One of the cool things I’ve read and, again, in the work with sociologists, is arguments for the re-institution of a dueling culture. For instance, in inner city neighborhoods or in prisons. We’re talking about specifically a culture of boxing duels.
The point is that what you have in an inner city neighborhood or many inner city neighborhoods and certainly in serious prisons are cultures of honor without dueling codes. If you are going to have a culture of honor, a culture where men are incredibly touchy about disrespect and willing to claim respect with physical violence, you don’t want to have that kind of honor culture without a dueling code because you have that kind of honor culture without a dueling code, then you get things like Hatfield-McCoy blood feuds. You get things like prison shankings. You get things like drive-by shootings.
The idea of a culture of boxing duels would be that it makes those other forms of violence dishonorable. You’re branded a coward and you have to eat a lot of shame if you go outside of the dueling code. So I think there’s at least an argument to be made that in certain situations, a re-institution even of dueling codes could be a good thing.
The end of boxing’s Television Era came definitively when Mike Tyson KO’d Michael Spinks in the first round in Atlantic City, on June 27th 1987:
This fight dovetailed with a number of other factors to mark the end of a long transitional era in boxing. The biggest factor was economic. Although this was a closed circuit event seen in theaters, it opened eyes to the potential money of pay-per-view just as the technology was on the horizon. I remember listening to a live sports radio broadcast just after the fight, as some rich guy called into the radio host from what must have been a huge primitive car phone and gave the blow-by-blow. By morning everybody was talking about how many millions of dollars per a second Tyson had made.
Networks were bowing out and premium channels and pay-per-view was coming into vogue. Now boxing was just available some of the time for some of the fans.
By 1997 500 million a year was being spent on pay-per-view boxing events. Boxing was now just about the marketability of big names, and perfect records were paramount. Thanks to the deterioration of Olympic Style amateur boxing as a sport [with zero-clinch tolerance — see Chapter 3 Sidebar — and no points awarded for knockdowns], the rarity of fights between the top men in a given weight class, and the infrequency of fights in general, boxers were relatively less skilled and less exciting than ever in the pro ranks. This period can rightly be seen as the time when boxing matches were largely decided by the matchmaker, with almost no pro bouts and less than half of title bouts being competitive.
The big-name promoters destroyed a sport with dwindling human resources and filled their bank accounts. A sport that began with eight weight classes in the Old Time Era now had 17 weight classes. The sport which once had eight champions now has 153! All of this subdivision of talent came to a crescendo in the 1980s and 90s at the same time that the talent pool had dwindled to a trickle. As of now, the USA, which traditionally supplied most boxers, typically only has one Top 10 heavyweight — and the USA has the biggest people in the world!
Thanks to the foresight of MMA organizations there is still a way to see the two best guys at a given weight fight, but it is not a boxing match. The fact is boxing is on life-support.
Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that boxing’s best days are in the past. What is more, it seems destined to become a marginalized hold-over sport like fencing. Such a fate would be a supreme irony. You see, in the 1920s, Aldo Nadi, greatest fencer alive, and survivor of at least one duel, decried the popularity of boxing, disparaging the fistic art as crude and barbaric and too emotional. That assessment sounds much like the criticisms of MMA by many of the boxing people I know, and by our current best, Floyd Money.
Hopefully Floyd Money does not share Nadi’s gift for prophetic irony.
The Golden Age of Boxing lasted from 1920 to 1946:
Socially this was the springtime of boxing, when the largest gates were drawn, and boxers were considered not only the greatest athletes but the toughest men and best fighters in the world. As with baseball many of the best fighters had their careers gutted by World War Two.
There was boxing all the time, for everybody who cared to go to a club, theater or stadium or tune in on the radio.
Just as the first experiments with motion pictures began early in the 1890s with boxing, the first experiments with televised sports began with boxing in 1931. You must imagine, with only one camera, separated from the announcer, how difficult it would have been to televise baseball or football. In our own time we take the camera-angle changes and all of the work done by the film crew and onsite film-editing staff for granted. This made boxing the obvious subject for early TV. By 1944 NBC was airing fights, and by ’46 Conn versus Louis became the first televised heavyweight championship.
