The cage fight saga pitting Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk is stuck in the “is it happening or not” stage, to the amusement and fascination of millions. After saying the bout would be live-streamed on his social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter), Musk announced he'd first undergo an MRI to make sure he didn't need surgery to “strengthen” a titanium plate in his neck (the consequence, he's said, of sumo wrestling about nine years ago). “Exact date is still in flux,” Tesla's “techno king and chief executive officer” tweeted of the mixed martial arts matchup. “I'm ready today,” Zuck responded on one of his own social media platforms, Threads, but “not holding my breath.”
Delay may be the better part of valor — given the better physical condition, the Facebook founder is in. But it also ups the anticipation levels of everyone who'd like to see a billionaire-on-billionaire smackdown. Usually, these take place via the value of the stock they have in their own companies (Musk is the plutocrat to beat in this category). As my colleague Adrian Wooldridge recently wrote, physical combat between these tech titans could establish who's the alpha-est of all the alpha males in Silicon Valley.
I get the appeal of going mano a mano. Kaiju vs. kaiju? I'm there. (I got up early in the morning for the worldwide debut of Godzilla vs. Kong). Novak Djokovic against any top five men's singles tennis player? I'm in. Alexis vs. Krystle in Dynasty? Ok, I'm showing my age.
Not too long ago — well, back in 2005 — I was caught up in the revival of MMA. It was inspired by a reality TV show that concluded in a titanic cage fight, which I wrote about for Time magazine. Here's my description of the single battle that revived a fugitive sport that's now captured Musk and Zuckerberg:
Neither man would give in, so the crowd roared for the fighters to smash each other again: more kicks, punches, stomps, knees, and elbows. They obliged. When they got too tired to fight, they would grab each other and crash to the mat of the octagonal ring, grappling, twisting like strange action figures, pressing against the cage's netting. Then they would be back on their feet, catching a breath, calculating advantage, their faces streaked with sweat and gore. Both were bleeders. Weeks before, in a qualifying bout, Forrest Griffin, 26, had suffered a gash above an eye that required so many stitches that few expected him to advance in the contest. He healed in time for this evening's punishment, and as Stephan Bonnar, 28, punched him in the head, Griffin cheekily offered a come-hither smile, turned the other cheek, and slammed back.
The fight turned Forrest Griffin (who won) and Stephan Bonnar into the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier of MMA — and the sport into a commercial and athletic phenomenon. Eight years earlier, it had been banned from TV and major arenas in the US after critics lambasted its bizarre brutality, which pitted martial art against martial art (sumo against boxing against Brazilian jiujitsu against Muay Thai and on and on). The late US Senator John McCain called it “human cockfighting.” But the first season of The Ultimate Fighter on SpikeTV (now the Paramount Network) not only revived interest, it set up the gladiators in a house where they shared their lives as they fought and eliminated each other in brutal matches, leading up to the Griffin-Bonnar finale. You rooted for them as fighters but also as affecting characters in a drama. That kind of scripting did the trick: It humanized a notorious blood sport.
Griffin and Bonnar were perfectly cast as the pioneer standard bearers of the revivified MMA. Bonnar was handsome and brooding. Griffin was a smart aleck with a gap-toothed charisma. And the astonishing thing is that they were friends and remained friends, even after Bonnar lost a rematch months later (he named his son Griffin). MMA provided a way out of obscurity — and near penury. Griffin told Time that, while fighting in fly-by-night cage circuits, he'd be sometimes paid $100 a night —and then see the check bounce.
The tremendous charm of the original ultimate fighters was that they were strong men with soft hearts. They transcended gladiatorial and mercenary instincts, as well as financial adversity, to find brotherhood despite or perhaps because of the physical pain they had to inflict on each other. That attraction has certainly diminished as the sport has become big business and the public personalities of the fighters more cartoonish. I don't watch it anymore for that reason and others. I'm tired of seeing people I've come to care for get hurt.
The ever-entertaining Griffin has gone on to a corporate job with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Las Vegas-based company that started it all. Bonnar's career went the other way: He meandered from MMA to wrestling to a run-in with the police. He died suddenly in December 2022 from what was first described as a heart attack. This past March, the coroner's office in Clark County, Nevada, said it was the result of an “accidental” fentanyl overdose. Bonnar had said he'd been on a prescription of 30 mg of oxycodone a day — a moderate amount — for the pain resulting from his fighting career. Griffin tweeted: “Stephan was a lot of things: He was always the most interesting person in the room, he had the biggest heart and most importantly, he was my friend. I always loved it that people got excited when they found out we were really friends. I'll always miss you, brother.”
It is heartbreakingly poignant. That kind of emotion does not seem to undergird all the trash-talking between the two billionaires. But, if it ends up with genuine friendship, let them fight.
© 2023 Bloomberg LP
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