Part 3 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here
and Part 2, The Blood-Ritual Spectrum, here

I’ve used the blood-ritual spectrum to demonstrate that combat rituals allow the contestants to balance the blood debt. On one end of the spectrum is the blood feud, which gets the job done fast with a high risk of violent contagion. At the other end is the choreographed war dance, which is a slow burn but with almost no risk of violent contagion.

That article was primarily concerned with the participants in combat ritual. Participation in ritual has one clear benefit aside from balancing the blood debt: it was a release valve for built-up, violent intents, which if bottled up could easily explode in violent contagion.

This article covers an element that all combat rituals have in common: spectators. Spectators weren’t just there for their own entertainment, and they weren’t just ticket sales for the promoters. Spectators form an integral part of the combat ritual equation: their presence is also critical to keeping violent contagion in check.

The Violent Spectators

We can simulate this scenario in a few ways. Let’s go back in time and imagine a peaceful tribe on one side of a large canyon. On the other side is a gang of cannibals. The gap prevents the cannibals from invading the peaceful tribe. For the sake of argument, the peaceful tribe can’t escape. So once the cannibals build a bridge, they’ll enjoy the human buffet waiting on the other side.

The peaceful tribe watches the cannibal gang sharpen their teeth and hone their axes all day. Their peaceful mirror neurons are slowly inundated with the cannibals’ intentions to eat them. Cannibalistic notions will begin invading their once-peaceful thoughts. One goes crazy and stabs his brother with a sharp stick. A cousin takes revenge for the stabbing. A small feud erupts. At this rate, the peaceful tribe will kill itself off before the cannibals can even finish the bridge. What can they do?

The peaceful tribe, like any society, still has to balance its blood debt. It does this while weighing the risks of violent contagion. As mentioned previously, blood feuds don’t mix well with neighbors. In an open system like this, the stress of an impending cannibal invasion is too much kindling for the fire.

Peter Gibbons in Office Space

Before we propose a solution, we need to understand the mechanics of what’s happening in the peaceful tribe members’ mirror neuron systems. We can use the modern example of Office Space. Peter is an office worker. His overbearing boss Lumbergh and annoying coworkers get on his nerves. They bombard his mirror neuron systems with malicious intentions. Peter is constantly inundated by his job, just like the peaceful tribe is inundated by the cannibals.

If this were medieval Iceland, Peter could kill Lumbergh and rule Initech. If it were the Old West, he could challenge Lumbergh to a gun duel, or maybe a fist fight. Even a quick Jujitsu match could settle things quickly. But the corporate world of post-1994 doesn’t allow for these modes of resolution.

Fight Club posits an interesting resolution for inundation – get together on Friday nights and do fist fights (level 3 on the blood-ritual spectrum). Corporate boxing gyms are all over America for this reason. The physical release of the intent loads can clear the air for office workers and allow them to keep working. If boxing isn’t an option, they can run, lift weights, or do something physical that, at least partially, targets these problematic intent loads.

But let’s say Peter didn’t do anything, or he can’t do anything. Or he didn’t have time. What happens to all the intents that he loads into his brain? His relationship is on the brink, and he’s miserable. He might snap and stab someone. We have the same situation as our cannibal invasion: intents are loaded, they’re boiling over, and our subjects can’t physically do anything. Peter goes to a hypnotist, but that’s movie logic and won’t work for us. We need a resolution to the problem of inundation without action.

Inundation – Intents Kept In a (Volatile) Potential State

In Mirrors in the Brain Rizzolatti theorized that when we observe an object that requires some kind of action, such as a coffee cup, the PMVr (or “F5”) region of our brain builds a simulation of the action. This is stored as a potential motor action. The simulation helps us to process exactly how to pick up the coffee cup, which then allows us to act. Intents are loaded and then released by action.

Once we have discovered how to conjugate the different kinds of motor acts with specific visual aspects relative to objects, which therefore become object affordances, our motor system will be able to perform all the transformations necessary to carry out any act, including that of picking up our cup of coffee.

