Rich Colon is 50 years old, an age when thoughts of mortality creep into men’s minds and invitations to join AARP start appearing in their mailboxes. Faced with midlife crises, some men buy sports cars, join the Hair Club or start to prowl nightclubs. Mr. Colon has taken a different approach: He is going to St. Petersburg, Russia, for a dance-off on Friday against Storm, a German break dancer, in what is being called the “Battle of the Gods.”
Mr. Colon is better known as Crazy Legs, a pioneering B-boy (which is what he prefers to call himself) who first gained fame in New York City’s early hip-hop scene, then helped the culture go global through appearances in videos by Malcolm McLaren and movies like “Beat Street,” “Wild Style” and “Flashdance.” He and his friends in the Rock Steady Crew — Mr. Wiggles, Frosty Freeze, Doze and others — went from basement discos, parks and playgrounds to stages in London, Paris and Tokyo. Though he had said his last battle was in 2014, he decided to pull a Michael Jordan (or a “Godfather: Part III” Michael Corleone) and return to compete.
“When I did that last battle, I had bruised ribs, so I felt I had unfinished business,” Mr. Colon said. “Though I know that at 50, I’m either incredibly inspiring or incredibly stupid to be doing this.”
His motivation is more than just to prove a personal point. Though he is part of a culture that rewards bravado, it is also one created by young people who had little in South Bronx neighborhoods that had been reduced to rubble. Improvised soundtracks came from D.J.s who plugged their rigs into streetlamps while dance crews challenged one another, relying on their only possession: supreme self-confidence from surviving hard times.
Thoughts of the 1970s pushed Mr. Colon to go to battle. He divides his time between New York and Puerto Rico, where he sponsors an annual dance event. He has grown concerned about the island’s economic collapse, which has plunged many children into poverty, according to a report released this month. The crisis reminds him of the hardships he witnessed in childhood. So, in a culture where showing off in the spotlight is a given, he is using his turn to speak his mind.
“I know what it’s like to make an abandoned building a playground, or take a mattress and turn it into a gymnastics mat,” Mr. Colon said. “And right now, there are a lot of abandoned homes in Puerto Rico and people are fleeing. The reason I’m doing this is to bring awareness to the situation in Puerto Rico, its economic crisis and how desperate life has gotten there. We need to mentor these kids who are being affected by their parents’ not having any work or even money to meet their basic necessities.”
He has been lucky to make a living dancing, giving workshops and collaborating on other projects. His last regular job was in 1989, when he quit working at a health club near Riverdale in the Bronx. (“You could do a history of what went on behind closed doors,” he said. “From selling people memberships they couldn’t afford, which is why I quit, to after-hours pool parties.”)
When news of the battle was announced, it was done so teasingly, with Mr. Colon saying only that a challenge had been issued to another unnamed dance legend. Many fans assumed — correctly — that the other dancer was Ken Swift, a former member of Rock Steady who parted ways with Mr. Colon in 1996. When he declined, the organizers of the V1 Festival enlisted Niels Robitzky, a German dancer known as Storm.
The battle with Mr. Robitzky will be six rounds. In each, one dancer will perform a routine, and the other will respond with his own moves. Each round could take less than a minute of intense moves, with no breaks in between.
To get into shape, Mr. Colon has spent months at boxing gyms, working with two trainers. His strategy is to be prepared not just physically, but mentally.
“B-boys practice, but very few train,” Mr. Colon said. “Surviving deep in a battle is a whole different thing. You got to understand what walls mean when you hit them. You got to train until you get to the wall and then fight through it. After the second or third round, it’s all mental. I’ll have to take Storm into deep waters.”
And after it is over, win or lose, does he retire?
“I’m not going to say this is my last battle,” he said. “Once you’re hype and in shape, you see a bunch of B-boys and get that feeling about how you want to smoke this dude. How do you quit culture? Just because you say you’re going to do it doesn’t mean you’re not going to react when you hear some James Brown.”