“Size ain’t shit” was a cliche in my old neighborhood. The idea was that physical size doesn’t determine toughness. Ability to shut off fear does. And often the best ones at this were the smallest guys.
This is counterintuitive, and the opposite of tough-guy movies where Vin Diesel meatheads beat up a full bar of guys, one idiot at a time. In my old neighborhood, many times small guys were the ones to watch out for. They’re the guys that are forced to scrap, and after a while they get good at it.
When most people talk about someone being “able to fight,” they usually mean technique like boxing or kung-fu. But in actuat fights that stuff is mostly beside the point.
Fighting is maybe 10% technique and 10% strategy—things like getting in the first punch or bringing a club—but the other 80% is heart. What matters most is having nothing to lose—not caring about the black eye tomorrow or the blood on a new shirt or a trip to the dentist’s chair. That’s what we used to call “craziness.”
Ernest Hemingway got at something like this when he said he never trusted marksmen on a big-game hunt. He understood shooting a target is fundamentally different from putting a slug in a charging rhino. Sure, target shooters are technically refined. But they never learn to manage the fear.
It’s the same with someone doing “kick boxing” three nights a week at a health club and thinking that’s self-defense. Kicking a bag and punching a personal trainer are fundamentally different from getting in a tangle with a guy who wants to fuck your head up so bad you’ll be afraid to tell the story later.
Hemingway wrote: “cowardice . . . is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.” Fighting is traumatic, and good fighting requires the ability to suspend the functioning of one’s imagination about it. Guys that get scared are the ones who think too much, worried about getting hurt, police, or getting shot later.
The best scappers are existentialists to the core, living for right now, or are the boneheads who are unable to grasp abstract future consequences. Whatever the case, all that matters in a solid fight performance is doing damage to the guy in front of you.
Often little guys get crazy as a survival technique.
They grow up getting beat and having to fight every time they go out. They aren’t the pretty boys, worried about their faces getting twisted. You can pick them out anywhere. Skinny veiny arms, crooked nose and scars, loud drinkers, maybe a tooth missing and big knuckles. Those are the guys who know how to pick up a stick and not give a shit about it later.
Often the biggest guys I knew were useless in fights. Why? They’re never challenged. They never learn anything but intimidation. It’s funny to watch them get confronted and have their bluff called. They try to settle things down to avoid going to blows, and do a little pushing and shoving. But you can see the hesitation in the eyes.
You never see a scrapper try to calm things down. They know they can’t do it. As the perennial underdog, they either fight or get beat. Contrast that with the pushing and trash talking you see with big dopey frat boys when the bars let out Saturday night. Real scrappers won’t push. They get in the first blow, get it over with, and get the hell out before the police show up.
Growing up, most of my crew were small guys, including me. That made for a lot of bad nights.
Sometimes I still get asked about scars. I’ll be at the beach with a girl, someone who sees me in a tie everyday in my new life, someone who could never imagine my old life and fucked up stories.
When they ask, I don’t talk about fights. I say I worked construction in high school. I tell them I got banged up on the job. And not knowing anything about fighting or construction, it fools them every time.