Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity

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Eric Cohen, a 27-year-old partner in a private equity firm, is a squat 155 pounds, a little soft around the belly, and presumably a lot richer than me. I am his 34-year-old, 132-pound opponent. According to the laws of physics, and USA Boxing, this isn’t a fair fight, but life isn’t fair either, and so here we are, two dudes with almost zero ring experience, exchanging blows at a white-collar charity match in front of 1700 drunk finance-types in that hallowed hall of American boxing, Madison Square Garden.

I rush him when the bell rings, and though Cohen stays put and exchanges with me, I can tell that I’ve surprised him. My plan is to make up for our weight differential and Cohen’s killer right hand by outscoring him—and it’s working. What I lack in power I make up for with speed, and an animal viciousness.  After a dozen blitzes, he is penalized with a standing-eight count, and I jump around him like the man I am, a new man, the first known transgender man to ever fight in Madison Square Garden.

Hear that? That’s the smack of 12-ounce gloves on cheekbones and noses. That’s the little, involuntary “oh” the crowd makes when they see the spit and blood fly out our mouths on the jumbo-sized screens. Here’s a double jab, a straight right, a hook.

“If you’re not hitting, you’re moving,” my coach, Danny Mangual, said, a mantra, and he’s probably hollering at me right now, though I can’t hear him through the ocean of sound that may be my own rapid breathing and may be the cheering crowd.

The lack of distinction puts me strangely at peace.

Men have to fight someone or something at some point, don’t they? For my entire life, and certainly for the four years since I began injecting testosterone, I’ve been fighting, whether it’s myself, the world or my place in it. Masculinity and aggression seem so inextricably entwined. But why? Here I am, in the most extreme, darkest space I could think of to tangle with that question.

Cohen looks tired with his extra weight hanging on him. He clobbers me a few times with a brutal right, but I keep swarming.

“Let your hands go,” Danny yells, and I do, hearing him this time.

In the last few months, as my days have narrowed only toward these six minutes, I’ve come to realize that the answer isn’t so easy. When the bell rings to end round one, it is the purest sound I’ve heard in my life—and in that moment, if I could have found the right words, I’d have your exact answer.

This is the closest I could get to it.

Our ghosts

Thomas McBee
Thomas McBee
Image: Quartz/Solana Pyne

“Why am I doing this?” I wonder, as my coach,  Errol Hyppolite, hits the side of my head. Errol is about my age, old by boxing standards, and he started fighting old too—at 25, after picking up the sport via classes at his gym. He’s not like the other trainers: He has a fancy day job in retail, and I can tell that he, like me, doesn’t fit in.

“I won’t run drills where I’m telling you exactly what I’m going to do,” Errol says, smacking me in the ear, the temple. I feel slow and stupid, not getting my guard up in time, not knowing how to move or block.

Chris Lewarne, an affable attorney and board member for Haymakers for Hope, the cancer charity organizing these boxing matches, assesses us from the ropes. Some other guys amble by and talk to Chris in low murmurs. I can’t hear but I feel my cheeks redden. I am sure that this whole gym thinks I am an imposter.

A whole lifetime of confidence seems to have evaporated in a week. Outside of the gym, I am a certain kind of man: tattooed, bearded, always up for long back-of-the-bar chats about whatever gives your life meaning, be it philosophy or working out or physics, but also radical feminism or camp takes on high culture. I move between all the lives I’ve lived, like the time I got ensnared in a passionate debate with a group of women at a bar about the queer merits of the character Samantha on Sex and the City.

Because I’m trans, the history of my body is more complicated than it looks. I dated my first girlfriend at 14, spent high school driving around Pittsburgh listening to Depeche Mode with my gay best friend, worked through college at Boston’s favorite lesbian coffee shop, and landed in my 20s in San Francisco’s enormous queer community.

When I transitioned at 30, I entered a world I didn’t understand. Though I have always had a stray guy friend here and there, it wasn’t until I became one that I really experienced “Hey, brothers” and side hugs and now, this rowdy, good-natured group of jocks. Without a boyhood, I don’t quite know how to translate the camaraderie, how to find the right teasing note when I joke around, when to ask a guy who’s bleeding if he’s okay and when to leave it alone. I am not sure how to be my whole self anywhere: The queer bar isn’t my world anymore, not exactly—and this isn’t, either.

I sense that my quietness and discomfort is telegraphing a kind of failure. In the ring, my humiliation is heightened: I am gangly, a toddler learning to walk. I have only been taught the jab, which I attempt to employ as Errol rushes me and unleashes a terrifying series of combinations: one-two, hook, straight right, jab to the stomach, come upstairs, another hook. I lose track.