… Many objects, including our coffee cup, have more than one affordance. It follows that when we see these objects, more than one set of neural AIP populations will be triggered, each of which will code a specific affordance. It is likely that these action proposals will be sent to F5, sparking off what can be defined as potential motor acts. Now, the choice of how to act will not depend only on the intrinsic properties of the object in question (its shape, size, and orientation), but also on what we intent to do with it, on its functions, etc. Going back to our coffee cup once more, we will grasp it in different ways depending on whether we are picking it up to drink from it, to rinse it, or simply to move it from one place to another. Moreover, our grip on the cup varies according to the circumstances, whether we are afraid of burning our fingers, or the cup is surrounded by other objects; it will also be influenced by our customs, habits, and our inclination to adhere to certain social rules and so on.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, (pp. 35-36)

When we do not act on the potential motor act, the intention is retained in a potential stage.

When an act is performed, the discharge of the neuron represents the activation of a motor command, such as ‘pick this up with a precision grip’, but what happens when there is no action involved, just observation? If the neuron also discharges in the same way in this condition, this discharge should convey an identical message to that sent when the animal moves, but which instead of determining an overt action, remains at the potential stage. This happens automatically whenever the monkey looks at a given type of object. … [W]e are interested here in the functions to be ascribed to the vocabulary of motor acts even when there is no explicit intention to act.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, pp. 47-48

Interestingly, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can’t seem to ignore the inundation of objects and will constantly act on these stored intentions. Studying Autism as it relates to the mirror neuron system might reveal some interesting clues. This will be covered in a later article.

This same function of storing potential motor action helps us comprehend the intentions of others performing an action. The potential motor action builds a simulation within our own brains of what the other person is trying to do.

The ‘act on the spectator’s part’ is a potential motor act, determined by the activation of the mirror neurons that code sensory information in motor terms thus enabling the ‘reciprocity’ of acts and intentions that is at the root of our ability to immediately understand what we see others doing. … As soon as we see someone doing something, either a single act or a chain of acts, his movements take on immediate meaning for us, whether he likes it or not [and whether we like it or not]. … The mirror neuron system and the selectivity of the responses of the neurons that compose it, produce a shared space of action, within which each act and chain of acts, whether ours or ‘theirs’, are immediately registered and understood without the need of any explicit or deliberate ‘cognitive operation’.

Rizzolatti, Mirrors In The Brain, p. 131
Office Space

These potential intents, if not acted upon, are what cause us to be “bogged down” or inundated. Inundation is a huge load on our mirror neuron systems, begging us to do something. Of course, doing something about them would get us fired. We can’t all be gangstas.

The Cathartic War Dance

Back at the impending cannibal holocaust, our peaceful tribe needs to resolve the inundation from their cannibal neighbors, without sparking violent contagion within the tribe. A chieftain comes forward, who understands the whole situation. Understanding the situation requires decoding the simulation going on in the mirror neurons of his tribe. In our case, the intent load looks something like this:

  • Cannibals want to eat us
  • We can’t stop them
  • Feuds are erupting from our inundation

The chieftain then makes a blueprint of a counter-simulation which, in the minds of the peaceful tribespeople, could resolve the threat of the cannibal holocaust. This data would be:

  • Our tribe unites
  • We use weapons to beat the cannibals
  • Peace is restored

The chieftain gathers some of his warriors. They’re a little out of shape, so he paints some six-packs on them and makes them look hard. He choreographs a dance with them, a simulation of a defense against a cannibal holocaust. He integrates some aspects specific to their tribe like the red color of the soil and some local bird quills. The chieftain consults with the priests, integrating lore and storytelling into the routine.

War Dance – Thomas L. McKenney & James Hall, History of the Indian tribes of North America, London 1837 (vol. I, frontispiece)

The chieftain gathers the tribe together and presents The War Dance. The people are enchanted as their warriors battle and tell stories. At the end is an animal sacrifice, which brings a symbolic peace on the whole assembly. The war dance rallies the troops against the inevitable cannibal attack, but it also serves to calm down the audience. It clarifies the “we” against “them cannibals”.

