The first time I was choked into submission, it happened in a secluded lawn behind the humanities building on my high school campus.
We had been rolling around in the afternoon sun for a few minutes already, trying to trap each other in amateurish headlocks and armbars with our lanky limbs. My lungs heaved for air as I tugged at my friend’s wrists, trying to buck him off my torso as he mounted me with a wriggle. I was exhausted and running out of ideas. With a final burst of energy, I squeezed my body upright, slipped my left knee out and tried to sweep him onto the ground.
All I did was turn my shoulders, giving him free rein to the soft flesh of my neck. I felt his forearm on my throat and knew there was no escape. With a few taps on my hand, the bout was done. The half-dozen friends gathered on this little lawn all hooted in approval, cracking jokes at my expense.
I have no idea why we decided to create this impromptu fight club, which was absolutely illegal under school rules and somewhat questionable from a safety perspective. The easy answer might be that we were 17-year-old fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which often showcased the power of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and freestyle wrestling when applied to a street brawl.
Still, I think that downplays the impact of how boys learn to roughhouse as a form of play and catharsis. Men can be prone to throwing up roadblocks when it comes to touch and vulnerability, so it meant something that my friends trusted me enough to let me grab, throw and choke them for sport. I took it to heart that I could trust them, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite the reckoning for men when it comes to platonic friendship and the need for closeness. Seemingly overnight, every straight dude’s favorite places closed down — the sports bar, the basketball court, the gym, all gone. But quietly, the mythical underground fight club lived on. Whether impromptu or organized, the specter of a novel virus just hasn’t kept men from wanting to stand toe-to-toe, breathing hard and swinging for contact. I can’t fathom why a bunch of kids at McGill University in Montreal would break social-distancing rules to brawl each other on a grassy knoll in the dark, nor why some 60 students would gather to cheer that brawl on.
But by student accounts, it sure sounds like the university’s restrictions on students seeing each other in the dorms backfired into anarchy. That following weekend, a much bigger fight unfolded in an unadorned warehouse in the Bronx, where some 200 people packed around a minuscule boxing ring to watch two amateur fighters swing for the fences. Law enforcement busted the party, but it’s hard to imagine that “Rumble in the Bronx” won’t return soon (I mean, the official YouTube channel literally uploaded yesterday, so…). Down the coast, the Virginia outfit known as Street Beefs hasn’t stopped conducting chaotic fights between amateurs in “Satan’s Backyard.” Pandemic or otherwise, these unsanctioned fights roll on.
This is nothing new. There’s evidence of mutual combat for sport going back to the 3rd millennium B.C., and in more recent Western history, the sport of boxing (with all its civilized rules, gear and judging) owes much to the spectacularly savage “prizefighting” brawls that drew crowds in the 1500s. I couldn’t find much info on historical “fight clubs” as we define them now, but we do know that boxing clubs and other meet-ups for brawls blossomed in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was different from duels that held the threat of fatal violence in that the protocol wasn’t to kill or maim.
Still, nothing is more responsible for the rise of the fight club in the zeitgeist than David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel from 1996. Apparently, a lot of guys missed the existential, consumerist and homoerotic themes in the material and just jumped straight to the part where they beat the shit out of each other in a basement. Naturally, all kinds of fight clubs popped up across the globe in the aftermath of the film’s success.
In San Francisco, a lean fifty-something codenamed Bloody Knuckles conducted fights in a hotel basement in the grimy Tenderloin District and attracted people via Craigslist (“A group of guys who get together for love of the sport … where there is no trash talking or victory dances, WE JUST FIGHT and through that means internally we build character, externally we build camaraderie.”) In nearby Silicon Valley, the “Gentleman’s Fighting Club” coalesced a motley crew of tech geeks, former tough guys and middle-aged fathers with 60-second rounds of body blows and improvised weapons in a garage. In Miami, we got Kimbo Slice and a young Jorge Masvidal brawling dudes in a backyard.
It’s unclear how many of these early aughts fight clubs still exist, but new ones continue to pop up.
What explains this craving for hands-on violence, even amid a pandemic? There is plenty of lazy evolutionary psychology that suggests men are just innately primed for fisticuffs, thanks to a blend of genetics and hormonal activity rooted in our primal origins, but I think that fails to acknowledge how emotional introspection plays into a man’s decision to join a fight club. Even simple honor doesn’t cover it anymore. Alexander Hamilton got shot by Aaron Burr because he knew he’d get “posted” — literally humiliated in the town papers — if he didn’t show up to a challenge that had escalated for months. But in a fight club? Losing doesn’t mean anything, and winning only impresses the people in the room. It’s closer to a gang initiation than a conventional fight.
I think the quote at the beginning of the short documentary Uppercut, which follows the Gentleman’s Fight Club in Palo Alto, California, says it all: “I hit a guy in the face, and I’m alive. And we’re bonded. We’re members of the same tribe. I’m going to test him, but not break him, and he’s going to test me, but not break me,” a voice says. “We’re both better after a fight than we were before. We’ve created art that never existed before in that garage.”
It’s a romantic interpretation, to say the least. But it makes sense, especially when we see how the pandemic has forced men to confront their mortality, value and resilience in the face of extreme circumstances. It’s the same blend of uncomfortable questions that pushes regular men into mutual violence — including me. Is it a coincidence that I have a stronger urge than ever to return to a combat sport with sparring?
I’m not sure, but clearly, 2020 fight clubs prove that men just can’t keep their hands off each other, no matter the odds or era.