All of a sudden, instead of blocking or moving, I feel leaden, paralyzed. An ancient part of me gives up.

“Don’t stop, don’t stop,” Errol yells, pulling his punches but still hitting me in the gut, the head, the face. I can’t seem to make my arms move. I hate the way my ears pop. I hate that I’m thinking not of this ring and Errol, but of a night in 2010 when I found myself on my knees on the wet concrete in Oakland, Calif., a gun to my head, victim of a mugging gone wrong.

And how in that moment, I made the coward’s choice: I froze. And despite the reassurances of the cop who later told me that “not being a hero” saved me, I am haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that maybe, when it comes down to it, I give up on myself just a little too easily.

“There’s no stopping in boxing,” Errol says. He won’t stop talking. I grit my teeth and take every blow.


Image for article titled Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity
Image: Ketch Wehr for Quartz

“Why are you doing this?”

The first person to ask me was actually not my girlfriend, who accepted my boxing with her usual New England stoicism. She is also uninterested in engaging with the characters we meet at cocktail parties who almost universally warn us about potential head injury or even death.

Because my answer is unfitting of small talk over a cheese plate in Brooklyn, I usually mumble something about an anthropological study of masculinity. But the truth is a mosaic of horrors, snapshots of unresolved rage and loneliness that boxing, I hoped, could deliver me from.

That mugger in Oakland before I transitioned, who went on to shoot two men and kill one of them, but let me go when he heard my then-higher voice. My mother’s last few days in the shitty hospice,  the terrible sounds of her lungs failing her just as the system had failed her; the powerlessness I felt every night sleeping across from her dying body, both of us too young for this. The hands on my shoulder, the power of attorney; me, the eldest son, crying through my eulogy, every word blurred.

And, my boogie man: my stepfather and his Sinatra-loving, fishing-buddy, man’s man-ness entwined in my mind with a confusing, abusive desire to destroy me.

Why am I doing this? I see that perhaps being trans makes me a specific sort of pragmatist—I worked for this body, I gave up so much to live within its hairy walls. I like being a man but not what men often represent, and isn’t the whole point to take this muscle and scruff and sculpt it into something more?

As I settle into this new life,  I realize I need to understand the tie, whether biological or cultural or some potent brew of both, between violence and masculinity. I want to know for sure that I can be a different kind of man, an intentional man, a man who can both understand the expectations of him, and transcend them.

Suddenly I am myself again: I move, I raise my hands, I offer that weak jab. It’s a puny effort, but, mercifully, Errol backs off.

“Keep your eyes open,” he says, making his eyes scary-wide. “Watch the other guy like he can’t be trusted.”

Chris tells me not to worry as I’m pulling off my head gear. I trust him, because we are both outsiders. Though he easily mingles with the white-collar guys, he told me that he grew up in subsidized housing in Toronto, and got jumped a lot. “I’ve allowed stuff to happen that didn’t need to happen because I wanted to beat myself up,” he says. He had to fight to survive, not to prove something to himself.

Eventually, boxing became a way to reclaim his relationship to violence. “The chaos is contained and you’re forced to confront what is in front of you, because the ring is only so big,” he says. Unlike a fight in the street, boxing is about you, not the other guy. “You have the time to say, ‘Who am I?’” Chris says. “To say, ‘I see my adrenaline, and what is that a response to, and why is it responsive in this way?’

“In boxing, training is the same for all of us: First, you learn not to react in fear,” he says. “And then you learn how to again.”


Chris Lewarne, my mentor.
Chris Lewarne, my mentor.
Image: Quartz/Solana Pyne

By September, any interest I have in boxing is subsumed by the knowledge that I truly suck. I ask too many questions. I have “decent power” but don’t know how to employ it. I hop around like a jackrabbit. My optimism, my curiosity, my gumption may have led me down a troubled path, I realize, as I drag myself to the gym four times a week and Saturdays. I feel like a failure.

Errol can’t find me a sparring partner that he trusts to not destroy me, and I have a sinking feeling that my match with Eric, set-up for mid-month and a necessary qualification for our fight in November, will be a disaster.

After a particularly grueling two-hour session on the bag one Saturday, my spirit deflating with each correction Errol makes to my form, it finally hits me: I need to quit, or I need a new coach, one that believes that I can do this, who shows me how to believe in myself, in this body.

