Men fight because it feels good. It’s thrilling. Testosterone explodes and adrenaline surges. The hormonal musk kicked up by a MMA fight is potent enough to grow hair on a grapefruit. We have love of the battle in our blood. There are biological and evolutionary reasons for this. Like many male mammals, men compete for territory, food, and, most importantly, females. After all, it’s our genetic compulsion to spread our seed. Violence is part of our nature. It comes in handy when a giant, shambling mound of protein with tusks needs to be taken down. It’s a negative when … well… read the news. If I were a cynic, I’d say that war was invented to keep the surplus of men down.
I’ve always found Darwinian explanations and excuses for human behavior to be cop-outs. I believe we are in constant conflict with our primary programming, and that conflict is the defining trait of being human. The ability to transcend our base, primal instincts that we inherited from our ancestors from long ago, ancestors who lived short, brutal, ugly lives. If we were not capable of subverting our inner animal, we’d never have invented prophylactics, which allow us the pleasure of sex without the consequence of childbirth. Mercy and compassion are of little evolutionary value. Yet humanity has struggled to invent ideas and concepts that lift us up from the muck of self-interested survival. For instance, religion, art, and philosophy all help us to imagine a world without suffering. A better world where we’re not slaves to fighting and humping.
It’s exciting. Time slows down. Your muscles seem to swell, and your senses sharpen. Victory is an addictive drug. It’s not that I’m not a fan of irony, but before I get crazy-pants death threats from readers with poor reading comprehension skills: I am not endorsing violence. I respect pacifists. Walking away from a fight is a noble act, an example of wizened self-control. A friend of mine once took a beating rather than raise his fists. Apparently, he had long hair and some dude didn’t like his hair. He barked, mocked, pushed. My friend stood up to him, didn’t back down, but didn’t fight. It was a gory way to make a point, but the point was made: He absorbed pain because of principles he believed in. I’m a firm believer that violence begets violence. Fighting rarely settles anything; it just invites more fighting. But I can’t ignore the jolt of grisly joy that being in a fight can inspire, or even near one. I’ve learned, over the years, there is a such thing as the right fight and the wrong fight.
So here’s why I’m writing this in the first place: I was honored to be privy to two bar fights recently. They were both examples of the “wrong fight.” The first was at my local dive bar here in Queens. A hipster kid stormed into what is a very neighborhood bar. Lots of union guys, local kooks, waiters, plumbers, and assorted yuppie degenerates like yours truly. He was alone. Scrawny. He wore thick black glasses and dude bangs. He was lit like a road flare. I could sense that he was in the mood to scrap. He sat next to the smallest guy in the bar, a guy more or less the hipster’s age. Maybe early twenties. What I should have done was go over and explain to him the three rules of dive bars. Number one: never talk smack, loudly, about what’s playing on the juke box. The juke box is sacred. Number two: don’t verbally abuse the pleasant, friendly female Irish bartender. And, most importantly, number three: never pick a fight at a bar where off-duty cops drink. The hipster, upon finding out that the small guy his own age had put on The Grateful Dead, proceeded to rail against the music. The small guy didn’t take the bait, to his credit. He just grit his teeth and simmered. The hipster started being openly hostile to the bartender and, within five minutes, she and I had gotten him out of the bar. Which is when he started throwing his fists. This surprised me, as hipsters are a subculture known more for sarcastic passive-aggressive barbs than machismo. I tried to calm him down, without actually getting into a fight. Telling him to just go home in a low, steady tone. Suddenly, he froze. Was it because of my intimidating build? My fearsome pose? My manly voice, which sounds like gravel and chainsaws? It was the top cops behind me. They were both approximately fifteen-hundred pancakes tall and made out of molten steel. And they wanted to take this guy apart like a chicken wing. I managed to convince him of his folly and he stumbled home.
Why did he want to fight? Booze? The ecstasy of crunching knuckles? My guess is he had never actually been in a fight. That he’d never actually been punched in the nose. Felt that shooting pain that stabs clean through your skull. I was told once that a guy who wants to really fight you won’t tell you he wants to fight you first. He’ll just punch you. This hipster was looking to secrete his excess testosterone over some poor nobody he didn’t know. I’m sure in his head he was fighting the right fight. That the offending song or the look in that guy’s face, or whatever, had been a slight worthy of engaging in combat. A lot of guys are the heroes of their own little action movies and cannot imagine that, in fact, they are the villain in everybody else’s movie.
The second fight I caught recently was at a loathsome frat bar in Manhattan. It was a sea of crew cuts and blue shirts. Don’t ask what I was doing there. These things happen. This was a scuffle involving two overly body-sprayed ham hocks. It was like a climactic clash between Abercrombie & Fitch. It was a simple tale: brodawg bumped into other brodawg’s girl. No apology was issued. The best part of what turned out to be a lot of pushing and shoving was a brief, imperceptible moment when the two guys were chest to chest. Fingers were jabbing, eyes were narrowing, peacock feathers were sprouting out of khaki-clad asses. Somewhere buried deep in this moment of macho-posturing I could swear they were going to kiss. Fighting over a woman is lame. It’s normally just an excuse for two men to go penis-to-penis against each other. It is not the right fight. I don’t know any woman who appreciates the gesture.
Of course, a lot of what I know about fighting comes from a woman. My mother, who grew up in El Paso, Texas. In her youth she ran with Latina gangs. Growing up, I was a butterball and frequently picked on. I would report tales of my bullying and my mother would tell me, and this is a direct quote, “Mijo, Jesus said to turn the other cheek. But you only have two cheeks, and Jesus didn’t say get your ass kicked.” In her way, she tried to imbue in her son a sense of the right fight. Never pick a fight. Help those who ask you for your help. Defend yourself and those you love. She didn’t advocate violence; it was experience that taught her sometimes, when cornered, you have to take a stand for yourself, and your principles. Over years, I’ve seen her fight casual racism, sexism, and anyone who would dare cross her family. Always stand up for yourself and those you love. Nothing feels as good as taking a punch for being true to yourself.
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