The Fight That Never Comes

“Instead of leaning back away from a punch,” the man said, “you let it come, let the other guy commit to the attack, then spin it around on him.”

The man wasn’t talking about a fist fight. He was talking about how to deal with life’s daily problems, like an argument with a co-worker or a negotiation for a hotel discount.

He was talking about Aikido.

Aikido, like karate, is a martial art, but with a big difference: its practitioners don’t fight. Instead of throwing kicks and punches, in the martial ballet of Aikido they rigorously prepare themselves to side-step the violence of a fight that never comes.

Writing for Qualitative Sociology, sociologist Drew Foster wonders, “Why do people who will never actually fight train their bodies to fight?”

Roll with It

Aikido is not like the other martial arts. “Instead of overcoming an opponent through force,” Foster writes, “the goal of aikido techniques is simply to neutralize the situation by pinning, throwing, or taking the balance of the aggressor, often only to the extent that one can safely withdraw from the situation.” You receive the attack, flow with it, and find the exact point where you can use the attacker’s force to counterattack.

A rule: You can’t muscle it. The whole point is minimal force. Submission by sheer force – and not the ballet of angle, leverage, and timing – is a cheat. Rule breakers are admonished.

Another rule: No competition. An early Aikido founder declared competitiveness as inimical to Aikido’s spirit: “Such things are seen as fueling only egotism, self-concern and disregard for others.” To rise in status, one goes through formal tests to earn grades and degrees (like academia).

Foster spent nearly two years in an Aikido training center, called a Dojo, set up “in a revamped storage facility near the edge of town” somewhere in Middle America. With his “body as a tool for research,” he interviewed, observed, participated, and took notes. To gain their acquaintance, he went to out-of-Dojo experiences such as parties and potlucks, bars and restaurants.

Aikido in America is a mostly white, male, and middle class affair. In Foster’s study, the Dojo’s Sensei, or main instructor, worked at a business consulting firm. His assistants included a musicologist, a retired professor, and a children’s drama teacher. Most of the members were white men. They were architects, academics, consultants, and engineers. Membership was a hundred bucks a month. They came in after work.

Most have never been in a life-or-death physical fight.

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners,” Foster writes, “are extremely unlikely to experience violence or risk of violence in their everyday worlds.”

What Are They Training For?

Mike is a 30-something graduate student and a member of the Dojo. “Lately I’ve been thinking how I’m striving to do aikido in everyday arguments with my wife,” he said.

“I’ve been really trying to figure out how to finesse my responses to my wife and blend with what she’s saying… I also try to know when I’ve been overcome and roll out of it safely instead of trying to meet whatever’s beating me with more counterforce.”

As hokey as it may sound, they are training for life. It’s what Foster and some of his interviewees call Big Aikido, “the employment of aikido techniques, philosophies, and principles in non-martial settings.”

One guy told the story of when he tried to get the discount he was owed at a hotel. Instead of being angry and confrontational, the guy calmly took in the hotel clerk’s aggression (so the story went) and produced the necessary information to win the argument. He got the discount. The guy’s wife praised him: “Wow! You really aikido-ed that!”

In Aikido, the body is fit and the pain is real. But hitting is for the mat and the training is for life’s non-martial problems.

“Ever since that period when I really just pushed myself to keep rolling out of throws even though I was so afraid of getting hurt,” a woman in the Dojo said, “I’ve found I can apply this ‘just roll’ to other areas of my life…”

“Like trying to finish my novel.”

————————————————————————–

Notes

This piece is based on the article, “Fighters who Don’t Fight: The Case of Aikido and Somatic Metaphorism” by Drew Foster in Qualitative Sociology, (2015) 38:165–183. This piece is authored by Joshua K. Dubrow, but he did not conduct any of the research, and Josh alone is responsible for the interpretation of it.

“Instead of leaning back…” (178).

“Why do people …” (166).

“Instead of overcoming an opponent …” (171).

“muscling it” (175)

“Such things are seen …” Quote by Ueshiba (1984: 15) in Foster (2015: 171).

