"How well can you know yourself if you've never been in a fight?" Brad Pitt asks Edward Norton in Fight Club, the No. 1 movie in the country last week. It's a good question. Is today's American man a flabby, drab IKEA boy, hopelessly out of touch with his inner wolverine? There's one way to find out: Get in a fight.
"There's something about getting hit in the face that gives you an adrenalized version of life," says Fight Club director David Fincher. He's right, and that something is adrenaline, the fight-or-flight fuel that kept our ancestors from winding up as lion chow. "I don't see any great satisfaction in beating the s—- out of somebody," says psychiatrist David Marcotte, "but the instinct is there. Males tend to fight. Our socialization tries to reduce our so-called animalistic tendencies, but those tendencies are part of us."
In Fight Club, socialization turns men into mice. Emasculation, Fincher calls it, and even if his film doesn't spur a bare-knuckle-boxing renaissance, he might be on to something. Aren't a lot of men itching to be Pitt bulls like Brad?
But those guys don't really need a punch in the face. They need a history lesson. In 1889, in an illegal fight near Richburg, Miss., John L. Sullivan pulverized Jake Kilrain in the last major bare-knuckle bout. It lasted 75 rounds. We are more civilized today, but as Muhammad Ali can tell you, boxing still hurts and damages fighters. Fight Club is as romantic about fighting as Pretty Woman was about prostitution—Pitt and Norton never slur their words, and the teeth they lose are always molars, because movie stars can't afford to have NHL smiles.
Forty years ago SI's George Plimpton tested his manhood Fight Club-style. He fought three rounds with light heavyweight champ Archie Moore and learned something important. He learned that getting punched in the nose made him cry.
"I haven't seen Fight Club" says Plimpton, "but the idea that brawling teaches manliness sounds like an impulse that needs to be strangled. Getting your teeth knocked out isn't a badge of honor. It's just a badge of getting beaten up."
Are you a warrior or a weeper? Most guys are a little of both—fantasizing about feral combat but also keeping up with NASDAQ, SportsCenter and, yes, the new IKEA catalog. A good fight might be liberating, but a futon is forever.