Very quickly this apparently good thing crushed local boxing shows, the theaters that hosted them, and the clubs that fielded the fighters. Why watch Joe Shmoe and John Doe at the local club when you can get Joe Louis at home? As with many trends in boxing it took one or two generations of fighters for this to effect significant change in the talent pool. Less local pro shows [in Baltimore, a half dozen a week in the 1920s to as many a year in the 1990s] resulted in a steady decline in the numbers and quality of opposition faced by top boxers, eventually resulting in a gradual decline in their functional skill, particularly versatility in the ring.
In the 1800s boxing manuals were written and a sport called “sparring” was born:
This practice with gloves was the seed of modern boxing.
After the American Civil War gloves began to gradually come into competitive use primarily as a way to avoid legal prohibitions against prize-fighting. Up until the end of the era, in the early 1890s, the sport was still pretty much a gangland affair, even though it had generated the first sports superstar, John L. Sullivan.
By 1885 boxing contests were being fought according to the Queensbury Rules, which are the basis for, and were similar to, our current gloved boxing rules. Although these rules were originally written for matches between gloved ‘sparrers’ of the upper class, and not the actual prize-fighters, they were adapted for prizefighting to facilitate the mainstreaming of the sport of boxing. This development has a modern parallel in the recent efforts by Las Vegas casino interests to gain acceptance with the Nevada State Athletic Commission for MMA.
The events that bracket this period are the first heavyweight title bout under Queensberry Rules between John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett on September 7th 1892, in New Orleans, and the passing of the Walker Law in New York State in 1920, which effectively legalized the rendering of a decision after a boxing match. The first two decades of the 20th Century in boxing is often referred to as the ‘No Decision Era’. Boxing was now out of the legal no-man’s land it had been in, and was poised to become a national sport.
There was a lot of technical evolution in this period, as fighters took two generations [I reckon a boxing generation as 12-15 years.] to finally adapt to the use of the padded glove.
The clinch wasn’t always a lull in the action of a boxing match:
When modern boxing fans view 100 year old film of old-time boxers they come away with the conclusion that these guys could not box well because so much clinching occurred and that their epic length fights were not that strenuous because they spent so much time “resting” in the clinch.
The fact is that clinching was often permitted because hitting in the clinch was on the menu of choices that the fighters had at the beginning of the fight. When the referee brought the fighters together before the bout in old-times it meant something. It was not just a ritual but often a negotiation. Up until 1900 [eight years into the Marquis of Queensberry gloved boxing era] hitting in the clinches—what today is called dirty boxing in MMA—was still often an agreed upon tactic.
Clinching was falling out of favor with observers though. Spectators wanted something more visually appealing, and a wider audience requires tactics that are more easily understood. By 1910 fighters could expect to be disqualified for hitting in the clinches, although it still happened a lot.
What did all of this clinching mean?
Fighting in the clinch is more anaerobic than boxing at jabbing range and is therefore more exhausting. Grappling in general is more strenuous than striking. Modern boxers generally do “rest” in the clinch because they are not permitted to do anything in the clinch and are expected to lay there until separated. Clinching is still the best defense against getting knocked out. Although it is generally not taught in the gym, it is learned there when a fighter finds himself in danger sparring.
The most notorious modern clinch fighter was Ali, who clinched a record number of times with Frazier in Manila. Ali used an overhook and a come-along. Old-time fighters were just one generation removed from bare-knuckle fighting, where hip throws and holding and hitting were acceptable tactics. They generally used an overhook sunk in above the elbow while they threw uppercuts, hooks and crosses with their free hand. This looks sloppy but is effective if it is trained for and executed properly.
You need really good hips to pull this off.
The fact is old-time clinch-boxers would have to be retrained to fight according to modern rules and would probably end up being disqualified today. This did happen. One only has to look at the many DQ losses on old-time records. Likewise, if you took a modern boxer back in time he would get mauled in the clinch and probably KO’d there too. Most modern fighters do not know how to clinch, and are generally incapable of breaking a clinch. This is why modern boxers are not able to compete in MMA until they are extensively retrained. The one prominent modern boxer who I believe would do well under old-time or bare-knuckle conditions is Bernard Hopkins. He actually trains and teaches the clinch, and employs such old-time tactics as punching the hip and thigh.