God of War

Like the war dance, in any story we are introduced to the main character of the drama, whom we relate to in some way. Typical stories have a “save the cat” moment where our mirror neuron systems can click with the protagonist. His desires become our desires, his enemies our enemies, his struggle our struggle, and his catharsis our catharsis. His entire drama is simulated within our mirror neuron system, which becomes our internal reality for the length of the drama. If our intent load doesn’t click with his, we can’t sync up with his story, so we’ll pick a different drama. Netflix has 160 TV shows as of writing this post, so people have no shortage of dramatic options to choose from. Corporate bosses like Lumbergh might connect with a show about a politician, a laborer will connect with a show about a coal-miner in post-Edwardian England, etc.

No matter what intents we’re loaded with throughout the day, there is a drama out there, a war dance, that we can sync with. Our protagonist will vanquish the villain, offloading her intents through the resolution of, say, a final sword fight. This has the effect of unhitching the same intents that we’ve been inundated with up until that point. The death of the villain simulates the intent offloading, and we’re suddenly freed from the inundation.

(Sidenote: This is the same method used in possession and exorcism rituals. I’ll write more in depth on this subject in a later post. But essentially, the shaman/Netflix syncs with our MNS and uses various sacred objects/imagery to help us expel foreign intent loads. The more we study our ancestors, the more we realize that we haven’t changed.)

The removal of these loaded intents gives new meaning to the Greek word catharsis. The “purification”, “cleansing”, and “clarification” of catharsis makes a lot more sense now. Netflix and the war dance have this very cathartic effect on the spectator: the shedding of unwanted intent loads so that we don’t kill each other.

The Formal Era of the War Dance

Going back to our impending cannibal holocaust, the cathartic war dance (or any media that we watch for its cleansing properties, and not for research) keeps the peaceful tribe from killing itself off. It’s on the cleanest end of the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, where violence is codified and not actually violent toward anybody, so we could call this period a formal era. The goal is to keep violent contagion to an absolute minimum.

Formal eras don’t necessarily require an impending, external crisis. If we look at war dances like the WWE, Wushu, and Pakistani Kabbadi, these aren’t due to the threat of invading cannibals. However, highly coded forms of combat always stem from a strict taboo against violence, whose roots might be in the distant past. China’s reverence for traditional martial arts comes from millennia of peasant revolts and military conquest, which come with a host of coded taboos (even taboos against violence while eating). These traditional institutions bear the mark of history and are worth preserving for their weapons alone.

If we introduce an updated ritual combat system like MMA, there’s no reason to destroy the older, formal combat institution. Sometimes they even mix in interesting ways. Just don’t let them mix in the wrong way, or the state will intervene in the name of preserving this once-critical institution. Because you never know when you’ll need it again.

In the case of our peaceful tribe, formal violence is actually quite an accomplishment. Putting boundary lines around choreographed combat requires a long continuity of cultural signs, which is only possible if the tribe has escaped destruction from within and without.

But what happens when we do descend into a crisis?

When Cannibals Attack, We Eat Them – Plummeting to the Crisis Era

The tribe was too distracted watching the war dance and the cannibals built their bridge and attacked. The tribe attempts to fight, but their rusty weapons fail them, and they’re not in fighting shape. They take massive casualties. The cannibals finally devour the chieftain and secure their dominance. The tribe are caged and will be eaten over time, not necessarily for food, but more as a flex. Plus, that old fickle sun god seems to like it when they eat people.

The peaceful tribe’s collective mirror neurons have been inundated for months, maybe years, by the cannibals. They never acted on these loaded intentions to preemptively strike and stave off the attack, so now they’re lunch. We can look to history to see how dire the situation is for our peaceful tribe.

