey. “The most knock-down, drag-out, screaming, bleeding fights are always with two girls who just won’t quit. A lot of times the fight continues out of the ring. We’ve had sisters pulling hair and punching each other in the face. It makes the men look tame by comparison.”

I was shocked by the ferociousness of one of the Rat-girl fights, especially by their female supporters screaming for a kill. Mercifully, it ended with both girls hugging each other and heading for the bar. Trevor thinks the gentle sex is anything but when they get in the ring, because women aren’t used to physically expressing violence. “Men play competitive sports and roughhouse from childhood, so they’re familiar with the emotions associated with physical conflict. With women, when they throw that first punch they see red, and their emotions go haywire.”

The Rats further break the rules when, every so often, they allow bare-knuckle fighting. They even allow men to fight women. “It’s rare,” says Trevor, “but once we had a husband and wife fight each other. The husband was kind of playful and joking and the wife wanted to take his head off.” But fighting girls is not really a very smart thing to do if you’re a male Rat. “We had this one guy who really wanted to join the club. He fought a girl and lost. Needless to say he never made the cut.”






The Rats think that Fight Nights aren’t a cure for violence, but they’re certainly a healthy way of letting off steam. “Fight Nights give people a safe place to test their courage,” explains Davey. “When the Discovery Channel did a show on us,” he continues, “they claimed there were not enough outlets in modern society for people to express violent feelings. If there were, lots of people wouldn’t end up in jail. It’s the same with the movie Fight Club. The Brad Pitt character couldn’t find an outlet until he created the Fight Clubs. I think that’s bull. There are still plenty of healthy ways to express aggression: boxing, karate gyms―or what about the Marines?”

Davey is no stranger to expressing his aggressions. He used to be a Marine and part of his duty was to act as a Presidential bodyguard for Bill Clinton. As such, he was given a Yankee White clearance, which meant he had to undergo some of the toughest background checks in the military. The officer, for example, who carries the so-called “nuclear football” that accompanies the President at all times, has this type of clearance. So what was it like being a Presidential bodyguard? “Sometimes it was great,” mused Davey. “I would sit behind Clinton in church on Sundays, with my gun in a shoulder holster. They would also screen movies along with the directors. I played paintball with Tom Hanks’ kids. It gave me a window into the private life of these politicians, things that you would normally never see.”

“Did you see anything you shouldn’t have?” I asked.

“If I told you, they’d lock me up in Leavenworth and throw away the key,” he says “I think I’ll pass on that one.”

I wonder if the fact that a former bodyguard is now a member of the East Bay Rats would be fully appreciated by the former President?

It’s clearly a shame that more of the Rats’ neighbors don’t partake in the therapeutic value of Fight Nights. The west Oakland neighborhood where the clubhouse is located is a haven for drug dealers and prostitution. Recently, a guy who was robbing the dealers came to a very sticky end. “They got him just behind the clubhouse with two twenty-three caliber assault rifles,” explains Davey with military precision. “So, when it comes to nearly a hundred people getting murdered every year in Oakland, the police really don’t care too much about our boxing parties.”







But street shootings aren’t the biggest danger to the Rats. Coming off their bikes is. The Rats recently lost two much-loved members in this way. One of them was Davey’s elder brother, Aaron. “It was mysterious,” says Davey. “He was on his motorcycle, driving early in the morning. Nothing was wrong with his bike and yet he went headlong into a pillar. It’s strange. He was a very experienced driver.”

Aaron’s nickname was Norton, because he owned a 1974 Norton Commando, one of the finest British bikes ever built. He also had the word Norton and a Phoenix rising out of a crown tattooed on his neck. As a sign of their love and respect for him, many of the Rats got a memorial tattoo of the same design. “He was cremated,” states Davey, “so we took some of his ashes and mixed them into the ink and used it for our tattoos.” The idea, in fact, originated from Aaron and another Rat called Nate. The Rats all thought this would be the perfect way to commemorate a member’s death. It is bitterly ironic that both Nate and Aaron became the subjects of these memorial tattoos.



Aaron was hugely popular with the Rats. After breaking his leg in an accident, he had a titanium rod inserted in his shinbone. To show his mettle, he sat on the clubhouse bar and drank scotch as someone cut open his leg and removed one of the screws. The Rats shot a video of the event and showed it to me. I must tell you, it’s not for the faint hearted. After his death and cremation, Davey recovered the rod and gave it to a blade-smith to forge into a knife. “We’re all really independent thinkers,” explains Davey in a wry understatement. “But the common theme that binds us together is that we are all family. As my brother Aaron would say, ‘This is a family we choose to have, not one we were born into. We love each other and care for each other.’”

One of the Rat tattoos that reflects this powerful feeling of extended family is the Hebrew script my brother’s keeper tattooed on the back of their necks. Davey sees these words as having extra significance. “After Aaron died, he left me in charge of his estate. It turns out I really am my brother’s keeper.”