Old-time boxers often fought and trained with wrestlers. In fact, James Corbett wrestled for a half hour a day just to practice staying out of the clinch and escaping. Corbett hated fighting in the clinch but had to adapt and train. Sam Mcvey actually went to Japan and defeated a Jujitsu champion in an MMA bout. Granted the Jujitsu fighter was probably giving away 60 pounds. But none of our current heavyweight boxers would last more than a round with a good Brazilian jiu-jitsu welterweight in open competition today.
Always keep in mind that boxing as a sport has evolved away from boxing as an art and science for the purpose of being more entertaining. All of the old-time clinching might look sloppy but it was effective. Now, there are clinching countermeasures that do work, and permit a properly trained boxer to avoid and break clinches. Jack Blackburn was instrumental in teaching this style of boxing, with the result that the Black boxers under his direct and indirect influence such as Joe Louis and Ray Robinson became the best all around boxers that have ever practiced the art. It was not until aggressive officiating encouraged boxers to look to a third party to take care of the clinch in our own time that these skills finally eroded to the point that only 1 in 40 pro boxers were able to avoid the clinch of a less skilled opponent in a study of 106 cable TV bouts conducted in 1998.
Most boxing coaches spend the vast majority of their time preparing fighters for amateur competition, which has zero tolerance for clinching, often resulting in the referee being the busiest guy in the ring. The clinch is not taught as part of the fundamental skill set because it is a foul. Keep in mind that it is always, at any given time, to one fighter’s advantage to clinch. At that time, it is to the other fighter’s disadvantage to clinch.
The modern boxing glove — or, rather, the gauzed and taped fist sheathed within the modern thumb-attached glove — is a weapon system:
Anyone who has studied film, photos and illustrations of old-time boxers and bare-knuckle boxers realizes that these fighters punched differently than modern boxers. This has been explained as evidence of the evolution of punching mechanics, finally resulting in a more skilled modern boxer. So, when an MMA fighter looks to develop punching skills he looks to the latest in boxing techniques. The problem with this very reasonable assumption is that it ignores the primary influence upon the evolution of boxing techniques: the development of the boxing glove. The result has been a high frequency of hand injuries (particularly to the unprotected thumb) among MMA fighters.
Before we continue let us establish the terminology.
- A fist that lands with the palm and thumb down is pronated.
- A fist that lands with the thumb up is vertical.
- A fist that lands with the palm and thumb up (like an uppercut) is supinated.
The vertical jab was the overwhelmingly dominant punch for 4,000 years of boxing. It is not as powerful, and does not have quite the reach of the pronated jab. Its advantages are that it gets through the opponents hands more easily, with minimal risk of thumb injury. It was used primarily for striking up the middle to the nose and mouth (Bare-knuckle punches to the mouth that are pronated or supinated can result in teeth entering the fingers or knuckles.) Modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call it the sneaky jab.
The supinated jab was used primarily for punching over the guard while stepping to the outside. It offers total protection to the thumb. It was called the “special punch”, a maiming blow intended to strike the eye-ball directly as the two large knuckles slide into the socket from below. With MMA gloves this can be used to crack the orbital bone or cut the eye-lid. Those few modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call this an up-jab.
Before boxing gloves pronated jabs were used primarily to strike the body, allowing the thumb to hang safely beneath the hand, away from the descending elbow. Other applications included striking the jaw of an opponent with a low guard, or the forehead of a shorter fighter.
Like the jab [the straight right] was used as a sneaky vertical punch up the middle, or pronated to the body. It was used as a finishing blow to the jaw over a low guard. Bare-knuckle boxers were primarily jabbers, and were very picky about when they uncorked the right hand. There is no evidence that a supinated straight right was ever used.
Modern boxers throw supinated (shovel) and vertical (Philadelphia) hooks to the body, and vertical and pronated hooks to the head. This was reversed in the days before thumb protection. To keep the thumb out of harm’s way pronate the hook to the body and throw it with a vertical fist to the head. You don’t want to have someone duck under your pronated hook to the head and have your thumb snap on their skull.
The ancients and old timers only used [the uppercut] for striking the groin and while in the clinch. It is a punch you definitely want in your arsenal, but should be used sparingly, primarily to the chin, where it may well finish the fight. It does not make any sense to slam an uppercut or shovel hook into the body of a highly conditioned athlete who can take it, just to have him come down with a late block or intentional elbow catch to your thumb, which could disable that hand for punching, grappling and parrying for the rest of the fight.
