Journalist Takes on Culture of Street Fighting Journalist Eugene Robinson's new book, Fight, takes a close look at the culture of street brawling and competitive fighting. It's got a how-to on grappling and surviving broken bones, and it pays tribute to brawling legends of past and present.
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Journalist Takes on Culture of Street Fighting

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Journalist Takes on Culture of Street Fighting

Journalist Takes on Culture of Street Fighting

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS AND NOTES. So do you want to fight? Then call Eugene Robinson. He's always down to knuckle-up. He's a writer for top magazines like GQ, but he also loves a bloody, "Fight Club"-style brawl.

Name the place from official rings to basement face-offs, he scraps hard and he scraps to win. His new book, "Fight," is a tribute to the art of the beat-down. It's got a how-to on grappling and surviving broken bones, and it pays tribute to brawling legends past and present.

Eugene, I'm actually glad you're not in the studio with me, but welcome anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So you don't pull any punches in this book, and that is a pun intended. You deal with everything from professional fighting to informal brawling like bar fights. You had an informal confrontation when you were about 15. Tell me about that face-off and what got you into fighting.

Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Author, "Fight"): You know, I mean, there were a couple of things. I mean, I think one was the occasion of being a loud-mouth, kind of a smart guy, you know, and pretty much you're not going to be allowed to be a loud-mouth smart guy and not stand up for yourself for yourself at some point or another. You're either going to have to do what they say, you know, shut up or put up.

So the 15-year-old occasion, I think that was the first time when I realized that maybe, you know, maybe getting a beat-down is preferable to the other thing, you know. Maybe swallowing it, turning the other cheek, walking away, doesn't really sit well.

I think I was in a bar in upstate New York near Poughkeepsie and had some run-in with four or five Marines, and I looked to the older guy in the group, who was about 22, the same age as the Marines, and he kind of just looked at his drink and did nothing.

Now, in the fullness of time it's occurred to me that maybe that was the wisest thing of all, but I think I was really looking for him - looking to him for some sort of leadership thing, and that was, like, let's all get the beat-down together, and that never happened, and it's rankled me ever since. So I've kind of pursued this muse of...

CHIDEYA: So since you didn't get backup, you decided to learn how to be a fighter yourself. Is that what you're saying?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, it seemed like rightness was with us at that moment, and you know, there's like this incredibly powerful thing when, you know, fired by the rectitude of the moment where you stand up and you say no, you know, no, it's not going to be this way.

There's a right and there's a wrong, and this is wrong. You know, to oppose these kind of forces to me seemed to me to make sense, and you needed to know how to do it if you were going to do it. So...

CHIDEYA: Well, let's flash-forward a little bit. You started doing organized fighting about six years ago, and some of them are kind of like that movie "Fight Club," you know, a secret place, hard to find unless you know what you're looking for. So how did you find out about your local fight club, and what was your first day like?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, you know, you're not supposed to talk about Fight Club, but I think somebody at my record label had seen something or heard tell, and they sent me a number, said this could be, you know, this could be just a joke or a prank or something, but you should check it out.

So I called the number, and they kind of bounced me to a pay phone, and from the pay phone I went to like, you know, some old apartment in the Tenderloin, you know, kind of an old 42nd Street-style kind of a section of San Francisco.

And then I bounced down this kind of cranky old elevator to this basement that was, you know, just done up like a ring with heating pipes and pads on the wall and guys standing around taping their hands.

So that was my introduction to a fight club. I mean, I'd been competing in karate and, you know, competitive fight ventures for a long - fight ventures for a long time, but this was the first time I'd done this kind of secret underground, no-holds-barred type deal. And I got knocked out the first night. That's how it went.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That sounds highly unpleasant. Now, you mentioned...

Mr. ROBINSON: No, no, no. Actually, it wasn't really unpleasant. It was, you know, when I woke up on the mat, I felt incredibly refreshed. It was like, you know, the extraterrestrial, kind of a seizure thing. My time had been stolen away in a weird way, but I didn't feel, in total, bad. I felt very comfortable.

CHIDEYA: Now you mentioned your record label. You've got this band, Oxbow, and I would assume that with your fighting prowess, when people are stage-diving, you know, you can knock them out, too?

Mr. ROBINSON: No, they don't do too much stage-diving at our shows. I mean, our music - Vice magazine called us the greatest art-rock band in the world. So it tends to be, you know, you might find that on a Warp tour, but you don't really find that at an Oxbow show.

CHIDEYA: Have you ever had to apply a hand to a fan or...

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, you know, we played a huge festival over in Bristol, England, and some guy had gone to write on this forum about the experience later, and he said he doesn't know what happened that night, but he had been drinking heavily and somehow thought that the best course of action was to go to the stage front and grab my crotch as hard as possible.

And he said, I guess I shouldn't be surprised about what happened next. I'd like to think that he was inspired by, you know, Dionysus and somehow found that as a way to act out, but I was very unhappy at the time.

CHIDEYA: And you expressed your displeasure.

Mr. ROBINSON: I expressed my displeasure in the way that seemed most appropriate at the time.

CHIDEYA: Now, on a realistic level, a lot of people are going to listen to this and say, well, what's good about fighting? You know, you yourself are a father, and you know, they might say it's not good for kids to hear that someone likes to fight. It's not good, period, for someone to want to fight. How do you respond to the idea that this is immoral or at least lacks common sense?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I think immorality has very little to do with it in this instance. It may lack a certain amount of common sense, but I'd like to say that I'm a standard-bearer for a certain comfortability with reality.

I don't see that this is something that you can avoid. I like the idea that they might have a problem with me liking it. That makes sense. I think, you know, in the West we have - it seems kind of retrograde that I would like it, but you know, insofar as my kids are concerned, I think it's part of a skill set that everybody should have growing up.

It used to be in the purview of the aristocracy, you know, from fencing societies to, you know, Marquis of Queensbury Boxing Rules. These were the pursuits of the upper classes, you know, not even 100 years ago.

So if you were a person fit for society, this is what you did. You know, somebody might counter with well, we no longer duel either. You know, we settle our disagreements, we're guided by the rule of law. You know, I mean, when you're in a bar and a guy is not letting you leave the bar because somehow he's chosen you in this, you know, great moment of flesh meeting flesh that you and him are going to - I mean, there are lots of options, but it would be nice at that point in time probably for you to learn - know how to defend yourself.

Now, there's some people who have never had occasion to need to defend themselves, and to them this might seem to be a very strange pastime, but I don't know many people like that.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Eugene, thanks a lot.

Mr. ROBINSON: Hey, thank you.

CHIDEYA: Eugene Robinson is a journalist, rock and roll front man, competitive fighter, and author of the new book "Fight."

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