“in a revamped storage facility…” (170)

“body as a tool for research” (169)

“These mostly white and middle-class practitioners…” (171). Most of his 19 interviewees were white men in their 30s and 40s. Most were middle class.

“Lately I’ve been thinking… beating me with more counterforce.” (176)

“the employment of aikido techniques…” (176).

“Wow! You really aikido-ed that …” (178).

“Ever since that period … trying to finish my novel.” (177)

The Wrestler’s Paradox

Bobby sawed a broomstick half way across and hid it under the wrestling ring. At the right moment, he was going to pull it out and hit his opponent with it.

“Oh, this thing is going to break real easy,” Bobby thought.

Bobby’s a wrestler in the indy circuit. He didn’t want to hurt the guy, but he figured if he hit him with a broom and the broomstick would break, then the small crowd of young men that came to watch would cheer.

Bobby pulled the guy over the ropes. He got out the broomstick. He swung at the guy’s back.

Smack!

The broom didn’t break.

“Oh, shit,” he thought.

Bobby took the broom and broke it over his knee. Bobby figured that he accidently hit the guy with the whole broom, rather than the part he had sawed.

“It looked like he was caned,” Bobby said later.

Professional wrestlers are sport entertainers. In their 20’ by 20’ stage, they move their bodies in tandem and opposition to tell a fantastic story of heroes and villains and good versus evil.

In their dramatic violence, the wrestlers get hurt.

Often.

Sometimes seriously so.

Call it the Wrestler’s Paradox: dramatize violence, but avoid injury to yourself and others.

The Indies

To discover how wrestlers contend with the Wrestler’s Paradox, sociologist R. Tyson Smith (published in 2008, Qualitative Sociology) dove into the pro wrestling circuit called “the indies.” Indies, short for “independent,” are local, low-budget affairs held in schools and community centers, far from the flash and cash of the WWE. It’s less Hulk Hogan and more Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. The best known wrestlers are unknown outside of the tight-knit indy community. The audiences they attract are young men.

wrestling ringSmith spent three years in a school designed to turn young men into professional wrestlers. In these schools they learn the ropes and choose their character: heroes (“babyfaces”) or villains (“heels”). One of the first school lessons are how to relax when a shirtless and snarling muscle-bound man hurtles at you from 20 feet away.

Wrestling schools, usually founded by famous and erstwhile pro wrestlers, are informally run and hard to find. Most students discover schools from folks they know and, of course, through the internet. You can join for two hundred bucks a month and quit with no fanfare. After your first year there are no dues to pay other than helping out — set up the ring, take tickets at the shows, and clean up after.

To get to know the students, Smith attended wrestling shows and practices. He interviewed wrestlers and hung out with them in gyms, bars, and road trips. Almost all the students he interviewed were young, white, working class men of average build. A few had a college degree, but most never went past high school.

Breaking Even

A performance can pay anywhere from 25 to 75 dollars. Most don’t pay at all. “After factoring in costs for meals and travel,” Smith writes, “a mid-level indy performer comes out about even, if not at a loss.” So the wrestlers worked day jobs and hoped for the big time. After a few years, most realize they are never going to the big time. “Vets” of the circuit have been around only five years or more.

Work conditions can be precarious. Some indies feature “extreme” wrestling, with heavy furniture and sharp objects as props. Some wrestlers will jump from a tall ladder into the ring. As mandated by the government, a doctor checks out the wrestlers before they perform and stays backstage during the show. But there are no labor contracts to speak of and no health care plans.  

The Hurt

Guys mostly get hurt because of mistakes and miscommunications – like hitting an opponent with the wrong part of the broom or swinging an arm at the wrong time.

“I shattered my nose in a Battle Royal,” said Johnny, an indy wrestler. In this part of the performance, Johnny expected his opponent to swing a forearm, but they didn’t sync. “Turned around and he clocked me right in the nose, completely shattered my nose. I had to get reconstructive nose surgery….”

“The bone’s sticking into my eyeball,” he added.