The stickfighting Dog Brothers infamously seek “higher consciousness through harder contact” — but realistic training is a balancing act:
Too little reality from too much protective gear and too many rules and we degenerate into martial arts and crafts with delusions of functional competence. Too much reality and we damage each other (or worse). As a result the Clans and Tribes from which we come would have too few people willing to forge themselves into something more and too few left undamaged to step forward when necessary outside the ritual space.
This brings us to the matter of headgear. When we first began the After Midnight Group we were using some helmets that Eric had forged. Eric had previous experience using fencing masks, but after an absence of willing play mates he made these helmets. They were very heavy — indeed they were a challenge to neck strength — and they offered complete protection from the impact of a stick… and danger of lasting damage to the neck during grappling which we had just begun to allow.
One night one man was using repeatedly the protective quality of his helmet to crash entry head first like a tackling linebacker, not caring that he was taking major shots to the head that would have dropped him but for the helmet. Eric was getting irked and I spotted some old “pre-Ralph Nader” fencing masks on the shelf and pulled them down. Eric put one on and we put one on the would-be linebacker, who instantly lost his desire to be a linebacker-mission accomplished! Also, there was the added benefit of much greater safety for the neck in the stick-grapple.
These Pre-Ralph Nader masks are what we now call “first generation masks”. FGMs were not much more than a screen door shaped around the head. They served to protect the eyes, nose, and teeth (usually!) but did very little to diminish impact. All of us Original Dog Brothers fought in them and no one was willing to “take one” in the head wearing one in order to close to stick-grappling range. Combined with the stick skills that most of us had from our traditional training, much stick skill was shown.
My own experience with the FGMs is there for all to see. I do not like discussing this but I feel I owe my honesty to all of you. In return I ask that you not bring it up in conversation with me.
In the Power tape of the first series there is a fight where Eric drops me with a tremendous power backhand to my right temple. As I rise from the ground to one elbow, you can literally see my left eye spinning.
Here’s the thing: It still is. It was subtle for the first few years but over time it gradually has gotten worse. Most of the time now it no longer is in alignment with the right eye; instead it looks up and to the left-sometimes more and sometimes less, but now it is always there.
This is no small thing.
Not only does it mean that I sometimes get tired and sleepy easily when reading or driving, it also means I don’t pick up incoming as well as I should. Not a good thing for a stick fighter or when I spar MMA! When played lacrosse catch with my son, I sometimes would miss balls in embarrassing fashion. I hate it when I see it in photos and now when I have to pose for a photo (which is often in my line of work) I often squint my left eye so it shows less or I wear sunglasses.
For many years I did not connect the blow to my head and my wandering eye. The only reason I am aware of it now is that I went to an eye doctor about my eyesight and the possibility of eye glasses. The tests drew his attention to just how much my eye wandered and he asked me if I had ever been hit hard in the head.
The next time I saw him I showed him the footage and he had no doubt about that power backhand being the cause. He warned me of increased risk of a stroke due to it. As should ANY warrior, regardless of his health, I have my will in order. Tomorrow is promised to no one.
When I went to a Dog Brothers gathering back in the 1990s, I had dabbled in Filipino martial arts and was grappling pretty seriously, and I’d already passed through my point-sparring and then reality-based striking phases — and I thought they were crazy:
Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny explains the origins of the Dog Brothers’ stick grappling in this interview — in much higher definition:
James Lafond recounts the history of the punching bag:
The earliest form of striking equipment was not used for punching, but for kicking and other strikes specific to the pankration, the ancient Greek form of MMA. This bag was an entire pig skin filled with sand and hung upside down by the tail. The strike depicted being used on this equipment in the surviving artwork is the precise kick that was recently used by Anderson Silva to KO Vitor Belfort. A later source mentions the use of this device for clinch practice.
The second type of ancient striking equipment was a hanging ‘effigy’, a stuffed replica of a human torso, analogous to the freestanding anatomical ‘bobs’ preferred today for martial arts practice in karate schools.