The thing about boxing, everyone says, is that you can’t hide who you are in the ring. But what they don’t tell you is that you also can’t hide how you feel.  It is impossible for me not to think of my mom, or how my grief also feels strangely enculturated: hurricanes of rage, interrupted with sudden, violent tears. I’ve lost my way and, if I am honest, I am here to grieve among men, to grieve as a man. The quake, the shoulder-shaking sobs that overcome me as I walk down Houston Street towards the gym scare me in a way crying never used to.

It feels profound to admit that this is part of a larger wave of life events I can’t manage alone, to give myself over to the idea of something bigger than myself, a community, a teacher—to know that I am worth more than my worst day.

My mom always told me to “keep things in perspective.” But in some ways loss is scarier than death, and I’m not sure which changed me more, testosterone, or her terrible end. Both grief and manhood seem to have turned off and on parts of me without my consent.

Chris sets me up with his old coach, a sunny 26-year-old from the Bronx, Danny Mangual, over at Church’s gym in downtown Manhattan. “You’ll like Danny,” he says. “He builds you up.” I arrange to meet Danny, hoping Chris is right, and realizing for the first time that I have created a kind of dark adolescence, a conduit for my rage, a transition from which I can emerge, I hope, a better man.

Rites and initiations

“Thomas has balls,” Danny says from the ropes that first night at Church’s, loud enough for me to hear. I straighten my spine. It feels strange that he doesn’t know that I’m trans. For the first time since I began injecting testosterone, I am in a community where no one does, and I feel uncomfortable in these dissonant moments.

There is, however, no time to think. Danny has thrown me into the flashy ring with another white-collar Haymakers fighter, Stephen Cash. Stephen pours on so much pressure, comes at me so relentlessly, I have trouble navigating the ring. I can’t seem to hit back, I end up moving out of the way, letting Stephen chase me around the ropes. I can’t help but think I’m losing every time I get clocked, which is a rookie mistake, but also part of the startle of the sport. It’s anyone’s game, and tonight it is Stephen’s.

Later, I learn that he’s been working with Danny for a year, but in the moment I fight the despair I’ve been cultivating since the start of training. Between sparring rounds, he hops up and down in his corner and then charges forward like a madman. We round robin a few minutes, and when another fighter gives him a bloody nose, he stops, grins, and takes a selfie.

Stephen is my age, a triathlete, and the type of straight guy who smiles a perfect white-teeth smile and wears pointy boots and tight pants into a gnarly boxing gym. When I meet him, it is hard to not think, unfairly, of Patrick Bateman, the main character from American Psycho.

I will learn, and not be shocked, that the reason Stephen has taken up boxing is more primal and less complicated than my own. “I fell in love with the sport right off the bat,” Stephen told me. “ I found so many parallels in my life to fighting in the ring. Life in New York City is tough, I mean everything is a fight, from getting a seat on the subway to a drink at the bar, or finding an apartment. And managing a hedge fund can be a real dog fight too. Boxing,” he said, “made it crystal clear. You really gotta fight for what you want in life.”

His dog-eat-dog attraction to the sport is evidenced by his particular interest in Mike Tyson—the overweight, fey juvenile delinquent-turned-prodigy, whose notoriously brutal boxing style belied a surprising level of macabre self-awareness. Tyson was a Shakespearean figure, one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time, and his epic downfall—a rape conviction, a failed “comeback” featuring the notorious ear-biting of Evander Holyfield, and an increasingly pathetic series of fights that ended in cocaine, bankruptcy, and a payday “exhibition tour”—highlighted our collective expectations of masculinity as well as his own (“I am a violent person, almost an animal,” he yelled hysterically at a 2000 press conference. “And they only want me to be an animal in the ring.”)

“You have to make the other guy respect you,” Danny says, sounding a bit Tyson-like, as we pack up that first night, after I ask him if he thinks I have a shot at actually fighting in Madison Square Garden in November. I have so much to learn, I am really doubting it.

Danny says, yeah, of course. I’ve got balls, remember? I’ll hold my own sparring. “I’m not going to lie,” he says, hand on my shoulder, an intimacy that makes me like him immediately. “It’s not going to be pretty. You need ring experience. But I’ll have you sparring every day this week and anyway, what matters isn’t how you do sparring this guy, what matters is where your head is after you spar.”

“You have a strong chin,” he tells me, “and good speed. But I’ll know we’re ready when you show me that you can be aggressive.”

So we work. Hours and hours: me and Danny, me and Stephen, me and this dude Elvis, this other dude Kenny, even me and Chris. I come home late with bruised eyes and ribs and crawl into Epsom-salt baths. I don’t see my friends. I make boxing my church. I try to believe in my own power.