So now, perhaps without thinking, and with no other options, a handful of the peaceful tribe members gang up on the prison guard and eat him in front of some other cannibals. They begin to act like cannibals themselves, going on a rampage against the invaders. The once-peaceful tribe totally lets loose in the interest of self-preservation. Some of them even seem to enjoy this moment of animal-like brutality. The cannibals are then vanquished. They cross the bridge and murder all the cannibals’ family members too, just to be sure they don’t come back in a generation to settle the blood debt.

The tribe has rid themselves of the cannibals, but they have a new problem: now they’re cannibals. The dividing line between the animalistic cannibals and the high-minded tribe has been totally erased. The hero has become the villain, the villain the hero. There’s no right or wrong. This “undifferentiation” is the crisis, when critical differences and categories are lost. In this case, the difference between “human life” and “food” has vaporized.

In the wake of the crisis, the tribal mirror neuron network just looks like a bunch of cannibals. The network says, “Eating humans brings peace.” They’ve officially gone there. “Cannibalism” is now associated with “peace and victory” in the mirror neuron network! Uh oh! They want to go back to what were before, but whenever a threat crops up, they go to ritual cannibalism. It keeps the peace, but things aren’t the same anymore.

The elders come together and realize, in the interest of self-preservation, that they can’t just keep eating people. There at least has to be a sunset on cannibalism, because nobody wants to be the cannibal tribe. It’s not good for trade and it scares the kids. Worst of all, cannibalism is very bloody on the Blood-Ritual Spectrum, causing more than its fair share of contagious violence. (Food for thought: maybe the cannibal invaders were just trying to shake off their cannibalistic practices!)

The elders come up with a plan to de-cannibalize. They restrict cannibalism to prisoners only, then to only dead people, and then only domesticated animals that they pretend are people. Modern Latin American sacrifice calls for a chicken, which the priestess gently rocks like a baby. Then she cuts its throat. Sacrificial substitution gets the tribe out of the crisis situation and into an structure governed by a higher ethic.

If no plan is given, de-cannibalization might happen naturally. Eating a human in a dispute causes far too much revenge and anger. Disputes will have to be settled in cleaner ways (again, we can reference the blood-ritual spectrum). Disputes will become regulated by the elders, who will place strict boundaries around the contestants, which moves the tribe out of the crisis era and into the lawful era.

Lawful Era – The Market of Combat

The lawful era is when our new combat rituals emerge, which as we saw in the blood-ritual spectrum serve to settle blood debts among participants. New chieftains will emerge to help inaugurate these combat rituals. They will provide adequate cathartic release for the spectators, integrating various familiar cultural symbols, turning them into events that can draw many spectators.

It’s impossible to arbitrary dictate which type of combat to institute. Ethnic factors, inter-tribal relations, and geography are just a few of the many variables that will cause the right kind of combat to emerge in the lawful era. Take America, for example. The blood feud (1 on the spectrum) came with the territory, as did the duel (2) and the bare-knuckle fight (3). We see the pro wrestling match (war dance – 8) at early carnivals. Gloved boxing (5) was the sport of choice starting in 1892, and around the same time the bare-knuckle fight (3) and the duel to the death (2) were phased out. Much later in the 60s came competitive Karate (free fighting – 4, though arguably much cleaner than its later UFC counterpart) and only recently did we see the emergence of the Bare-Knuckle Fighting League (back to 3 again).

In a lawful era, the emergence of combat forms will be all over the place. Sometimes a ritual combat will displace others, and at other times both can exist side-by-side. Today, most developed countries have everything from free fighting to war dances (4-8), and many warrior societies still have bare knuckle fight rituals (3). Duels are mostly gone, and blood feuds are mostly gone too.

The lawful era is inherently stable. Rules and regulations are the basis of combat. Contagion is limited by emerging combat markets which balance participant payment with the demand for event tickets. Combat rituals which become outlawed might be commemorated in nostalgic media (Westerns, Chambara) or regulated as cultural treasures if they fail in the market. Lawful societies are generally able to balance the blood debt, avoid violent outbreaks, get the catharsis they need, and defend themselves from cannibals.

