As mixed martial arts fans we’ve long grown accustomed to prudes and prigs and spoilsports lashing out at our favorite pastime with “evidence” (psychological, anatomical, ethical, historical-pastoral) that fighting as a source of amusement warps the minds of our children, debilitates the moral growth of our civilization, and sets back the cause of human evolution. Eventually, though, these wild ravings (never forget the floor of the New York State Assembly!) get shouted down by cooler heads and more reasonable voices, and the bores and hand-wringers either disappear into history to join other flat-earth types or resign themselves to our way of thinking. Bans get lifted, regulations get drawn up, MMA continues its inexorable march into the mainstream, and civilization, such as it is, doesn’t crumble.
That doesn’t mean, however, that some concerns over the effects of witnessing or participating in combat sports aren’t legitimate. Not even our best psychologists are willing to say that watching MMA doesn’t have a numbing or negative effect on children’s mental and moral development, and studies are being done all the time on the lasting effects repeated head blows have on the health of the human brain. And never forget about the aesthetically destructive effect MMA fandom has had on the fashion sense and tattoo acumen of thousands of young white men. And last but certainly not least, there’s the very real, but as-yet-under-researched possibility that taking part in combat sports at too young an age can lead to Constitutional amendments outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol. No fight fan wants to think about that, do they?
Consider this long-forgotten and dark chapter from American history. In April 1851 a Quaker named Neal Dow was elected mayor of Portland, Maine. By July Dow, a founding member of the Maine Temperance Society, had almost single-handedly arranged for the passage of a law banning the manufacturing, sale, and consumption of alcohol in the state. The “Maine Law” turned Dow into a figure of national prominence. He became known across the country as the “Napoleon of Temperance” and the “Father of Prohibition,” and within four years 12 other states had joined Maine in total prohibition. Spurred on by these successes the temperance movement in the United States grew and grew and in 1920 Congress passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors in the United States. Not bad for a tanner’s son.
But why such passion, Neal? Why were you so consumed by the desire to rid the United States of the scourge of alcohol? What drove you to fight so hard for the moral and physical purity of your countrymen, to inflict upon them your wrathful abstemiousness, and by doing so defy even the teachings of your own God and his wisest king, Solomon, who (remember, Neal?) told us in Proverbs to “Give strong drink unto him that is perishing and wine unto the distressed in soul: Let him drink and forget his misery and remember his sorrow no more”? Why, Neal?
The answer, unfortunately for us, could very well be fighting-induced trauma. Apparently, when Neal Dow was just 7-years-old, he was forced by local drunks to fight a monkey. And apparently poor Neal Dow never got over it.
The story goes that young Neal was hanging out outside a barbershop down by the waterfront when local “drunkos” arranged for a fight between the boy and a monkey that was just then sitting in the yard next door. For the rest of the story let’s go to Dow himself, who wrote about the incident in his 1898 book The Reminiscences of Neal Dow:
“Not old enough to realize the absurdity of such a match, or to understand that there were only bites and scratched to be had, and no good of any kind, or even so-called honor, to be won from the scrimmage, I permitted myself to be armed with a stout stick furnished by one of the men and entered the territory where the monkey intended to be supreme. …
“To such a monkey as I then encountered, it is wise to give a wide berth. He opened the fight with teeth and claw, jumping at my face, biting at me and tearing my clothes with all his considerable might. I kept him in front of me as well as I could, kicking and striking him in front of me as well as I could, kicking and striking him whenever I got the chance. How long the folly lasted I do not know. For what seemed to me a long time the monkey had most of the fun and I most of the pain, but at length the brute got tired of it and knew enough to give up.
“Before I had thrashed the monkey soundly as I wished, I was called off and came out of the yard bitten, scratched, bloody and dirty from head to foot, and with clothes torn, but I was so petted and rewarded with candy and round-cakes by the rascally bystanders who has put me up to the fight, that I imagined myself quite a hero until, taking a great deal of dirt, some of the blood, and all of the scratched home with me, I found, much to my comfort, that my parents took a very different view of the affair from that help by the barbershop loafers.”
Dow’s parents beat and admonished their son for fighting a monkey with a stick and for hanging out with drunks, and, according to author Frank Byrne, who wrote a biography of the prohibitionist, in response the young man turned the natural combativeness he’d displayed that day at the barbershop away from booze-fueled monkey fights and toward the cause of temperance. “While he accompanied his parents to the Friends’ meetings, he was no pacifist,” Byrne writes. “Again and again, he would fight undignified physical and verbal brawls.” And win.
One hundred years later Neal Dow got his way: Prohibition was the law of the land, an honest man or woman couldn’t get a drink in this country, and America was plunged into a state of near civil war with the gangsters and bootleggers who’d risen up to satisfy one of humanity’s most basic, most precious, and most God-sanctioned needs. Now tell me that fighting doesn’t have a detrimental effect.
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