I do see opportunities. Time starts to slow down in the ring, and I see little openings for shots—a straight right here, a jab to the kidneys here. I am still terrible, but I’m learning to time a slip, to roll out from under punches. I am hitting the pads on Danny’s hands, I am hitting his body suit, and he is backing up dramatically as if I’m really doing some damage.

It strikes me that it is generous, selfless even, for a champion boxer to be so ego-less as to give a guy back his dignity.


Image for article titled Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity
Image: Ketch Wehr for Quartz

Sparring day comes fast, and there is a formal quality to the proceedings. I walk from my apartment in the Lower East Side to the Financial District, noting that summer is just beginning its dwindle.

Danny says there’s no room for doubt in the ring, that if you don’t believe you will win, you won’t.

I know I don’t have a chance, and I try to un-know it. I listen to Kevin Gates’ “I don’t get tired” on repeat and clench my jaw. I tell myself that I won’t die, even though I guess I could. I tell myself that I belong here—in this body, at this gym, on this planet. I tell myself to wake up.

Haymakers has shut down the gym, so it’s just us half-jacked, mostly male fighters with our strange gear and our nervous energy. I try to pay attention.

All the Haymakers fighters are paired with their future rival for two rounds, as the co-founders of the charity, Julie Anne Kelly and Andrew Myerson, former fighters themselves, look on to assess their worthiness as a match. I started late, trained less, sparred next-to-not-at-all, and was matched at the last minute with a guy who had at least 10 pounds on me. It was not ideal.

It’s fair to say that Eric kicked my ass.

Eric Cohen, my opponent.
Eric Cohen, my opponent.
Image: Quartz/Jacob Templin

If every boxing story ever told could be neatly summarized it would be: I was afraid, and I did it anyway. Even the great Mike Tyson famously showed his underbelly: “When I come out I have supreme confidence,” he said.  “But I’m scared to death. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of everything.  I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of being humiliated. But I was totally confident.”

Eric hit me so hard I saw spangles of light. At the end of the first round, I tripped over my own feet and fell to the floor. In an officiated match, he’d have a KO. Danny yelled from my corner of the ring, “You alright?” and I waved him off. All I had was my strong jab, my shaky right, a week of sparring, and my confidence. I got right back up.

Afterwards, I climb out of the ring and the old-timers, the coaches, all give me high-fives. I am surprised that I’m not embarrassed by the loss. Danny looks at Eric with utter derision, and I feel such affection for him in that moment, I want to hug him. But, of course, I don’t. “This dude, Eric, has got no skill. He’s telegraphing every move. I’m excited to beat this guy.”

We are silent for a moment, contemplative. I am slick with sweat, still ragged with adrenaline, and happier than I’ve been in quite some time. “I’m not worried,” Danny decides aloud. “You fell down, but you got up. That’s the story of what just happened. That, we can work with.”


It’s not exactly the promise of violence that draws us to aggressive sports like boxing, but for men, “It’s hard to separate competitiveness from aggressiveness,” says Justin Carre, professor of psychology at Nipissing University. And the competitiveness doesn’t even have to be physical to be experienced viscerally. He cites a study of the McCain-Obama election that found men who voted for McCain experienced a drop in testosterone the night of his loss. (Women saw no change in testosterone levels.)

It is obvious that aggression, whether it’s on Wall Street or in the ring, is a highly valued masculine trait. But why?

“There’s certainly evidence in animal models, as well as in some work with humans, that suggest that animals will work hard just for access to aggressive interactions,” Carre says. This suggests, “similar to drugs of abuse like cocaine,” aggression itself can be highly rewarding.

However, Carre cautions that the whole “men are biologically wired for fighting” narrative oversimplifies what’s happening, and it misses a key point.

“The cool thing about hormones is that they’re not fixed by any means,” he says. In fact, our entire biological system is context-dependent.

“Hormones change rapidly in the context of social interactions, especially social interactions that involve competition and/or aggression. This is a way for our biology to respond to changes in the environment, which in turn can feed back to influence future behavior.”


Image for article titled Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity
Image: Ketch Wehr for Quartz

When I’m not at Church’s gym, I’m watching YouTube ballets of men hitting men: Muhammad Ali move his massive body with relentless grace; Manny Pacquiao’s speed, his good manners, his respect for the sport; Mike Tyson’s bravado, his madness, his insistence on himself. Each man has a flaw that he’s turned into a strength: Ali’s inability to ever demonstrate the “right” form also means he reinvented the language; Pacquiao’s small size gives him speed, and makes him a heart-first fighter, and Tyson—well, the man said it best: “’I can’t be beaten unless I do it to myself.” His brutality could compensate for his short reach, but he was his own worst enemy and his biggest fan.