The third type of ancient punching bag, preferred by boxers throughout antiquity, was a sack of barley hung from a roof beam. This item was about the size of a human head and moved more like a maize ball [the small bag used for head movement drills in some gyms] than any modern piece of striking equipment.
Bare-knuckle boxers had learned their art without the aid of striking equipment for two hundred years, when, in 1877, American Middleweight Champion Mike Donovan began hitting a rugby ball in Troy New York, and then got the bright idea to hang it from the ceiling. Within ten years pro boxers [who, at this stage fought with bare-knuckles, driving gloves, and sometimes 6 oz to 8 oz ‘mufflers’] were using three types of punching bags based on the original ball that Mike had begun bouncing off of walls and punching back in Troy.
Only ten years into their use, punching bags were considered indispensable tools for developing combinations, or as combination punching was then called ‘two-handed punching’. A boxer was supposed to strike the bag with the bare-knuckles to condition his hands and learn how to avoid hand injuries.
The ‘flying bag’ was a rugby ball suspended from the ceiling on a string, and based on its name, was used to train cutoff punches and counter punches. It could not — when hung from the high ceiling of a barn or dance hall — be of much use for training combination punches. For men who fought without hand protection this was an important tool. To avoid chasing it and to work on combinations it was sometimes hung in a corner from a low ceiling.
The ‘heavy bag’ was a chamois cloth sack stuffed with horse hair [which was being used to stuff gloves up until the 1970s] that only weighed 10 to 20 pounds. It was usually hung from a rope and swung along a wide arc. If it was hit with a vertical fist [the common bare-knuckle fist orientation] or while it was swinging at the fighter, wrist injury was likely. It was not a favorite tool, and tended to be avoided.
The ‘oval bag’ was a large air-bladder double-ended reflex bag. This was the most popular type of bag in gyms on the eve of the gloved era circa 1890. It would fall into obscurity but survive. Film from Ray Robinson’s training camps [circa 1950] show him working this large double-ended bag.
The three types of bag described above would evolve into the three standard pieces of striking equipment present in boxing gyms until the early 1980s.
As far back as the 3rd Century B.C. military men were ridiculing any concern with empty hand fighting as beneath them, James Lafond explains:
In an age when military men hacked each other to pieces at arm’s length, they could have cared less about unarmed fighting, as they knew it to be all but useless in a military context. Over the ages military establishments have either ignored the empty hand question, or have farmed it out to specialists, or made it the personal duty of officers.
For one example of the later let’s take the British military during the Zulu Wars of the late 1800s. The foot soldiers were recruited from a stunted and malnourished population living on starvation rations, and stood about 5-foot 6-inches and weighed around 140 pounds.
The Zulu warriors they fought were drawn from a well-nourished beef-eating population and stood about 6-foot and weighed in between 160 and 180 pounds, with some chiefs and famous warriors being of goliath proportions. The Zulus supplemented their thrusting spear and shield training with wrestling and stick fighting. These were formidable hand-to-hand warriors. As with most warrior cultures throughout history, the Zulus concerned themselves with weaponry and grappling; grappling being the way to obtain a weapon once one has lost his own, as well as a way to neutralize an enemy’s weapon once one has lost his. It is exceedingly rare to see any concern with empty hand striking as it is largely useless in armed combat.
The man in charge of the ‘physical education’ of the British soldier was his officer, a well-fed spoiled rich boy who stood 5-foot 10-inches and weighed in at about 170-pounds. This man would wrestle with pro wrestlers that he and his rich fellows would sponsor at home, as well as spar with famous prize-fighters. [Teddy Roosevelt did this in the white house when he was president!] This officer would then wrestle and box with his entire unit, lining them up and beating their emaciated asses, just like the prize-fighters had worked him and his rich friends over. The wrestling was intended to develop one’s ability to maintain his footing and his hold on his all-important rifle-bayonet, a fearsome weapon even when unloaded. The boxing was purely psychological conditioning, intended to fill the soldier with a tenacious confidence that he could endure the worst.
When the Brits were overrun in one battle, and their ammunition ran out, the Zulu’s suffered horrendous casualties in hand-to-hand combat. It was all about the bayonet. Even with empty guns, it was still the gun that mattered. We cannot forget, when writing unarmed combat scenes involving military combatants, that they are all indoctrinated — a most potent indoctrination, as it is built on a natural primate impulse to seek a weapon — to fight with empty hands only as a way to access a weapon or to deny enemy access to a weapon. There are patchy records of military men striking with fists when in desperate straits, though this is more an act of final defiance than a tactical option.