The rowdy crowd of young men came for the story of fantastic violence but the performers spend most of their time trying not to get hurt. Like vaccination against communicable diseases, it’s a public health problem where one careless guy can cause injuries to many.

To protect the group – and themselves – they created social norms to avoid injury. Serious transgressions of the no-hurt norm are met with anger and disgust. Vets will admonish careless newbies. Too-often careless newbies are not encouraged to stick around.

Show, Don’t Tell

Most people think of pain as a medical condition. Nerve damage tells the brain that there’s an unpleasant problem. But if we can reinterpret the pain as not a big deal, or even as pleasurable, it can change how we think of ourselves.

If others notice that we wear our pain as a badge of honor, it can change how others think of us.

Within their tight knit circle, talking about the pain is an opportunity for ridicule: “You still bitchin’ about your neck?,” and the like. At the same time, they are sensitive to public criticism that wrestling is “fake.” As a consequence, the wrestlers go in hard for the authenticity of their hurt.

“Visible indications of pain like limping, bruises, bleeding, scars, and red marks are commonly flaunted,” Smith writes.

Expose the injury. Hide the pain. Gain the respect of your peers.

Shoot

Sometimes they try to hurt each other.

On rare occasion a real fight breaks out, what wrestlers call a “shoot.”

“Premeditated shoots are frightening,” Smith writes. Wrestlers are trained to relax when fighting, and when a guy stiff arms his opponent without warning, the opponent is left “virtually defenseless.”

Wrestlers spend all that time avoiding injury – why would they then intentionally hurt a fellow wrestler?

There are a few reasons: Perhaps they don’t like you, or they think you need to be taken down a notch, or they’re testing you, to “see if you’re a pansy or not.”

Dominance, hierarchy, and putting a guy in his place: This is a hidden currency of wrestling.

Most of the time, though, the wrestlers look out for one another. Yes, sometimes a fight breaks out, and sometimes its personal, but usually it’s from an accident in a heated moment.

In that sweaty hotbed of violence and risk, a solidarity rules. Solidarity does not fully solve the Wrestler’s Paradox, but it makes it more likely that once the ring is cleared and the crowd disperses, the wrestlers can drive themselves home.

Notes

The piece that appears in this blog was written by Joshua K. Dubrow based on “Pain in the Act: The Meanings of Pain among Professional Wrestlers” by R. Tyson Smith published in Qualitative Sociology (2008) 31:129–148 DOI 10.1007/s11133-008-9098-9.

Bobby sawed a broomstick… (137). At school they learn how to get a strong reaction, a “pop,” from the crowd. Bobby must have hoped for a pop from his broomstick idea.

Wrestler’s Paradox is my term for what Smith studied.

One of the first school lessons are how to relax… (139). Previous martial arts experience can help with feeling relaxed while fighting.

Almost all the students… Smith writes, “Of the twenty participants, most are white, working-class men who range in age from eighteen to thirty-five, have a high school education, and work part-time in low-level service jobs in a metropolitan area. Five have attained a B.A. at a local college. Contrary to the stereotype of pro wrestlers as massive strongmen, most are of average body size, weighing between 160–200 pounds and standing between 5′8″ and 6′2″ in height.” (131)

“After factoring in costs for meals…” (133)

“I shattered my nose…” (137)

Most think of pain… (130-131).

“You still bitchin’ about your neck?” (140-141)

“Visible indications…” (141).

“Premeditated shoots are frightening…” (145)

“see if you’re a pansy…” (146)

 

Pick Me Up: Build a Community with Street Basketball

pick me up bball picPick Me Up

Shooting bricks builds communities

“Hey, man, your peripheral better be fucked up!”

In a pickup basketball game on a New York City playground, a player ignores his teammates. He hoists a bad shot. On the next possession, he turns the ball over.

“Mother fucking Michael Jordan. Yeah, go ahead and shoot, Jordan-ass wannabe.”

Laughter erupts from the spectators. The player tries ball-hogging again. The spectators boo. To teach him a lesson, his teammates stop passing him the ball.