Despite its stability, there’s always a chance that a lawful era will descend back into a crisis era: lawful combat rituals might result in an explosion of violent contagion; cathartic outlets might not provide the juice and result in riots; or the cannibals might fly an airplane into a tower.

If the society fears violent contagion and decides to move toward cleaner combat, it might seal up the borders, outlaw all rituals besides the war dance, and institute a formal era via martial law.

Back Into the Formal Era – Aesthetic, But Unstable

A formal era is inherently unstable: borders have to be closed, the state will come down hard on violence, and people have no recourse to blood payment except through the state. Without strict military protection and a smart propaganda campaign, cannibals will infiltrate and destroy a formal society.

The Chinese Government created Wushu and entered its purely formal era for decades, but the formal era was eroded with the reforms of the early 2000s: China invited in more outside media, the borders were opened, and MMA took off. Wushu is still around, but for how much longer? China’s formal era might be on the brink and the country might be joining the rest of the world by moving into a more stable lawful era. North Korea, though it allowed Taekwondo, would still be considered a formal society, albeit a very unstable one.

Nostalgia for authoritarian formalism, original link

And just like the lawful era, a formal era can quickly unravel into a crisis era, as our peaceful tribe discovered.

Though formal eras are unstable, nostalgia for past formal eras permeates society. Musicals like West Side Story and spoofs like The Naked Gun feature highly coded violence. They call back to a time, often a fantasy that never existed, when violence was divorced of its contagious element.

Eras – Blueprints for Action Films

We will return to these eras – crisis, lawful, and formal – when we begin studying genre film, and action films in particular, since action film is a commemoration of the combat ritual. But first we will investigate media more broadly. How do crises affect media storytelling? How can we, as storytellers/filmmakers/choreographers, make the right kind of cathartic media? The next article on code-making will cover this and more.

Part 2 of The Art of Violence Series
Read Part 1, Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, here

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has grown interested in the topic of violence, which is driving us back into some old wisdom. If the CDC could avoid politicking, it could show that human violence in general is a contagion. Otherwise it’s just more political theater.

Credit: The Trace

In my article Mirror Neurons and Human Violence, citing Gans and Girard, I claimed that human violence is unique due to our complex mirror neuron systems and our (perhaps related) ability to use tools. This categorically differentiates humans from animals. Our tendency to escalate violence to extremes leads to one of two outcomes – a standstill, or total destruction.

Blood = Violent Contagion

The ancients were very sensitive to human violence. Any sign of it signaled to everyone that a crisis was at hand. One clear indicator of violent contagion was blood. Armor was ritually washed in Torah after battle. As a sign of contagion, blood from child birth and menstruation was quarantined to prevent further outbreak. This was a ritual common to most, if not all, parts of the world, enforced by both genders. It was not to eliminate bacterial contagion (even if that was a side effect), but violent contagion.

Menstrual shed in Nepal. Credit: NPR

Violent contagion is commemorated, or ritualized, in various ways. Bloodbaths are simulated without casualties in La Tomatina. The sight of red doesn’t result in mass warfare because the safety release valve of the ritual, a booster shot, inoculates the crowd against future violent outbreaks. Early depictions of Holi indicate that the primary color for the celebration was red, though the Indian diaspora seems averse to using red.

If we’re going to try and think like ancients, then we can’t look at the taboo against blood and its related rituals purely as ignorant superstition. Red color has real meaning: sometimes taboo, sometimes fortune, but red is never meaningless.

La Tomatina – Simulation of Blood. Credit Wiki

Ritual is a virtual simulation of violent contagion. The ritual injects information into our mirror neuron system, which counteracts the gradual build-up of (often violent) intentions that we unconsciously download from others over time. Ritual unhitches our intent loads in a cathartic release, putting us back in right-thinking. (Its addictive qualities result in some interesting changes over time, which we’ll touch on later.)

