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Tyee Books

Bullies and Jerks

Searching for soul in violent games.

By Richard Warnica 3 Aug 2007 |

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Why do we fight?

I am, from top to bottom, a wholly underwhelming spectacle of man. Twenty-six years old, a hair above six feet, with a small undulating layer of fat that circles my thin stomach. I have bony arms and twiggy bird-like wrists and a lower body completely out of proportion with the upper. I'm not a specimen or a stud, or really, to be honest, much of anything approaching athletic.

Still though, I can play. Or, to be more precise, I don't stop playing.

I have, for most of the last 10 years and for a scattershot mix of schools and clubs, played a man's version of a boy's game; a game based on violent collisions, on size and speed and skill under pressure: none of which, needless to say, I have much of. But I have earned my spot on some good and some very bad rugby teams over the years mostly by being willing to get up and go again. To take all the stomping, the punching, the torn tendons, and stitched up eyes, the clicking ankles and stiffening knees and to show up again on Tuesday ready to train. It is, by any logical calculation of risks and benefits, a stupid thing to do.

So why do I do it? I'm not exactly sure.

Collision sports -- sports that, from football, to boxing, to mixed martial arts and rugby, rely on not getting out of the way -- are different from other games. And what connects the men and women who play them, I think, is an underlying unease about why we do it. And even more so, about whom we do it with.

That is, I suspect, why there are so many stories about the fraternity of rugby or the spiritual nature of the martial arts. Because if there isn't some deeper meaning, some spiritual or social pay off, then it's just violence: just an exercise to beat down your fellows without consequence. For some, no doubt, that's enough. They are on every successful team (and, I imagine, in every successful dojo or boxing club) a couple of bullies and assholes: people for whom the base pleasure of bashing a stranger's clavicle is the perfect pastime. But for the rest, for the (I hope) majority, there's still that big gaping "why?"

'Me Chi and Bruce Lee' by Brian Preston

Victoria writer Brian Preston comes at this question from outside the fraternity of violent games. A pot smoking, middle-aged scribe with a beer-belly and an unblemished record of physical cowardice, Preston makes an unlikely candidate to explore the world of body-as-a-temple obsessives and combat fanatics. But it works. What you do get with Preston is a sense of anthropological distance from the subject. When he asks the big "why," he does so without baggage, without the need to justify his own scars and past glories.

Me Chi and Bruce Lee is ostensibly about Kung Fu (or wushu) and it comes laid out along two interweaving paths. The first is Preston's own physical journey and it's a short one. Preston's study of Kung Fu limps through a couple fractured ribs and a busted up shoulder, before he retreats to gentler pursuits. On the books second path, however, the writer delves a little deeper. As Preston is undergoing his own pratfall-filled exploration of the martial arts, he also takes the reader on an ambling journey through the history of those same arts.

At the start of the book, you could describe Preston's outlook on martial arts as skeptical but optimistic. His first Master, a Victoria Kung Fu instructor named Sifu Bob, along with his master's master, a chunky white monk named Don, impress upon the writer that despite the many bastardizations and exploitations, Chinese martial arts are in their origins and core about the spirit, about conquering the mind. And while Preston doesn't exactly lose that by the end, he definitely does find that in most cases and places, it's the bastardizations that have won the day.

Preston's final sortie into the martial arts world connects him to the now ubiquitously popular Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). And while Preston seems to genuinely like and admire his guide in this world, a Washington state fighter and anarchist, he ends up pretty disgusted with the world itself. At an event in Las Vegas where his guide, Jeff Monson, is on the undercard, Preston comes away with some unfortunate realizations: that outside the headliners, the fighters are exploited, making peanuts to sacrifice their own bodies for others' millions. And the crowd, while the crowd's not there for the art, they just want to see a beating.

'Tent Boxing' by Wayne McLennan

Tent Boxing is a much more narrow, more personal exploration of the themes of camaraderie and organized violence than is Preston's book. But while the author, Wayne McLennan, comes at the subject from a more experienced place than does Preston, he's still after the same question: Why? Why at 50-years-old, with a wife and a successful business and a brain one bad hit away from permanent damage would a man spend a summer baking in the Queensland heat, going from town to town with a carnival tent full of fighters taking cheap paydays to box puffed up half-drunk locals?