Pick-up basketball is often derided as “street” and “schoolyard” and as encouraging selfish play. It is maligned as an immature version of the textbook games organized by civic associations, high schools, and universities.

But on that New York City playground, both the players and the spectators tried to teach an ill-mannered player how to be a good sport.

Francisco Vieyra, writing for Qualitative Sociology, spent over a year in the Big Apple playing and talking with players and spectators on several dozen basketball courts.

He found that, far from being a hot-headed haven of selfishness and immaturity, pickup basketball is a welcoming and well-organized place. It provides informal mentoring on how to improve your game, how to get a job, and how you can deal with life’s everyday troubles.

Shoot bricks all you like: pick-up bball is a foundation of urban communities.

Welcome

Anyone can be a spectator and everyone – no matter who they are or what clothes they wear – can play.

“I often found white-collar workers wearing the athletic shoes they tucked away in their briefcases, blue-collar workers still in their overalls and boots, and underemployed or unemployed men and children in their shorts and sneakers on the same court,” Vieyra writes.

There are social rules for every aspect of the basketball experience: for fair choice in who will play next and for pre-game practice shoot-arounds. Everyone is expected to help clear the court of ice or other seasonal debris.

Players organize “contests,” which can be 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 matches that, to get as many different folks onto the court as possible in a reasonable amount of time, are between fifteen minutes and a half an hour. While some of the rules differed from game to game – such as how fouls will be called and the point allotment for baskets – the players negotiate and agree on these rules before tipoff.

Talk about It

Some guys were hanging around the court, waiting for their turn to play. One of these guys started talking about how he recently lost his job. One guy pointed to a short fellow who worked at an employment agency and suggested that he talk to him. Another guy chimed in that, just a few months ago, he got a construction job that way. The first guy took the suggestion for help and, later on, got a job as a janitor.

In the pickup basketball world, one can find friends, news, gossip, advice.

They also share stories about racism in America.

“In one memorable conversation,” Vieyra writes, “a player told us how earlier in the day he overheard his white boss make racist remarks about Blacks to several white co-workers. Rustling a few papers to establish his presence in the room resulted in his boss quickly turning around, awkwardly stammering that it was ‘just a joke,’ and leaving the room without waiting for a response.”

The others listened and some told their similar stories of racism at work. A discussion ensued “over the merits of filing a grievance, quitting on principle, or begrudgingly tolerating such abuses because of the difficulty of finding a new job as a Black man.”

If You Build It

Communities are sustained by special events. In good weather, the community turns the basketball courts into tournaments and summer leagues that, over time, can develop a long standing and well-known local history, like the Entertainers’ Basketball Classic at the Holcombe Rucker Basketball Court, and that can draw over a thousand spectators. Out-of-town tourists come there for “a big part of Black history.”

Most of these special contests are smaller affairs of the local community. They exhibit the kind of “flashy” play that is highlighted on YouTube, but this is because they are, first and foremost, festive. Vendors sell ice cream, artists hawk their wares, and players’ family and friends cheer.

“Yeah, this makes my mom proud,” a player said. “She comes to every tournament. Every one. Doesn’t matter where it’s at. And afterwards, that’s all she’ll talk about.”

Pickup basketball is not a utopia: insults, bad manners, and undesirable conduct happens. Generally, bad manners are done in-game and spectators and players try to cool heated disagreements. Rarely is it personal and once the game is over, the conflict ends. Fights are rare.

Pickup basketball can be a deep and meaningful experience that is woven into the fabric of players’ everyday life. Within it, they become a part of the larger community.

“Pickup basketball does not escape New York City’s greater structural realities,” Vieyra writes. “It can, however, serve as a reprieve from these issues.”

Notes

This is written by Joshua K. Dubrow and is based on “Pickup Basketball in the Production of Black Community” by Francisco Vieyra in Qualitative Sociology in 2016 (39:101–123).

Please feel free to use this summary in the classroom! To help, here is a free teaching guide: Pick Me Up summary with Teaching Guide