What’s mine? I’m uncommonly open. It’s easy to read the expression on my face. But I’m also honest, with myself and my coach. We quickly learn to work together. I’m not freezing, because Danny taught me to see the strategy in an attack, to not take it so personally, to keep moving, right out from under the punches.

I spar Danny’s friend, Ricky, an aspiring Olympian, and he gives me a thumbs up after pulling off his gloves. Our ragtag group huddles together, slick with sweat, like we do most nights post-sparring. “You’ve got power,” Ricky says, a refrain, through his mouthpiece. “You’ve just got to believe in it.”

After a particularly rough few rounds with Danny one night in October, I watch him sparring Stephen. The gym is mostly empty, the TriBeCa-types long-gone after classes ended, home in bed watching Netflix. The fight is a month away, and at some point I stopped feeling  like a reporter, or an anthropologist—but, rather, like a fighter. I have learned things that have changed me, mantras that also happen to be true: That the fight is won or lost before you get in the ring. That you don’t play boxing. That the first round is strategy, but the last round is heart.

Stephen swarms Danny, and Danny is a matador, using all of Stephen’s  force against him. He waits for the advance, then easily rolls out from under him. Then Danny comes in with precision, takes his points, comes out.

“Tommy, are you watching?” he yells over his shoulder. He’s showing me how he wants me to fight. Amateur bouts are all points, and points come from punches. Danny knows I won’t have the power Eric does, but I have the speed. Word is, he hasn’t come down in weight, and if he doesn’t cut, I’m going to have to win by hitting more, and looking meaner. Danny wants me to use my head. He tells me, every day, that the only way I won’t win is if I let myself lose.

Danny Mangual, my coach.
Danny Mangual, my coach.
Image: Quartz / Jacob Templin

Somehow, along the way, I’ve come to feel at home here. The gym probably holds 150 bodies most nights, but we are the same two dozen faces or so day-in-day-out. Being big doesn’t get you respect here, or make you good. Anyone can get big. Anyone can get good. We’ve all been terrible. We’ve all been beginners.

“You have a fight?” guys ask me in the locker room or in between rounds on the bag, and as soon as I say yes, they give me high fives. “It’s just a charity thing,” I offer. “A fight’s a fight,” they say, to a man. “Respect.”

I ask R. Tyson Smith, professor of sociology at Haverford College, and author of Fighting for Recognition, a book about professional wrestlers, why I’ve never felt this close to men before, and he says (troublingly), that the shadow of violence is precisely what allows for a kind of fraternal love.

“An unquestionable masculine space allows you to emote or express or hold hands,” he says. “There’s more room for this broader definition of masculinity because you have the framework of violence. Here’s a way with which to get some of that intimacy—by not ever calling it intimacy.”

I put on a cup I don’t need, I don’t shower after training, I change with my ass to the bench. I don’t mention to Danny that weight and muscle redistribution puts me at a disadvantage because my center of gravity has shifted, which probably impacts my balance. I don’t say that I never learned to throw a punch, that I’ve never been in a fight, that I am not sure how to be the man I want to be.

Every day, I decide not to come out. In this boxing gym, in this world of men willing to be hit again and again in the face for hours and then hug, men speak openly and often about not being able to sleep the night before a fight, about their brother’s arrest or when they were fat in high school. Everybody has a story. Like mine, it’s rarely visible from the outside. For now, I prefer to guard my most tender parts, and to see them reflected back to me in the stray details of other men’s stories. To be myself, my new and old selves, without having to explain them: I see now, that is what I’m fighting for.

Because our bodies tell us to

Summer is hanging on, but the leaves are falling off the trees downtown. I’ve had to buy a bigger gym bag to carry around all my gear: 16 oz boxing gloves (for sparring), 12 oz gloves (for hitting the pads), wraps, socks,  shorts, shirt, running shoes, boxing shoes, sweatpants, water bottle, sweatshirt, mouth guard, head gear, jump rope. It is like carrying a whole other life alongside my work bag, with its laptop and packed lunch and notebooks.

I am different. My girlfriend says less volatile, and though I feel myself quieting, I also experience everything hardening: my muscle, my spirit, my confidence in my body and myself. I feel more rooted to the ground, contained, powerful, and less impulsive about making a show of it. I run five eight-minute miles and see that I have underestimated myself. I am relentless on the speedbag, but also more forgiving of my failures.