It seems the story of the Rats is shot through with bitter ironies. When I visit Tattoo 13 in Oakland, where Trevor is having the Norton logo tattooed across his stomach by Karl Fisher, Davey explains how the accident that nearly killed their president also ended up funding the purchase of their clubhouse. Davey remembers the day well as it was the same day he got “jumped in,” an affectionate term the Rats use to describe the final phase of a prospect’s three-year probationary period. This involves all the Rats beating the crap out of the prospect―in the nicest possible way. “It was Good Friday, 2003,” recalls Davey. “It started out being a great day.” When you get “jumped in,” everyone beats you up and it becomes a reason to celebrate. Later, Trevor was driving home with his new date on the back of his bike, and some guy ran a stop sign and hit him side-on. The girl got ejected and fractured her skull, while Trevor broke thirty-four bones and nearly died. It was a miracle he survived. “It was like thirty-four or thirty-seven,” says Trevor, stoically. “It’s hard to count the ones that were completely shattered.”

After much legal wrangling and several years later, Trevor was awarded a substantial financial settlement. Since the Rats had only previously rented houses and warehouses as their space, he decided to use the money to purchase the property in west Oakland and convert it into a clubhouse.




Rat tattoos usually have an interesting story behind them. When I ask Trevor what the Latin script Nos Vincimus tattooed across his chest means, he takes great relish in explaining both its meaning and derivation. “That came about one night when Aaron had just had sex with a woman in a back alley behind a bar,” he states, grinning.  “As we were leaving, we got into a fight with a guy, knocked him out, dragged him across the street and threw him in the bushes.” After jumping on their bikes and riding around drunk, a cop tried to flag them down. “We outran him,” continues Trevor. “We then ended up in another bar. As we walked in, the bartender slid us our beers and didn’t charge us any money. That’s when I said to everyone, ‘We win.’ That’s what Nos Vincimus means in Latin.”

Davey has his own, more sociological spin on the meaning. He thinks it represents the difference between the Rats and the financial elite in our society. “Aaron used to have this theory that there are two classes,” he states. “The leisure class that are wealthy and can afford everything and the other leisure class, the one the Rats are in: bartenders and bar managers. Working people. Everywhere we go we get free drinks and are treated like celebrities in the microcosm of Oakland. We reap some of the same benefits of the wealthy but, more importantly, we have respect from people who love and appreciate us. So, the ‘we win’ thing is special. It’s like, yeah, we’re not some fortunate son of a bitch, but we’ve made it that way for ourselves.”





While shooting pictures of the Rats at one of their cocktail parties, I am introduced to Biker Mike. With his black eye patch he looks more pirate that biker. He kindly poses for photos, showing me his rat ‘n’ wrench tattoo on his forearm. Later Davey explains that Biker Mike was a former Marine with two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was also on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Did he rob a bank? “No,” replies Davey. “His roommate did. The FBI got the two men confused. Mike was innocent and was eventually cleared.”

The Rats have a hundred great stories, and many of them end up in their tattoos, or “the road marks of life,” as Davey likes to call them. I was especially intrigued by their tattoos of a monkey skull in a fez with crossed scimitars. This I was told was the symbol of their secret society, the East Bay Men of Leisure. And what’s that? “We can’t tell you,” says Davey. “If we told you that it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

Hanging out with the Rats and their friends, I was deeply impressed with their hospitality, humor and generosity and the way they openly invited me into their lives and shared these stories. But most of all I was impressed with the powerful bond of brotherhood and community that binds them together. This is a group of outsiders who find that their greatest strength comes from unshakable fraternity. The family they have chosen looks after and celebrates their own. To illustrate this point, Davey confides in me that they are planning a special, final sendoff for his brother Aaron and his best friend Nate. They are to receive the full honors of a Norse funeral. Their ashes will be put in an already-constructed Viking long boat, which will be set on fire and floated out to sea. I’m a bit concerned, however. In a traditional Norse funeral the funeral offerings usually include sacrificed slaves. I’m hoping the Rats don’t intend to enlist a couple of prospects for this role. I guess I’ll just have to check with Trevor about that one.




Check out the Rat’s at www.eastbayrats.com.




Tim Coleman has been working as a professional journalist for over thirty years. He has been published in a huge range of magazines and newspapers around the world including: The Guardian, The Independent, FHM Magazine, The Face, Focus, Sky, Skin and Ink, Wienner, Tatowier (Germany) Enigmas (Spain), UFO Magazine (UK and US) X-Factor, Encounters, Kindred Spirit and many more.
"As well as earning a living from being a freelance journalist, I have always found journalism to be the perfect medium to explore subjects that I'm passionate about. This not only allows me to enter deeply into the subject through the research, but it also provides me the honor of meeting key players in that field ."
Tim Coleman
Here is a small selection of my work.