The total destruction of society is too risky for any organization of people, so in the past we come up with some interesting ways of dealing with this. And we still use all of it, just with different coats of paint.

Case Study: A Territorial Dispute Leads to Murder

To begin, let’s simulate a situation common to all time periods: territorial dispute. Abe claims his property line includes the cedar tree. Bert claims his great grandfather planted the cedar. Abe builds a fence and encloses the tree. Bert knocks it down. The two shout. There’s an escalation. Intent loads escalate to extremes.

Image result for people arguing fence

Abe has a knife in his belt. Bert anticipates violence. So he hits Abe in the head with a pickax and brains him. (Read Njáls Saga for an Icelandic example.)

In a functional, modern legal system, Bert gets arrested, tried, and goes to jail for second degree murder. But not long ago, Bert instead incurred blood debt. There are lots of ways of describing blood debt: “the ground demanded Abe’s blood”, “Abe’s blood cried out from the earth“, etc. Abe’s family would then collect the blood debt from Bert by demanding some form of payment: financial compensation, killing Bert, or Bert offering the life of someone from his family. Trumbull records this in his 1885 book Blood Covenant:

Hence, in the event of a depletion of the family by the loss of blood—the loss of a life—the goel had a responsibility of securing to the family an equivalent of that loss, by other blood, or by an agreed payment for its value. His mission was not vengeance, but equity. He was not an avenger, but a redeemer, a restorer, a balancer. And in that light, and in that light alone, are all the Oriental customs in connection with blood-cancelling seen to be consistent.

… Von Wrede, says of the custom of the Arabs, in concluding a peace, after tribal hostilities: “If one party has more slain than the other, the shaykh on whose side the advantage lies, says [to the other shaykh]: ‘Choose between blood and milk’ [between life, and the means of sustaining life]; which is as much as to say, that he may [either] avenge the fallen [take life for life]; or accept blood-money.” Mrs. Finn says, similarly, of the close of a combat in Palestine: “A computation is generally made of the losses on either side by death, wounds, etc., and the balance is paid to the victors.” Burton describes similarly the custom in Arabia.

Trumbull, Blood Covenant (1885) p. 89-90

Blood accounting and the feud are not-so-ancient concepts that we have to wrap our heads around if we want to understand ritual combat (and action choreography by extension). Without it, we’re left with a useless emotional reaction to sports combat and other ritual acts of violence (bloody MMA bouts, fist fights in Hockey) that thrive in modern pop culture. My hypothesis: ritual violence is a blood accounting simulation.

Emotional Reactions to Blood

An emotional reaction to blood is normal and healthy. This is a legacy function of our brains which creates a stress response when blood is present, signaling a real risk of violent contagion. There’s no need to resist this healthy impulse. The difference is that our ancestors had proper action understanding surrounding blood – they dealt more readily with open wounds, fought each other more often, saw a lot of human death, and killed a lot of animals with their bare hands. Most of us don’t have this kind of comfort with blood, but we don’t need it.

Nonetheless it’s critical that we understand violence so we don’t react emotionally to it. This helps us think clearly during violent threats and analyze the ritual violence of our ancestors fairly. Without some level of understanding, then violent experiences become locked behind an emotional firewall, preventing their rational discussion.

Take this cliche argument between an academic and a fighter. The academic argues from emotion. The fighter is ready to fight. The academic is coaxed into punching the fighter in the nose, drawing blood. The two might trade blows until the academic, having now built up just a little bit of action understanding, can suddenly speak and think rationally. The violent intent load has been released from behind his emotional firewall, giving the rational part of his brain access to it. This is also how EMDR claims to work. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether to proceed, because it gets a little bloody.

With that, here’s the Blood-Ritual Spectrum.


