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How Fist Fighting Made Me a Better Man

There are few sensations as rewarding as that of your knee driving into the soft, fleshy testicles of the guy who just butted in front of you in the lineup at Dairy Queen, but there are also risks. Clearly, there are situations in which a man has no choice but to stand up for himself; there are many more in which standing down is unquestionably the right thing to do. The key is knowing the difference.

Robbie Dillon has been in a lot of fights. We haven't. In fact, we try our best to avoid them. He tells us what we're missing out on. -AskMen Editors

You're a nice guy. I get that. You think violence is stupid and unnecessary, and you're right. But let's play make-believe for a minute. It's Saturday night. You're walking out of the movies with your girlfriend, or maybe you're in the lineup at a club. Some jerk eyes your date up and down and says, "Hey, baby girl. Where you goin' tonight?" She ignores him. So far, so good. Then he grabs her arm and pulls her toward him. You tell him to let her go. He shoves you away with his free hand and says, "Whatta ya gonna do about it?"

So? What are you going to do about it?

I've been in a few scraps in my day. Some I'm a little ashamed of, a lot more I feel pretty good about. I once kneed a racist cop in his balls so hard that I lifted him three inches off the ground. His buddies gave me a good working over in the back stairwell of the police station, but hard as they tried, they couldn't smack the grin off my face. I laid another guy out with a single punch after he insulted my aunt and her girlfriend down at the local bar one night. People who were there still talk about it.

I've also taken my share of beatings, which, as far as I'm concerned, is a badge of honour -- no one can accuse me of picking my shots. I've been punched, kicked, slashed with knives and had guns pointed in my face. I once took a boot to the back of the head that put me in a coma and left me with dizzy spells and blurred vision for the better part of a year. Still, my biggest regrets are the handful of fights I've had to walk away from.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not like I go looking for trouble, but when it comes knocking, I don't exactly bar the door. I'm not a violent person, but I know that fighting has always been, and probably always will be, a part of my life. The ability to defend myself and those close to me, to stand up for those who can't protect themselves, is one of the cornerstones of my identity, inseparable from my idea of what it means to be a man.

Punching In The Blood

I couldn't tell you what combination of nature and nurture made me this way. I grew up in a tough but respectable working-class neighborhood, where fathers played catch with their sons and taught them to deal with bullies the same way their fathers had taught them -- by fighting back.

My grandmother always said that fighting was in our blood. My ancestors were Mohawk warriors and rebels from the north of Ireland. At times I felt as though they'd left me sitting on a genetic powder keg.

Then again, the answers may have been buried a little deeper in the past. Charles Darwin noted "the greater size, strength, courage, and pugnacity of the males in most species." He attributed this to males "having been successful in conquering other males, and thus having left a larger number of offspring to inherit their superiority."

In other words, if you are a man living on this planet today, it's only because, for millions of generations, your genetic forebears successfully beat the crap out of their rivals. You are the descendant of champions.

Every cell in your body carries within it a history of violent, brutish competition. That we, as men, have figured out how to live in societies that value consensus and cooperation is nothing short of a miracle and due, in large part, to a process known as sublimation.

Every time you watch an action movie, cheer on a UFC fighter, or play Assassin's Creed, you're re-directing the violent instincts that are your genetic heritage to a socially acceptable outlet. Our long and tortuous journey to civilization began in a cave somewhere with tales of great warriors battling giants and dragons. It continues today in all the "diversions" that allow us to satisfy our innate lust for savagery without having to actually hurt anyone.

This isn't, on the surface, a bad thing. Few of us would want to live in a world where people settle every minor dispute by bashing each other's heads in. So we head off to see the latest Bond film or spend an afternoon blasting zombies at the local arcade. But as gratifying as all that vicarious carnage can be, if you never get in a real fight, you're not much different from the guy who spends all his time watching porn and hanging out in strip clubs but never actually gets laid.

Unless you want to go through life as the pugilistic equivalent of an old man in a raincoat, you're going to have to throw down at some point. The only question is, when? To put it simply, what situations in everyday life justify the use of physical force?


The Morality of Punching

The answers aren't as easy as they used to be. For most of our history, it was taken for granted that insults and personal grievances had to be settled man-to-man. Though the aristocracy favoured more "civilized" options like swords and duelling pistols, fisticuffs were embraced by the working classes as an honest, down-to-earth way of defending one's honour.