James Lafond discusses MMA and honor — starting with some history:
In the 19th Century boxing was a joint effort between working class ‘sports’ and aristocratic ‘sports’ to preserve a manly tradition of honorable combat in the face of a rising industrial war machine that overshadowed the single combatant. This was done in opposition to the middle-class who now ruled the political and economic world. Boxing was a spasm of masculine reactionary angst on the part of the now disenfranchised upper class that was no longer permitted to legally duel [for they officered the armies of the middle-class politicians and dueling to such a military establishment was as taboo as suicide to the catholic church] and the perennially disenfranchised lower class which had always aped their lords with less expensive and less lethal forms of man-to-man combat. Boxing therefore preserves much of the duel.
The referee generally does not use force but his voice and is regarded as more of an admonishing voice that one is breaking the code, than the MMA style ref who often yells and dives in and throws one fighter to the side. While the MMA style ref comes from boxing he is more of a law officer than an advisor and has little connection to the dueling second of old.
Boxing, like dueling, has such a severe limitation on combat options that a small margin of skill can achieve victory. This results in a usually stable fighter hierarchy in which top fighters reign for decades and second tier fighters act as gatekeepers. In contrast there are so many ways to lose an MMA fight that the sport will never have a decade long reign by a single champion in a given weight class, with the second tier fighters taking on more the role of circling wolves in relation to the champion than a hierarchy of gatekeepers and challengers. This does make for a good simulation of street level violence, down to the referee acting as law officer and ending the encounter.
Each generation of men to suffer under the mother-rule of civilization has sought their own masculine culture, usually as an attempt to keep alive the form of man-to-man combat engaged in by their immediate ancestors but in a current context.
Officers dueled with the weapons that their grandfathers had fought battles with.
Boxers fought with fists, not in the manner that brawlers did in free-for-alls, but according to the conventions of the duel.
MMA fighters keep alive some of the conventions of boxing, of the manly art of old, but also honor their fathers and grandfathers who once lived in a world where one could engage in a fight with another man and not be shot or stabbed or gang stomped, but pulled apart by the bartender, bouncer or peace officer.
Gottschall had to make a decision about what his book was going to be about:
Violence is a huge topic, and I found that the kind of violence that I was really interested in was the duel, broadly understood. In my definition of the duel, we have everything from sports to a staring duel to a pissing contest to certain kinds of arguments, and so forth. So I stayed away from the more tactical, real-world, self-defense type of writing.
One of the reasons I think your article on the topic is so great is that I think every guy our age can relate to this. Men with families suddenly realize, “Holy shit. My dad doesn’t live with us anymore. If somebody comes through that door, it’s my job to deal with it.” So I absolutely have thought about that.
I live in a place — southwestern Pennsylvania, right on the border with West Virginia — where almost everyone owns a gun. And most working-class guys carry their guns everywhere.
So I’m living in the heart of gun culture, but I’m not a gun guy. I didn’t grow up with them; I was never a hunter; my dad was never a hunter. I’ve shot a handgun, and it really scared me. I also enjoyed it as I got more comfortable with it. And I do think about getting a gun. I’m not comfortable being at such a force disadvantage when everyone else is armed.
Right now, my self-defense, home-invasion plan is based on an ax handle that’s within easy reach in the kitchen, and I also have a hatchet in my bedroom. I chose the hatchet very carefully. In the sitcom, the dad always keeps a bat handy. But a bat is too long. You can’t swing it in a hallway, and it’s also not as terrifying as a hatchet.
A few times a year in my small town, one of these monkey dances goes off, and the guys are carrying guns, and they shoot each other. Or they shoot each other after a road-rage incident.
I think we have very similar attitudes toward guns and gun culture. I’m not an abolitionist, but I would like the laws to be stiffer. Now I can walk into a gun store in my town and buy military-grade weapons. You’d be shocked by the amount of firepower you can buy — .50 caliber sniper rifles and the same shotguns the Marines carry in Iraq or Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter whether I know how to use these things — I can just walk into a store and buy them.