Icelandic bloodfeud
  • Blood-heavy
  • High risk of contagion
  • Rapid response to unplanned violence
  • Examples: Icelandic Commonwealth, Albania, Death Penalty

On the bloodiest side of the blood-ritual spectrum is the blood feud, a stripped down duel whose aim is to balance the blood debt. The concept is that once payment has been made, the feud is over. On a local level, this seems to have “worked”. It survived for a third of a millennium in the isolated “anarchist” Icelandic Commonwealth a thousand years ago. It’s not an ideal form of tort law, but it also didn’t seem to destroy everything in sight.

The death penalty is the only remaining remnant of the blood feud, whereby revenge is prevented via the police. Until recently the death penalty was a public affair which drew large crowds, with the implicit warning to onlookers that they were to “keep the law or this will happen to you.” Today, the death penalty in the USA is a mostly private, bloodless affair, which minimized violent contagion. They even sterilize the needle for a lethal injection. The old mindset believes that violence and plague share the same contagious channels. To them, this level of sanitation makes sense.

One problem with the blood feud is that it doesn’t function well with outsiders. Neighboring tribes may not have the same sentiments about blood accounting that we do. Perhaps have different views on revenge, or what weapons should be allowed in the blood feud. If we can’t agree on the terms, then either we have endless war, or one side subjugates the other. The blood feud is a disaster in a global economy. A single assassination can kickstart an entire world war.

Another issue with the blood feud is the contagiousness of it. Blood feuds often spread like wildfire to the loser’s next of kin and beyond. It was in everyone interest to put up some boundaries to confine the conflict between the two parties. This became “the duel”.


Musashi vs. Ganryū
  • Usually bloody
  • Honor-based
  • Lower risk of contagion
  • Examples: Samurai, Western Gun Duels, later Icelandic sagas

The duel is a humanitarian response to the blood feud. If revenge spiraled out of control, boundaries were erected to reduce or eliminate the spread of contagious violence. At the same time, participation was mandatory. A combatant did not back down from a challenge. In Japan it was better to kill one’s self than to forfeit a sword duel. Icelanders called them níðingr (nithingr), or the lowest form of cowards. European gun and sword duels functioned the same way.

The anticipation of a duel, with death hanging in the air, was a good incentive for others not to let disputes go this far.

Nonetheless, after a duel, a bloody corpse usually remained. Blood contagion was still a factor, just less so than the blood feud. Revenge against the victor was taboo, but not unheard of. The observers might be contaminated by the duel and unleash their own violence in a later, unrelated event. There was an effort to clean up the ritual while still maintaining the dueling elements.


Crib vs. Molineaux (Wikimedia commons)
  • Moderate blood (broken noses, busted lips and knuckles)
  • No casualties
  • Longer, more exciting battles
  • Dramatic
  • No weapons
  • Minimal wear-and-tear
  • Examples: Irish fist fighting, Takanakuy, BKFC, Russian boxing, Lethwei, Hockey

The bare-knuckle fighting Wiki page says the first recorded fist fight was in 1681, but that wasn’t the first ritual fist fight. From the moment we realized we could sort out our differences without the fear of death, we fought bare-knuckle brawls. Fist fighting is a critically important institution in America (Dawg Fight, 2015), Ireland (Knuckle, 2011), and anywhere else where warrior classes are legally obligated to abandon their arms and sort out their differences in the arena. They resort to bare knuckle fights because they’re the next-best option to dueling. Peru’s Takanakuy requires combatants to shake hands before and after the fist fight.

Takanakuy – Peru’s fist fighting festival that takes place every Christmas

Academics criticize bare-knuckle fighting for its supposed “barbarism”. This concern stems from the preponderance of blood in the sport. Common injuries include face cuts and broken hands, fingers, and teeth. However, there are myriad benefits of bare-knuckle fighting over its sanitized cousin boxing.

Bare-knuckle fights are fast and result in only surface injuries. The risk of a broken hand incentivizes contestants to throw strategic shots. By contrast, boxers’ hands are protected by gloves, incentivizing them to punch more often. Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC) fights last a maximum of 5 rounds, 2 minutes each, for a maximum of 10 minutes. Boxing fights run 12 rounds, 3 minutes each, a maximum of 36 minutes. More shots thrown and longer rounds in boxing result in far more head trauma than in bare-knuckle fighting.