Today, the decision to fight comes down to a single question. What do you believe in, and how strongly do you believe in it? It's one thing to have principles when all that's required is a click of the "like" button on Facebook. It's another to ask what you're willing to take a beating for.

What are you personally able to live with? Several years ago, I went to a football game with a couple of friends, one of whom was gay. A couple of rows behind us, a gaggle of drunken boneheads decided the best way to cheer on the home team was to bellow every homophobic epithet they could think of at the opposition. This was at a point in my life where I was trying very hard to be a "normal" person, so I stayed in my seat like everyone else and pretended to ignore the filth raining down on us. Almost a decade has passed since that day, but I still feel ashamed whenever I think about it.

How about you? Would you fight to defend your family and loved ones? Could you stand by while somebody beat a woman or a child? Do you look away when someone in a position of privilege verbally abuses an employee or service person?

Clearly, there are situations in which a man has no choice but to stand up for himself; there are many more in which standing down is unquestionably the right thing to do. The key is knowing the difference.

When I was in elementary school, we rarely made it through recess without two boys squaring off while a mob gathered around them, chanting "Beef! Beef! Beef!" It may have been a little barbaric, but it was how we learned some of life's most important lessons.

Every kid who ever stepped onto that schoolyard knew the meaning of a "fair" fight. We were courteous to each other (well, as courteous as prepubescent boys can be) because calling someone a name meant you had to be ready to back it up. As for bullying, the truth is there's no amount of sensitivity training that can better help a bully understand the fear and humiliation experienced by his victims than being smacked around by a kid who's even bigger than he is.

We may have far fewer physical confrontations these days, but there's been a corresponding decline in courtesy, empathy and respect, as well as a rise in the number of passive-aggressive douchebags and others who see our penchant for peaceful resolution as a weakness to be taken advantage of.

The Perils Of Punching

There's nothing wrong with talking things over, but when all is said and done, there's no form of communication as direct and succinct as a punch in the face. It gets your point across in a fraction of a second, says everything it needs to and leaves no uncertainty as to its meaning or intent.

Not to mention that sometimes it just feels really good.

There are few sensations as rewarding as that of your knee driving into the soft, fleshy testicles of the guy who just butted in front of you in the lineup at Dairy Queen, but there are also risks. You never know when some punk is going to pull a knife or a gun, and even if he doesn't, there's a risk of serious injury in any physical confrontation (not that that ever stopped anyone from going skiing or skateboarding).

I can't say that fighting has been all that costly for me on a personal level. Sure, I once punched out the wrong guy (OK, more than once), and I've had a few scrapes with the law, but overall I've been very lucky. People I grew up with, on the other hand, have been killed or badly hurt in street fights, and one of my childhood friends was charged with manslaughter after he fatally struck another man in a road-rage incident.

The Motives of Punching

Left to their own devices, the males of most species will arrange themselves into some sort of pecking order, usually through contests that involve things like head-butting or other displays of size and strength. The urge to fight may be inextricably linked to masculinity, but what makes us men, rather than simply male, is how we respond to our inherent drives. Are we at the mercy of our instincts, or do we make rational choices about how and when we act on them?

Self-awareness is as important as self-control. Before you smack out some jerk who's just looking to prove what a tough guy he is, ask yourself to what extent your own insecurities play a role in your decision. Bullies tend to see themselves as victims, and the desire to protect someone close to you can very easily cross the line into intimidation and control.

To the man with a hammer, a wise man once said, everything looks like a nail. Violence is a powerful tool, but it should never be seen as a fix-all. Think of it more along the lines of a spatula -- useless or detrimental in most situations, but extremely handy when you come across some guy who's just begging to get his burger flipped.

Fighting -- and knowing when not to fight -- has made me a better person. Seeing firsthand, as it were, the damage I can do with my fists has not only boosted my self-confidence, but taught me to be more patient and put me in touch with my feelings. Take it from me: A man is never more vulnerable, humble or in need of emotional support than after he's been beaten up.

I realize that some of you will dismiss me as an anachronism, a brute or a thug. That's OK. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say, and what I yam is a man, which means that sometimes I'm going to have to hit someone. Maybe you disagree. The important thing is we don't have to fight about it. Unless, of course, you really want to.

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