And if I do get a handgun, I can take it to the sheriff’s department, and in about as much time as it would take me to order a value meal at Wendy’s, they will give me a concealed-carry license. There will be no screening at all to see whether I’m qualified to carry a gun in public — which I absolutely am not. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t gotten a gun in the first place: I don’t know how to use one.
Gottschall clearly isn’t comfortable with — or particularly informed about — guns or gun laws. That makes this stand out even more:
My little brother is a federal law enforcement officer, and he’s also a firearms instructor. He came up recently to visit, and we went out to the range. Part of why I was attracted to the idea of owning a gun was self-defense, and part of it was that I’ve been fascinated by guns since I was a little kid, and I want to play with them. It seems like a lot of fun. And I had a great time. It was probably because I had such a skilled teacher. My brother really knows what he’s doing, and he knows how to make it safe. Shooting with him, and seeing his expertise, I had a tiny eureka moment. I suddenly realized that when it comes to the use of firearms, my brother is a badass martial artist. And I think that a lot of people who like training with guns are probably drawn to it not only for practical reasons, but also in that same restless quest for physical excellence that draws people to a martial arts dojo.
Yes, a lot of people who like training with guns are on the same restless quest for physical excellence that draws people to a martial arts dojo.
A huge percentage of the head trauma from boxing and MMA goes back to a single, simple mistake, Gottschall explains:
It’s long been assumed that we’re stuck with this amount of risk, and that current levels of brain trauma are intrinsic to boxing and MMA. I don’t think that’s true at all. A huge percentage of this head trauma goes back to a single, simple mistake. In an effort to civilize combat sports, authorities mandated padded gloves and instantly made the sports far more savage. Granted, putting gloves on the hands seems like a nice thing to do. If you were being punched in the brain by a powerful man, wouldn’t you rather he strap a pillow around his fist? But the glove doesn’t do anything to diminish your brain damage. In fact, it magnifies it massively, because your opponent can then throw his hands around with wild abandon, punching from all angles — using the kinds of punches that you could never throw with bare fists without destroying your hands and crippling yourself in the course of a fight.
If you took the gloves off, you’d change the sport. You’d no longer see windmilling, Roy Nelson-style overhand rights being thrown. You’d see far fewer hook punches thrown. It would revert to a much simpler bag of techniques that was closer to the repertoire of old-fashioned bare-knuckle, and you would see a lot more grappling.
So BJJ guys, for instance, would be much more competitive, because you couldn’t just beat them to death from the top position. And BJJ guys could also attack more effectively, because bulky gloves make for clumsy grappling and give the opponent a good handle to grab onto. (Just to give one example, the rear naked choke has become harder and harder to finish in MMA because defenders just grab onto one of the attacker’s hands with both of theirs and hold on for dear life. The glove provides the grip that makes this defense possible.)
Fighting bare-handed would also move the UFC back to what it originally was — a pretty good simulation of an actual fight. Putting on gloves is completely artificial. You are basically giving the fighters weapons that allow them to do more damage, and this completely changes the character of a human fistfight.
It was a great PR move, sort of like the football helmet. The football helmet was a way of making kids safer, or so they thought. It was a well-intended humanitarian gesture, but it was a horrible mistake. It made football more dangerous.
You would diminish the risk in MMA to an acceptable level if you just took off the gloves. This would reduce the violence from an insane, NFL level to a rugby level. You would still have a rough, tough, bloody sport that really tests its fighters, but you wouldn’t introduce silly risks that don’t need to be there.
MMA has the character of Greek drama, Sam Harris notes:
You see these titanic egos clash, and only one survives. Many of these guys are the best fighters they’ve ever met and appear to think they’re invincible. This was especially true in the early days, when every discipline was isolated from every other, and people were just ignorant about what they were going to confront in the cage.
So you have the spectacle of two guys who can’t imagine losing thrown together, and one of them triumphs. Then you wait a few months, and this still-invincible fighter gets destroyed by the next guy. It’s a cascade of ego destruction that from a psychological point of view is pretty mesmerizing to watch.