McLennan himself is a former semi-pro-fighter, a guy who knows what to do with his fists, and who, unlike Preston has had more than a few chances to use them. As a kid growing up in rural Australia, the highlight of Preston's summers was the agricultural fair. And the highlight of the fair was the boxing tent, where inside a team of pugilists would challenge the local boys and men. McLennan, though, never got the chance. By the time he was old enough to fight, most Australian states, including his, had banned the practice. That's how, in a round about way, he found himself some 35 years later, back in the tent, not as a fighter (except for one ill thought out occasion) but as a general dog's body and hanger-on.

It's hard not to notice the differences between the fighters McLennan and Preston follow. In the UFC, the contestants are predominantly white and middle class -- they fight because they want to. In the tent, or at least the tent McLennan latches on to, it's different. The boxers who make up his troupe are poor and are aboriginal. Most take little pleasure in fighting. But they are comfortable in the life: the paychecks and steady meals, the lazy days and camaraderie of the carnival.

For McLennan that's the answer: the "why" is the life and the friends:

"I'd come back searching for a place, my people, and I'd found them. I had in the past always left Australia feeling I didn't quite belong. The life of my old mates had become too different.../ [But o]n the show ground there were no settlers. People danced through the day to the rhythms of an erratic piper. It was the regularity that frightened me: like a layer of coal dust settling on your lungs day after day, until you can't breath anymore."

I enjoyed Tent Boxing. But the conclusions felt a little hollow. McLennan leaves the life after a single season, back to Europe, back to his business and his wife. For the fighters, though, it's not so simple. None leave the game hurt, really, but none seem really helped by it either. And McLennan's own need to punch and be punched remains by book's end an unanswered question.

'Muddied Oafs: The Soul of Rugby' by Richard Beard

Neither McLennan nor Preston come at their topics with the same unabashed love as does Richard Beard. Beard, like me, is a rugby man, an almost lifelong student of the game. And in Muddied Oafs he explores the soul of a sport that leads men to bash themselves silly. But while Beard's own feelings for rugby are clear, a sense of unease still permeates the book. For one, Beard worries that the stereotype of the "rugger bugger," the over-muscled, under-brained bar-trashing womanizing cad, may be a little too close to true. He fears, essentially, that the bullies and the assholes are the mainstream, not the fringe, that the myth that has sustained him through decades of pain and misery is just that, a myth.

Beard's version of the rugby creed boils down to this: "that this game and this game only makes us Saturday by Saturday into stronger and more admirable men." It's pretty much the same myth that envelopes all the collision sports, whether Kung Fu, boxing or rugby: that violence, and the courage to face it and shake hands afterwards, builds those qualities we consider manly. (Never mind the legions of women who play any of them.) It's an ethos Beard finds strained in many of the spots on his journey. But even in the dwindling clubs in Scotland and the dying college game at Oxford and the wholly professional get up at the senior levels, Beard still finds enough to confirm at least some version of his original thesis: rugby may not necessarily build good men, but there are plenty of good men in rugby.

The idea of rugby as a creator and exemplar of manliness is one I've observed from an odd spot for the past two years. My current club participates in an organized and physical (if low level) league. But at the same time it contradicts one of the cardinal unspoken rules of the fraternity of manliness: it openly accepts and encourages the participation of homosexuals. Gay or gay-friendly rugby isn't all that new. There are clubs on at least three continents and even a world cup. But it is, I think, destabilizing. For many who play the violent games, their "why" is that it proves them to be a certain kind of man, that, in essence, only men of a particular breed are capable of doing what they do. Needless to say that for many, men who like men are not on that list.

My "why" then, in the end, may not be all that different from Beard's. I do think that rugby, or for that matter many of the physical sports, can help make me a better man. But they do so only as long as they help create newer, better definitions of manliness. Because for many, and maybe even most, violent sports are just that: an excuse to make sport out of violence; to learn new ways to crack noses and twist limbs; to justify and revel in the angry physical instincts suppressed in day to day life. But for others, there's more. There's a test of the body and a chance to define a part of one's self, to create a definition at odds with how others see you. Whether there's more of the latter than the former is an open question. But there are, I imagine, in the UFC and the boxing tent and the rugby pitch, some of all types.