July 18, 2023   5 mins

It never ends well when the geek humiliates the jock in high-school films. One minute the bespectacled boy is running rings round the football star in algebra class; the next, they’re in the playground, and the smart kid is getting punched in the face.

This reflects a profound anxiety among boys, that no matter how intellectually superior you are, physical defeat trumps everything. Even the ever-triumphant protagonists of the Revenge of the Nerds film franchise never manage to shake a sense of profound inadequacy, regardless of how many bullies they “school” by other means. And the anxiety of a boy can be formative as he grows into a man.

In the world of internet celebrities and tech tycoons, a trend has been picking up steam over the past few years: high-profile figures from the digital realm have been donning boxing gloves and stepping into the ring, to square off in physical matches. This isn’t the scripted amateur wrestling of the past, as in WrestleMania’s “Battle of the Billionaires”. These are real, bare-knuckle brawls with genuine stakes.

These “creator clashes”, as they’ve come to be known, rake in millions of viewers and generate substantial revenue for the participants. They’ve even served to revitalise the careers of D-list celebrities whose stars had begun to dim — or been snuffed out by cancellation — such as Epic Meal Time host Harley Morenstein and controversial comedian Sam Hyde. But why would men in need of neither revenue nor a reputational boost engage in such an activity? Why are Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, men whose combined worth is over $300 billion, hinting at an upcoming cage fight?

These creator clashes are just the latest chapter in a long tradition of intellectuals seeking to prove themselves physically. Norman Mailer, for instance, wasn’t just a literary giant; he was also known for his penchant for physical altercations. And his two instincts, of the writer and the fighter, often collided. Mailer’s book, The Fight, centres on the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Not content to be an impartial observer, Mailer implicated himself in the narrative, showcasing his gritty, tough-guy literary persona as both participant and spectator.

The bookish Mailer graduated from Harvard at the age of 20, the archetypal “geek”; yet he worked towards proving that intellectual prowess and physical strength aren’t mutually exclusive. Another Harvard man, George Plimpton’s project was similar. His book, Shadow Box, recounts his experience training and then sparring with light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. In elite circles, Plimpton’s Ivy League pedigree and physical delicacy might have been celebrated, but in a wider society that equates masculinity with physical strength and courage, his was suspect. Through his participation in boxing, his manhood was validated — even though Moore thrashed him.

Political leaders, too, also prefer to appear strong rather than nerdy, even though an analytical mind is more useful in running a country. Barack Obama never missed an opportunity to show off on a basketball court. And RFK Jr has recently made a lot of headlines by bench-pressing. But the best American example is undoubtedly Theodore Roosevelt, a prolific author who was also renowned for his love of boxing, wrestling, horse riding and judo. He extolled the virtues of “the man in the arena” — one who actively challenges himself — and a “strenuous life“; in pursuit of one, he was actually blinded in one eye, during a boxing match with Colonel Daniel Moore, his military aide.

The injury became part of his public persona, a testament to his unwavering dedication to his ideals. As did his response to an assassination attempt on the campaign trail in 1912: after he was shot in the chest, he waved away concerned aides and gave a scheduled speech. But it was actually his textbook knowledge of anatomy, rather than his courage, that convinced him to go on: he knew that if he wasn’t coughing up blood, the wound didn’t need urgent attention. His mind was, in a crisis, more valuable than his courage. It was this that allowed him to present himself as not simply brain or brawn, but a thorough amalgamation of both.

At its heart, the trend of creator clashes might just be the same, age-old attempt to reach for this masculine ideal, but with a modern twist: as we increasingly live our lives in the digital realm, becoming more and more disembodied, there is something subversive about proving ourselves to be physically powerful. It’s also fused with the imperative to create and maintain a personal brand online that can be ranked in terms of followers, retweets — or victories in the ring.

The concept of getting famous people to beat each other up took off in 2002 with Celebrity Boxing. The two-episode Fox series attracted millions of viewers, despite the backlash against its exploitative nature. (One match featured the legendary basketball player Manute Bol, whose 7’7″ height and deteriorating health raised ethical questions.) Still, celebrity boxing remained a spectacle, occasionally resurfacing in various forms.

Earlier iterations of celebrity boxing often leaned towards the sensational (boxer versus wrestler!), and the absurd (watch physically unwell men like the giant Bol and obese former American footballer William “Refrigerator” Perry flail about in the ring!). But the advent of digital media has introduced a new dynamic. When influencers, entrepreneurs and digital celebrities face each other now, they are engaged in something more than physical contests with a small television audience. Social media platforms allow these events to be staged, promoted and consumed in real time, on a global scale; they have become major vehicles for personal and brand promotion, strategic tools for audience engagement.

A case in point is the boxing forays of YouTube personalities Logan and Jake Paul, influencer-turned-boxers whose fights are part spectacle, part marketing strategy. The build-up often involves an array of promotional activities — including viral videos and social media sparring — that riles up digital audiences. The payoff comes in the form of millions of viewers worldwide, heightened brand visibility and increased follower engagement, all of which can lead to substantial revenue streams.

Hence the hype about an impending clash between Musk and Zuckerberg, which suggests a future where the convergence of physical sports and digital personas becomes increasingly commonplace. Few tech bros are happy with their level of visibility, just as few nerds feel secure in their physicality. Some digital elites, such as Jeff Bezos, have invested heavily in developing impressive bodies.

However, this trend is not solely about transforming from the bullied “geek” into the well-respected “jock”. It’s also about embracing the spectacle. The internet age has taught us that visibility equates to power, and what better way to grab the spotlight than to step into a boxing ring? It’s an audacious move. But there’s another, more nuanced dimension to this phenomenon. In the digital age, the lines between “geek” and “jock”, between intellectual and physical, are blurring. With the rise of online entrepreneurs, success no longer fits into neat categories.

Today’s digital elites have access to the best drugs and trainers needed to succeed both intellectually and physically. They can be someone who can code a groundbreaking app, run a billion-dollar company and throw a knockout punch. Someone, in other words, who is simply better than you, the mere spectator and consumer of content, in every conceivable way. Someone superhuman.

So, as the spectacle of celebrity boxing goes mainstream, we’re not just watching a fight; we’re witnessing a cultural transformation. Society that is increasingly recognising the multi-dimensionality of success and power: money really can buy everything. Capital, rather than hard work, can fuse the geek and a jock. The boxing ring has become a stage for the reinvention not only of masculinity, but of the limits of humanity itself.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work