I can see that each of my inhibitions can be surmounted, whether it’s lifting 10 more pounds of weight or spending two more hours on studying YouTube fights. I can see that I will never be a brawler, it’s just not my personality, but I can exchange roughly, if pressed, I can hit you so hard that your head snaps back, I can bloody your nose. I can and I will.

“You look like a genius on the mitts,” Danny says, though that is not really true. I have, indeed, improved. Eric still hasn’t hit his weight so there is some question about whether we will be able to fight. Danny says not to worry, that the fight is always about the fighter, not the other guy. He says to focus on myself.

I spar every day: Danny, mostly; Kenny some, and this guy Ed, and Ricky if he’s around. Danny keeps Stephen and me apart, and I know he is waiting until I am really ready for Stephen’s press. He wants me to stay confident, he says, but I see that he is creating a ritual.

I try to time my testosterone shot right so that I mimic the hormone’s elevation of the other fighters. The night before a fight, everyone will have higher levels. Because my production is, in fact, synthetic, I will not see a spike, and so I manufacture it. The tinkering with my hormones makes me uncomfortable though: Do I want to fight because I am a man, or am I merely acting out what the world expects of me?

Both thoughts feel fraught, and simplistic. And yes, women box too. But it’s largely a man’s sport. Only two of the 14 fights planned for Madison Square Garden,  are between women. Does this oily potion, this testosterone I inject weekly, work on me in ways I haven’t signed up for? Beyond the facial hair, the weight redistribution and the muscle mass, who am I, really, through the lens of this biology?

And how much of what men convince ourselves is masculine is really just defending ourselves against the power structure masculinity upholds: the snubs we feel when we go for a hug but are offered a handshake, the embarrassment of others when we cry, or the glow we feel at the nods of approval when we say—when I say—”Yeah, I box,” the admiring of this black eye, this bruiser body, this silence in the year since my mom died, this “being so brave,” this “doing so well” in “acting so strong”? Who does this serve?

I take cold comfort in knowing that this question is universal. “It’s very confusing to be encouraged and groomed within normative masculinity. You hear these things like, ‘Never start a fight, but always finish a fight.’” says Tyson Smith, the sociologist who studies wrestlers. “How do you do that?

And what of a man who was not born one? I spent 30 years agonizing over not having this body. I love the beauty I find in masculinity, the way it can hold a bloody nose and a hug, a sharp razor on the jaw under the tender watch of a barber, the muscle that must be nursed carefully to its potential, the body that can make a puppy or a child feel sheltered, cocooned.

“To redefine masculinity is the end goal here, but I don’t think it’s going to be by way of men completely opting out of the prevailing script,” Smith says. “It’s going to come from working from within the script to redefine it.”


Image for article titled Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity
Image: Ketch Wehr for Quartz

The fight is two weeks away, and I rupture my eardrum sparring. Danny says I can go to the doctor if I want, but I say no. There just isn’t enough time.

I haven’t seen my friends in weeks. Danny calls me “Tommy.” When he’s particularly pleased with me, he swats me on the ass with the pads. “You’re getting it, Tommy!” he says. He looks like he can barely believe it himself. I hit the bag when he isn’t around some nights, and the other guys correct my form. They know who I am. The guy with grey in his beard and hand tattoos, not that great but a lot of heart. I shadow box around orange cones, in front of the mirror. Men touch me on the arms, the shoulder. They say, “let your hands go” or “relax.”

I fight Stephen. He rushes me, I exchange, get out. I come in and hit him when he’s tired. He’s still got more power, but I hit him just as much and maybe with more spirit. I see his head move in slow motions, see his mistakes, hit him with a hook and a cross.

He hugs me after each round. “You believed in your punches!” he says, grinning.

I am trying hard to become the man I want to be, but sometimes, still, I fail. Once, Danny says “no homo” and I pretend not to hear. But once he says women boxers aren’t as good as men, and I tell him that’s bullshit. Another time, he says he always cheats on girlfriends so he can’t have one and I say, Come on. Then he drops the bravado and says his first girlfriend cheated on him, and he’s afraid of getting hurt.

When I tell Danny that he’s a romantic, I feel like all of my selves, all of my lives at once. When I say I’m a feminist, or when I feel myself freeze and then move, or when I see my mom watching with that brave smile I know she’d be wearing if she were here, waiting for me to look, ready for me to see that she’s always in my corner, I know that I can be every version of myself at once, not by denying my masculinity, but by shining my best light through it.


The Monday of fight week, three days before I will take on Eric in Madison Square Garden, I spar Danny for the last time. Jumping rope to warm up, I no longer feel self-conscious about my pre-fight mantras: You are invincible, I tell my reflection. You will not die.

