Judge Judo: Lawyer Chris Seeger Takes His Case Ringside

dscn8269 Judge Judo: Lawyer Chris Seeger Takes His Case RingsideOn a recent Saturday night, in barren, off-season Atlantic City, an Ed Hardy-clad throng swarmed the Resorts Hotel and Casino. They came for the fights. While blue-hairs pulled at slot machines, amateur mixed martial artists showed off their skills. Accompanied by decade-old nü-metal anthems, they grappled in a steel cage in the Superstar Theater–a classic dinner-and-a-show venue that next month will host Paul Anka and Boyz II Men. (Separate performances, unfortunately.)

Most of the fighters were bruisers, mildly proficient in boxing, wrestling or jujitsu, but a few showed technical grace that transcended the tawdry surroundings. Of these, only Wayne “Hurricane” Hargrove, fighting for the super-middleweight title, had a trial lawyer in his corner. Chris Seeger, whose firm Seeger Weiss has won billions in settlements against the scoundrels behind Vioxx, Accutane and other medications, was there to help his friend punch people in the face.

“I feel 20 years old again,” the 50-year-old Mr. Seeger said in the run-up to the bout.

A former amateur boxer, Mr. Seeger spent the last years of his 40s figuring out how to get back into shape. He tried to organize charity boxing matches against Rodney King and Michael Lohan, but both fell through. Mr. King wanted too much money, and Mr. Lohan fled when he heard Mr. Seeger was an ex-boxer. Mr. Seeger regrets missing the chance to pummel Mr. Lohan.

“It would have been some real social justice,” he said. “If we fought, I was going to give $10,000 to battered women.”

The next best thing was jujitsu at a gym in Patterson, N.J. There Mr. Seeger met Mr. Hargrove. One year later, Mr. Seeger has big plans for his adopted fighter.

“The short-term goal would be to win this title, then defend it, then think about going pro,” said Mr. Hargrove. At 32, he has no time to waste.

Mr. Seeger took an interest the first time he saw Mr. Hargrove badly beat up. After a full day’s conditioning, Mr. Hargrove tried sparring with a Brazilian boxer. Within moments, he said, “the room was spinning.” The Brazilian was a pro, way out of the exhausted amateur’s league, but Mr. Hargrove took his licks.

“He got cracked, but he kept fighting,” said Mr. Seeger. “It was just instinct–he didn’t have a lot of boxing then. I knew at that point that this guy’s a fighter.”

Mr. Seeger took him to train at the Trinity Boxing Club, a white-collar gym in the Financial District. Mr. Hargrove had been boxing with other amateurs–“a lot of guys trying to take each others’ heads off,” said Mr. Seeger–and a few months of serious training put him ahead of his competition.

“MMA guys,” Mr. Seeger said, “like to load up on their punches,” in a way that would see them slaughtered in a boxing ring. Mr. Hargrove, meanwhile, has cultivated a lovely jab. “Jab is everything in boxing,” Mr. Seeger said.

It served Mr. Hargrove well in July, at his first bout with Mr. Seeger in his corner. They waited patiently while his opponent spent minutes dancing his way into the ring. When the bell finally rang, Mr. Hargrove skipped to the middle, dodged a sloppy overhand and, with a jab and a hook taught by the trial lawyer, put the dancer face down on the mat. At five seconds, it was the New Jersey record for fastest knockout, and it set him up for his first title shot.

“I’d never knocked anyone out before!” said Mr. Hargrove.

 Outside of the ring, he spends a lot of time with Mr. Seeger’s family and is working at Seeger Weiss’ Newark office while he looks for a teaching position. He hopes to teach children with disabilities.

Mr. Seeger talks about martial arts as if they are the natural extension of courtroom competition. He divides his time between New York and New Orleans, where he is carrying out a lawsuit against contractors who used faulty Chinese drywall in reconstruction projects. He trains three days a week, often coming straight to the gym from the airport.

“Right now, if I didn’t have a big law firm, 35 lawyers and kids, I would retire and do Brazilian jujitsu seven days a week,” Mr. Seeger said. “I’d go to Brazil, live in a dojo by the beach, grow my hair really long.”

Mr. Seeger fantasizes about competing in his own age group–in judo, since the contortions of competitive jujitsu are tough on aging joints–but for now he lives vicariously through Mr. Hargrove.

That Saturday night, Mr. Hargrove was unable to keep his opponent, ground fighter Steven Romanides, from taking him to the mat, and the bout went the full three rounds–nine minutes of slow, painful wrestling. When standing, Mr. Romanides was afraid to engage, and several times Mr. Hargrove beckoned him in with his hands, an impatient smirk on his face.

At the end of the third round, Mr. Romanides’ hold slipped and Mr. Hargrove wriggled to his knees. His opponent pinned against the cage, he delivered a flurry of picture-perfect body blows. Mr. Romanides was bloodied, and when the decision came–split 2 to 1–it was those points that put Mr. Hargrove over the top. When Mr. Seeger’s fighter was declared victor, he fell face-first onto the mat, then stood up to climb the cage and salute the crowd.

Soon the pair will start training for the title defense. It’s only an amateur belt, something to be forgotten if Mr. Hargrove decides to go pro next year, but for now he’s a champion, and his coach still feels 30 years younger.