Gottschall adds his own thoughts:
I think a lot of people assume that a fight fan is just a troglodyte who’s sitting in the stands grunting and wanting to see blood. I don’t think that’s the main allure of it. The main allure, from the fan’s point of view, is closer to what you’re saying: A really intense human drama is taking place in front of you.
There’s a whole lineage of great writers who have been fascinated by boxing especially (this was pre-MMA). They were drawn in not only by the spectacle of the fight, but by their own reaction to it.
They were thinking, “I’m Ernest Hemingway, or I’m Joyce Carol Oates, or I’m Norman Mailer. I’m one of the greatest artists in the world. I have all this empathy inside me. I have to have empathy to do my work, and yet here I am, watching two men destroy themselves for my pleasure. What’s going on here? What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with all of us for wanting to watch this stuff?”
I think part of it is, just as you said, the appeal of tragic storytelling. So the promoters introduce you to the characters, and they usually try to build up a story of conflict between the two fighters. And then, as in almost all stories, you have a contest between the protagonist and the antagonist, depending on whom you happen to be rooting for. If your guy loses, it’s a tragedy. Even if your guy wins, it’s still a tragedy, because as you said, an ego has been more or less destroyed in the cage.
Of course, the fact that we see it that way, as a tragic brand of storytelling that produces lofty emotions in us, doesn’t necessarily justify it.
When you see someone getting beaten unconscious in a striking-based match, Sam Harris notes, it’s easy to wonder whether this exciting sport that you paid money to see should even be legal. Gottschall feels the same way:
I watch fights and I often feel morally compromised by it. I feel like I’m morally culpable for what’s occurring because I’m the spectator and ultimately footing the bill for the spectacle.
But I don’t think people are reacting primarily to the danger of the sport. There are many other activities that are truly dangerous that we have no inclination to ban. Motocross is incredibly dangerous. It’s really bad for your brain—some of these guys have had dozens of concussions. Bull riding is probably the most dangerous sport in the world in terms of head injuries (this New Yorker article on the subject is a fascinating read). Cheerleading is also very, very dangerous. You take a little girl and launch her into the air—sometimes she comes down hard. Cheerleaders can get catastrophic spinal injuries.
I think what bothers us about fighting sports isn’t the damage to the athlete but the fact that you win by doing more harm to your opponent than he does to you. It just seems ugly.
A boxing contest is a brain-damage contest, he notes.
People don’t understand knockouts, because they’ve seen too much TV, Gottschall notes:
One of the great inventions of film and television that allows for the action to happen is the one-punch knockout. MacGyver’s trying to get out of the sinking ship, and he punches the guard, and the guard just goes to sleep for a solid half hour. MacGyver doesn’t want to kill him (it’s not that kind of show), so he just knocks him out. But most knockouts aren’t like that. You go away for a second and then you’re right back.
There was a lot of that in my training. I guess the way I came to justify it is the way most people who fight justify it: Fighting is really, really rewarding. I truly enjoyed it. I got feelings from fighting that were bigger than those I had experienced in almost any other realm of my life. It made me feel awake in a way that I had never been awake. Those kinds of big emotions and big experiences may come with a heavy price tag.
MMA is really bad for you, but it’s also good for you in many ways. So that’s how I justified it. I felt like I was taking manageable risks in exchange for big rewards. When I eventually quit, I didn’t quit because I said, “Okay, that’s enough. The book project is over. I can go do something else.” And I didn’t quit because I was worried about my brain. I quit because the rest of my body gave out.
It was a very sad thing, sort of like the end of a romance. I left it very reluctantly, and I left it knowing that I’d never get it back, that I was just too old for it in this phase of my life. The phase of running with young men was over, and it wasn’t coming back.
Harris’s response hits a bit close to home:
Harris: I certainly can relate to this experience from the grappling side. I haven’t yet admitted to myself that I’m not training in BJJ, but I’ve gotten several lingering injuries, and the gaps in my training are getting longer and longer as I wait to recover.
Gottschall: That’s the bummer with grappling, Sam. You don’t hurt your brain, but you hurt everything else. Almost all my significant injuries came from grappling.
When you spar in boxing, the only thing that gets hurt is your brain. Everything else feels pretty good. But if you spar in grappling — wrestling and jiu-jitsu — it’s like one-on-one tackle football. There’s opportunity for mayhem that’s not present in a very controlled boxing match.