Danny comes at me harder than he ever has before. I know he’s pulling his punches some, to prevent injury, but he’s brutal, relentless. Even though I’m hanging on the ropes through the rest periods, we’re both grinning.

You’re ready,” Danny says, ecstatic. “You see that? You won all three rounds.”

Stephen, watching while he jumps rope, agrees. “You quit thinking,” he says, approvingly.

Maybe I did. Thinking meant I didn’t believe I could win when I started this story. My goal, I told myself, was to pay attention to the truth, not my story about body or the world around it. I have always kept my distance with men, like an animal on the perimeter of the herd, and wasn’t I here to see how I’d fare in their cavernous, stinky, sweaty world? Didn’t I want, in my heart, to have an adolescence in miniature; to pass, but mostly to come out the other side no longer passing?

And hadn’t I found myself, still intact, loving these men even as I hit them in the face, and knowing they loved me back?

The night before the fight, Stephen, Danny, and I meet up at An Choi, down the street from me on the Lower East Side. “You got balls to do this, you know?” Danny says, affectionately. Over noodles, my stomach yellowing with bruises, I understand that the fact that I do not, in fact, have balls doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t feel like a secret, but an intimacy. After the fight, I know, I’ll tell Danny exactly that.

Boxing is unique to many other sports in that the fighter is entirely alone—without teammates, the rules upheld by a single referee, the match scored subjectively by three strangers. Like the months after my mom died, when life seemed to move along unfairly while I stood in the center of my own invisible storm, a boxer is exposed and armed only with his fists, experience, and his mind. No matter who is in his corner, a boxer has no illusions, no one to blame, nothing to protect himself from another body but his own. The ring is a lonely, glorious place, unique and riveting in its bald honesty: in very few moments do we truly comprehend how completely alone we are.

The day of my fight, I go to my barber shop on Rivington. A man I don’t know shears the sides of my skull, drapes a hot towel over my face, holds my chin in his hands. We don’t speak. He scrapes the stray hairs off my neck with a straight razor, and shakes my hand. He seems to intuit that, today I do not want to be known, just part of the rhythm of things.

The coaches are dressed up in shiny shoes and sweaters. The fighters are in our matching purple shorts and tanks, all us privileged dudes paying money to do the very thing that most of our coaches would have given everything to be able to do, fight on one of the world’s best known boxing stages. They keep telling us to sit down like polite dates, to conserve energy. It is an hour until the fight and Eric still isn’t here. Sensing my growing disappointment, Danny offers to fight me, like an exhibition, but the refs won’t let him. Chris pulls Danny and me aside, says the refs have agreed to let Eric and I fight no matter the weight differential, as long as he shows up.  

Danny takes me to the changing room and asks an old-timer to wrap my hands with the regulations gauze and pads. It’s a special technique, meant to better protect a fighter’s hands than the tape we use in sparring, and it’s a production that takes a good 15 minutes.

Stephen is subdued across from me, huddled into himself, watching videos on his phone. “What do you do?” the old guy asks, to distract me, to make conversation. When I say that I’m a writer, he surprises me. “Writers are great fighters,” he says.

“He’s here!” People whisper; down the corridors until it gets to me. Danny saw Eric’s weigh-in, tell me “not to worry” about his weight, says he looks slow, sheepish. We’re the seventh fight, and they call the first matches down to the main stage to pick up their gloves.

The coaches talk to one another, fade respectfully into the distance. They call out the next three bouts, and I can hear guys shuffling past our door and down the hall. Danny won’t let me watch anyone else’s fight. There have already been two first-round KOs. I can tell we’re all trying not to worry about what that means.

Stephen Cash, my ring brother.
Stephen Cash, my ring brother.
Image: Quartz/Jacob Templin

Stephen can’t stand the quiet, so he reads us his favorite Tyson quote. It is comforting, because of the part I always forget, the part where he holds the paradox of his fear and remembers who he is despite it:

“I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of being humiliated. But I was totally confident. The closer I get to the ring the more confidence I get. The closer, the more confidence I get. The closer, the more confidence I get.

All through my training I’ve been afraid of this man. I thought this man might be capable of beating me. I’ve dreamed of him beating me. I always stayed afraid of him. The closer I get to the ring I’m more confident. Once I’m in the ring, I’m a God! No-one can beat me.”

In the short hush right after, I think about something Chris said: “It is such an emotional journey to train for your first fight, even if you are a totally stereotypical dude.”

