Three Truths about Being in a Real “Fight Club”
Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club and the subsequent 1999 film based on it, is the story of an unreliable narrator experiencing dissociative behavior and social alienation, common symptoms of life for many in late capitalist America. Both the book and the film have become something of an anthem for many members of what we might jokingly call the “Manosphere,” a very loose collection of Men’s Rights groups and activists that prize hyper-masculine values, such as machismo and misogyny. Palahniuk’s story centers on the eponymous “Fight Club” – a collection of similarly disenfranchised men who meet up to literally beat each other up to achieve catharsis and to connect themselves to their true masculinity.
Palahniuk is himself a member of the Cacophony Society, a group that comes together to flaunt social norms and seek new experiences. Much of the author’s work is based around discordant and nihilistic themes, and, arguably, many might interpret those who seek out physical violence as people looking to break out of the day-to-day rut of an alienating modern society. However, the kind of violence-as-catharsis portrayed in Fight Club coupled to the uber-machoism advocated by some self-identified members of the “Manosphere” has not been my experience with real “fight clubs.”
I was in a fight club as a young man in the 1990’s, before Palahniuk’s work was published and I am in one currently – a little informal group called the “40-50 Boxing Club” for men ages 40-50 who want to come together and spar on a regular basis. Some are ex-military trying to keep sharp, others are policemen, and some of us just do it for fun. The actual experience is vastly different from that projected in popular culture.
There was a time in American history when boxing was among our top national distractions. Every town of size had a boxing gym and a ring. Attending a match on the local fight circuit was common – young lovers went to see boxing matches on dates; dads took their kids, and boxing leagues were a regular part of high school athletics. In the nineteenth century fisticuffs and wrestling weren’t shunned; they were good-natured sports. Abraham Lincoln, before he became president, was well-known as a champion wrestler.
Anyone who has grown up on the margins of society knows that self-defense is still a very real part of daily life. I am not referring here to the fantasy of carrying a firearm to shoot a mugger, but the reality of having to defend your school lunch money so you can eat that a day. Though Middle Class America may consider fighting to be anti-social behavior or, among its advocates in the “Manosphere,” a novelty, it is still very much a reality for anyone who has grown up in a rough neighborhood.
I admit, unashamedly, I like fighting.
Early on in school I found encounters with bullies or lunch money thieves to be more of a challenge than something to be feared. By the time I was in high school I was joining in on organized informal “boxing clubs” – where guys met up at night in parking lots or out in the woods to tape up their fists and brawl bare-knuckled. In college I learned to fence, which gave my fighting skills, even without the sword, an extra poise and balance.
That lifelong experience has taught me three simple truths about the reality of fighting:
There is No Magic Bullet – Technique Doesn’t Matter. The Karate Kid’s crane kick or Mr. Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch would lead us to believe there is some uber-fighting technique that can make one unbeatable. Having a “Black Belt” in something means one has magic fighting powers that a street fighter or gang-banger cannot overcome. In reality, most of the formal martial arts are actually a kind of trained choreography with sparring rules that determine how fighters behave in a given situation. There are plenty of online videos of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters defeating well-trained “Black Belts” of one style or another.
The truth is everyone has different weight classes, levels of hand-eye coordination, and willingness to approach an opponent. A massive 300 pound weight lifter with basic skills can still get the jump on a 140 pound karate champ just by force of power and weight. I once fought a Taekwondo artist who weighed in at less than half my weight simply by being able to shove him around the ring – he just did not have enough force behind his hits to do any real damage and I could literally pick him up!
Fighting is more like chess than anything else. No matter what kind of technique is being used the transfer of weight on the legs, shifts in the body, squaring of the shoulders, etc. occurs in a similar fashion. That comes down to physics. Looking out for those telegraphed signs and adjusting your responses is how you win. That is a major reason why fighting is good for you – it sharpens the mind as much, if not more, as the body.
You Can’t Be Angry and Fight. Throughout 25 years of swordplay and fisticuffs, I have never viewed any of it as anything more than a “workout” – like a visit to the gym or a hard run to decompress and relax. At times when I have had to fight outside the ring I have been able to put myself into that mindset. Movies teach us that anger is a kind of fighter’s super power. It gives one super-human punch force or provides some instant clarity powers or awakens one’s inner warrior. In reality being angry in the ring is a fast track to getting your ass kicked.
A good fighter has mental clarity. When adrenaline is pumping, one’s inclination is to run first and fight only when you have to: the “flight or fight” response. While the adrenaline feels good, it clouds the mind, brings tears to the eyes, and yes, can even open your bowels as a self-defense mechanism. People act irrationally in a rage. Anger means you are not paying attention, you are acting impulsively, and you are easy to catch off guard. Anger begets anger – the more you get pummeled the angrier you are going to get.
This is why fighting takes practice – it is why fighters spar; to get used to taking and throwing punches so the emotional response is as passive as possible. You cannot be afraid to take or throw punches and you have to get hit to get used to getting hit. Getting angry about that just means you are going to lose and probably get hurt in the process.
This is why a “Fight Club” is not actually a cure for emotional disconnectedness. It will not bring you catharsis or “power up” your machismo. The reality is, to be a good fighter means turning all that stuff off and approaching the opponent like you are about to approach any other task you have to tackle and overcome. Fighting does not make you an out of control macho man – the more you fight and the better you get, the more you obtain control over your anger and all of your emotions. The best fighters are neither angry nor boastful (unless they are doing it for show business) but relaxed and totally in control of themselves.
Fighting Will Tell You if You are the Person You Think You are. Everyone has an image of the “self” they hold in their mind. A lot of men who pack heat on their hip see themselves as tough cowboys ready to defend themselves at any moment. Barroom brawlers and high school bullies see themselves as big dudes who take no shit and are always ready to throw down. In a world where the white male is no longer always the apex of the social food chain and where industrial society truly is emotionally alienating, these are useful fictions that many people will latch onto to preserve their self-esteem while trying to close a sales call our get a few lines of code written for a demanding boss. For some reason, a lot of guys need to see themselves as a protector and provider – the Marlboro Man.
If that is your self-image – then do not join a fight club. Just get drunk with your friends and punch each other in the gut, trying to avoid rupturing an organ. You will not win all of your fights. A good amateur fighter is lucky to break even. There is no circuit keeping stats or scores and placing people into classes and weight groups. Usually you just fight the guys who show up that day. If you do three fights you are likely to lose one or two. When you are first starting out you are going to probably lose all of them. For a lot of people, every punch becomes an assault on the ego.
We had a guy – a member of a local guard force – show up at our boxing club recently who presented himself like a bantam rooster. He talked trash, thumbed his nose a lot, and acted like he was playing to a camera. After three bouts he was literally a broken spirit. The guy left, head down, he did not go to Happy Hour afterward, and we never saw him again. He had an image of himself that did not comport with the reality. Fighting will tell you the truth about who you are and as a result it is simultaneously empowering and humbling. Fighting’s association with overt machismo is just a myth; the best fighters are controlled and humble. Humility is the one constant of the fighting ethos, from the ancient samurai to the modern soldier. Ultimately, fighting is a way to get to know yourself and become comfortable with the person that you are.
When not getting into fights, JC Drake works for the federal government, investigates unsolved mysteries, and writes stories for fun. He has contributed articles to CLASH Media previously and will have a story appearing in the forthcoming Tragedy Queens anthology. He is married to Vickie Drake, has two cats, and divides his time between Washington, DC and York, Pennsylvania.