Sebastian Junger From his new book ‘Freedom’
In a wide range of species – chimpanzees, walruses, lions, elks, mice – larger males and groups of males invariably win physical confrontations with smaller ones, but humans do not. If not, freedom would effectively be impossible: each group would be led by one great man, and the world would be dominated by fascist mega-states that could easily crush insubordinate populations. But that’s not what the world looks like. Large armies – or people – are stronger than small ones, but generally slower and less efficient. This is true on all scales, from open warfare to street corner fighting. Because the outcome of all human conflict cannot be predicted with certainty, the powerful often end up having to negotiate with the weak, and these negotiations invariably revolve around freedom.
Human violence dates back to our evolutionary past and is generally about the same things that are important to chimpanzees: resources, territory, and sexual access to females. Humans are perfectly suited to domination. Body language and facial expressions underpin a host of social interactions and are very effective in communicating important information about a person, especially their social rank. By assessing “proficiency,” people can predict, with nearly 70% accuracy, the winners of US Senate races based on a one-second glimpse of the candidates’ faces. People can accurately assess the dominant and submissive traits of others by viewing photographs of themselves for as little as 4 / 100th of a second, known as thin slice judgments.
Men who score high on the Dominance Scale typically maintain a wide stance around others, straighten their shoulders, puff up their chests, hold their chin up, and generally take up as much space as possible. Submissive men do the opposite. Unconscious submission is devastating to a person’s chances of winning a fight. In the pre-match ad, boxers who allowed themselves a small smile – a classic calming signal – were less likely to win the fight than men who didn’t smile. These signals are known as “leaks” in the world of professional combat. “It’s kind of involuntary communication – it’s deference, it’s appeasement,” says one MMA veteran named Justin “Master Chim” Garcia. In addition to masking fear, a smaller fighter needs to keep their mind calm, their eyes open, and their heart rate steady – think, look, and breathe. “What we found out is that endurance is the most important thing,” said Chael Sonnen, a former wrestler and UFC fighter who competed at 220 pounds. “You want to fight the guy in a weight class above you, because it’s not important enough, but in a fight he’ll just tire out faster. If you have an opponent taller than you, you automatically go for speed, finesse, and endurance. ”
As a result, human size and strength are not great predictors of who will win a fight. Street fights are hard to study because they happen in a random fashion, but all combat sports – boxing, karate, wrestling, grappling – are reasonable indicators of actual violence. In mixed martial arts, which incorporates all forms of combat into something that is probably very close to primordial combat, smaller fighters win about half the time against larger ones. The Apache also believed that there was a special “fighting power” that could easily make up for the short stature. “A man… Can throw a man twice his size if he uses power over him,” according to Grenville Goodwin, an anthropologist who lived with the Apache in the 1930s. “He doesn’t do that at all. by his strength, but by his power. ”
The reason why size and strength don’t absolutely determine the outcome is that tactics play a huge role in human conflict. The central conundrum of combat is that you can’t dominate your opponent without attacking them, but attacking ruins your defense and opens you up to counterattack. In addition to making you momentarily vulnerable, attacking consumes a lot of energy. A good punch can end a fight, but that punch can be slipped by something as subtle and effective as the tilt of a head. Ten good shots in a row will leave even a trained fighter gasping for air, while sliding them costs the other fighter next to nothing.
When Manny Pacquiao fought Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas in 2015, Pacquiao maintained a fierce attack until halfway through the sixth round, when he forced Mayweather against the ropes. Pacquiao unleashed sixteen punches in a row, almost unopposed, with Mayweather blocking some, slipping others and eating the rest. This seems to have been the turning point; Pacquiao simply ran out of gas and took a step back, freeing Mayweather from the ropes. Mayweather dominated the next six rounds and won the fight by unanimous decision. The two men were the same height; the fight seemed to tip the scales on the disproportionate costs of an offense versus a defense.
When it comes to a match between a smaller fighter and a taller one, each has a particular advantage. Great fighters are generally stronger and can outperform their opponents if they get a hold of them. And smaller fighters have less mass to move, so they can move faster and use less energy to do so. Big aggressive men also tend to attack first, but if they don’t win quickly, they may not win at all. Strength does not increase linearly with body weight: the world record for the deadlift in the 148 pound weight class is just over 700 pounds, while the world record for the weight class of 308 pounds is 939 pounds. Doubling the weight class doesn’t double what a man can lift; it only increases the amount by about 30 percent. This is a dangerous trade-off because big muscles need more oxygen to function, and if you work so hard that you can’t replace that oxygen fast enough, you will be in oxygen debt.
In 1969, At the height of his powers, boxer Muhammad Ali was placed in front of a plank of balsa wood and told to crush it with one of his fatal blows when a light flashed. His brain only needed 15 / 100th of a second to process the signal – much faster than the proverbial blink of the eye – but his fist was even faster. It broke and hit the plateau in 4 / 100th of a second. Ali could also deliver a devastating six-hit combination – two jabs, a hook, a right to the body, another hook, then a right to the header – in just over two seconds.
It took Ali’s brain three times as long to process the flashing light as it did for his fist to react, meaning that in a fight, his fist would easily hit his opponent’s face before the opponent had a chance to move it. Neurologically, that should mean there’s no way to slip a punch, which would turn fights into pure punching power contests, but that’s not what’s happening. The brain can be slow, but it’s incredibly insightful, and the body can be fast, but it’s incredibly telling. Long before the fist began to move, the puncher’s face and body emitted a cascade of signals that reveal what is about to happen. These signals are decoded by the opponent and used to start slipping shots that haven’t even happened yet.
To pick up on these signals, it helps to keep some sort of broad and general focus rather than focusing on your opponent’s fists. The perceptual power of the brain in this undirected mode is so strong that it seems to border on a kind of telepathy. Test subjects can tell of winning poker hands, for example, by watching 1.6 second clips of professional players moving their chips to the center of the table to place a bet. Players with winning hands were almost imperceptibly smoother and looser in their body movements. And the same goes for athletes: if you show experienced basketball players a brief video of players taking a free throw, about two-thirds of the time they can determine whether or not they’ll hit the shot. There is something in the grace that tells the athletes what is going to happen.
In short, faster, more efficient movements give smaller fighters an advantage over larger ones, and subconscious perceptions allow them to see punches before they’re thrown. This allows humans to confront or disobey the largest male in the group, which is a start from millions of years of primate evolution. Whatever its definition, freedom is due in part to the fact that powerful men do not always win battles and powerful nations do not always win wars. In fact, more often than not, they lose.
This is an excerpt from Sebastian Junger’s new book, Freedom, available May 18. Copyright © 2021 by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Men’s health with the title Hit over your weight.
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