Famed chef Anthony Bourdain sums up Hard-Core: Life of My Own, the new memoir by Harley Flanagan—a founding member of the hardcore Cro-Mags as well as one of the original New York punk rockers—as “the punch in the face you want—and need.”

Flanagan grew up dishing and dodging fists, kicks, bottles, and sometimes bullets in New York’s notoriously rough Alphabet City in the ’70s and ’80s; by the age of 12 he’d already toured Europe as the drummer of the notorious punk rock band the Stimulators, performed at legendary clubs CBGB and Max’s, hung out with the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and artist Andy Warhol, and even become a published poet.

“Bourdain once said to me, ‘Who had a fuckin’ childhood like you? Nobody, that’s who.’ Flanagan says. “And I had to sit there and say, uh, yeahhhh, you’re right.”

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These days, pushing the half-century mark (though “I ain’t 50 yet, motherfucker,” he’s quick to point out) and with a permanent grinning skull tattooed on his own graying head, Flanagan limits his performing to a more intimate—and, ironically, safer—place: Brazilian MMA legend Renzo Gracie’s Manhattan jiu-jitsu academy, where he’s reinvented himself as a black belt.

“I was, like, what the fuck is that shit?” says Flanagan, who thought he’d seen everything growing up in NYC but was stunned the first time he watched a VHS tape of 1994’s UFC 2 championship, and saw Royce Gracie, Renzo’s cousin, perform an armbar—an armlock that hyperextends the elbow joint.

Harley flanagan

“I’d had a lot of street fights in my life—I’d punched, kicked, head-butted, elbowed people, and everything else,” Flanagan recalls, “but I’d never seen anything like that. Right then, I made up my mind that I’m gonna start learning this shit.” Renzo opened his academy in the mid-1990s, and Flanagan’s been a fixture there ever since. “I consider myself very fortunate to have met Renzo,” he says. Today he even teaches adolescents seeking to be the next MMA superstars, including his own 11- and 13-year old sons (“At first they were too little, but they kept begging and begging”), and has earned the title “Professor Flanagan.”

“Jiujitsu is the ‘crack’ of martial arts,” he jokes. “It’s the most addicting workout you can do. Part chess, part fighting, it sharpens both your body and your mind. It’s the greatest workout.”

And it can also save your life, he says.

“Anyone who’s into any type of physical activity should train jiujitsu. Not only will you get stronger, develop much better endurance, and put your cardio through the roof, you’ll also be learning something that can, God forbid, save your life if you ever needed to.

“It’s a win, win, and a win.”