I am surprised to find myself so overwhelmed with gratitude that I tear up. Someone says “Daaamn.”

And then they call my name.


I met Danny for coffee around the corner from Church’s two weeks later. We had both wanted to meet, to talk about the fight and the last few months—for me, it was under the guise of an interview, but mostly I wanted to thank him.

The day after the fight, Danny posted a photo of the two of us on Instagram. We are in the ring at Madison Square Garden a couple of hours before the match just as they are setting up the stretcher, arms around each other’s shoulders.

He wrote: “With everything against us, Thomas showed me it takes more than a 20-pound disadvantage to slow us down. His heart is unquestionable. The average man wouldn’t do what he’s done.”

His heart is unquestionable. I am so touched by that, but even more I wonder what he means about the average man.

The relationship between fighter and coach is deeply intimate. Danny knows, whether or not he realizes, my worst fears and the worst self that manifests from them. He also knows who I can be, who I am, not the average man, not by a long shot.

“It was unfortunate that the fight turned out the way it did with us,” he says, softly, surprising me. “But you did fucking excellent. I don’t regret anything. I still think you won that fight.”

The second and third rounds did curdle the glory of the first. According to amateur rules, scoring happens primarily through hits, and, watching fight footage, I still think I outscored him.

But life is about perception, and though I stuck with the plan—move in, hit, move out—he timed me, got in more clean hits. Once he smelled blood, he pressured me,  rushed in with that heavy right. I got a standing 8, and then another. By the third round, I’d gassed out, and was forced to exchange with him more than I’d like. He swarmed, he brought his all, and I couldn’t get out from under him.

It was a good fight, and I lost it.

But I remember feeling buoyant in that last round, even when we’re both so exhausted that we’re reduced to just exchanging jabs: sweaty, ready for a burger and a long nap and my real life, but not afraid of losing or loss, because loss is part of life, because I’m the kind of guy who will just keep coming, even after a standing 8, even after my head snaps back: I might have lost, but I will never, ever stop.

After I turn the microphone off, as we’re standing up and stretching, Danny turns to me and says, “So how come you didn’t tell me?” in a “cut the bullshit” voice. We look at each other for a long moment. “Can I record this?” I ask, finally. He nods.

“I figured this was why you wanted to interview me in the first place,” he says, and then tells me that he figured out I was trans the week of my fight, noticed the word on my Instagram. “I knew what it meant, but I didn’t know what it meant,” he says.

I try to act casual, try to not fear that how he reacts could undo what I’ve come to believe about what is possible between men. I don’t want to care what he thinks of me, but he knows my body better than I do, and his faith in me in this form, so soon after I lost my mom, has felt almost parental.“You didn’t want anybody to judge you or treat you different,” he says. “I figured the reason that you didn’t want me to know was because it was in a boxing gym and you didn’t want that type of attention. That being such a sensitive topic,” he says.

“It shocked me—I had no idea, nobody knows, nobody would have known—nobody still knows. It’s shocking to know that you kept it in,” he says.

He didn’t want to bring it up so close to the fight, but he says, “Trust me, during the fight, it was in my mind. I was like, Oh man this is going to be the best thing ever. I was thinking, if this guy fucking wins, oh my god.”

We grinned at each other.

The week before, after he figured it out, he tried to give me hints that he knew, by liking photos on Instagram where I reference being trans, or a photo from a story I wrote about Caitlyn Jenner. “I just wanted you to see, ‘Yo, I know, it’s okay,’” he says. “ I was just waiting for you to tell me.”


Image for article titled Why men fight: An empirical investigation of the extremes of masculinity
Image: Ketch Wehr for Quartz

In WC Heinz’s book, “The Professional,” a reporter says to a boxer: “The rest of us have to prove our manliness, or something, by standing up to some guy. A fighter never has that urge because he gets rid of it in his work. That’s why I say that, when everything else is equal, fighters are the best-adjusted males in the world.”

To which the boxer replies, doubtfully, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know, either. In fact, I doubt it. But I do think boxing taught me to love my ghosts and name my fears. I think I’m a better man for it.

“I would never have treated you differently,” Danny said, as we got up to leave. “Especially after I saw you fight—it’s like, you’re just like every other person. There’s nothing different about you, or anybody that’s trans. Nothing different. There’s no gender—it’s all in your head. You performed as well as any other man would.”

“I had to prove this to myself, I think,” I told him, knowing as I said it that it was true.

“Well,” he answered, throwing away the last of his food and pushing open the door. “You proved it to me.”

His last gift to me as my coach was leaving it there. I am my own man. I’ll figure out what to do with it.