Artem Lobov (L) vs Paulie Malignaggi – June 22, 2019, Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships, Florida State Fairgrounds Entertainment Hall in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

Academics-turned-lawyers have tried for centuries to outlaw bare-knuckle fights and enforce the use of gloves. This comes from an emotional reaction to the sight of blood, an element that is permitted in the sport. This confirms that blood contagion at the sight of blood is real, even to an academic.

But bare-knuckle fighting has its limits. The audience will demand a longer fight. They’ll want variety beyond just using one’s hands. A fight promoter doesn’t want a corpse on his hands, and we might try and clean up the blood a little more. This was the introduction of free fighting. (Kyokushin Karate and some other contact sports and competitive martial arts fall somewhere within this category and the next.)


Muay Thai, Thailand (credit: Tiger Muay Thai)
  • Less blood thanks to gloves
  • Longer rounds (3-5 min.)
  • Multi-limbed combat
  • Examples: UFC, Savate, Muay Thai, Sanda

The free fight is a little cleaner than the bare-knuckle fight and is far more marketable. It’s often characterized by the use of gloves and allows the legs as weapons, and sometimes includes throws and grappling. Gloves, mouth guards, and groin cups allow the fights to run longer than the bare-knuckle fight. Early UFC fights featured no gloves and unlimited ring times, but the introduction of grappling meant fights sometimes went beyond 40 minutes, and the audience hated it. The UFC has continually re-written the rules to strike a balance between portraying realistic combat and keeping the fight entertaining for the spectator.

Bloodied mat in UFC 189 McGregor vs. Mendes (Credit: Sports Joe)

Blood is allowed to flow in the free fight. It’s common for UFC fighters to bloody the mat up, and it’s extremely rare for fights to be stopped due to blood. Still, free fighting is just less visceral than bare-knuckle fighting.

There’s always the potential that a ritual combat league or combat sport will transition into a cleaner category. The Masvidal vs. Diaz fight was stopped due to a standard cut over Diaz’s eye. Many claim the state-employed doctor who made the call was inexperienced and responded emotionally. This was no surprise to UFC fans who have known New York ti be particularly hostile to MMA, beginning with its 1997 ban in the state.

If stopping UFC fights due to blood contagion were to become standard practice, Dana White would be forced to transition the league into a cleaner category. But this is unlikely given the audience’s backlash from the decision. And if the UFC were to be cleaned up, leagues in other countries would quickly take its place and soak up all the fans. And given President Trump attended the Masvidal vs. Diaz fight, there’s no indication that the American (or New York state) government will make a move to clean up the biggest free fighting organization in the world.

But cleanups happen. That’s how you get boxing.


Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz Jr – 12/07/2019 – Diriyah, Saudi Arabia (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
  • Restrictions on blood
  • Very long fights (up to 36 minutes)
  • Extremely limited set of movements
  • Examples: Boxing, fencing, kendo, airsoft (see bottom of section)

Boxing is universally recognized and understood. Equipment: shorts, gloves, mouth piece, groin cup. 4 moves: jab, cross, hook, uppercut. 3 minute rounds, 12 rounds. If they can’t stop your bleeding, you lose. Boxing is where ritual combat becomes very clean.

Aug 26, 2017; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Floyd Mayweather Jr. lands a hit against Conor McGregor during a boxing match at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The world loves boxing. We’re drawn not just to the combat, but to the stories and the rivalries. Our mirror neurons immediately sync up with Pacquiao and Mike Tyson, who went from nothing to global superstars. We become stars ourselves as we watch them rise to the top. Their rivalries sync with our own interpersonal feuds. Boxing’s lack of blood is compensated by the human interest dramas that accompany each fight.

The combination of reduced blood contagion and entertaining human interest stories is why boxing is one of the biggest commodities in the entire world.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has made boxing something of a political hot potato in the West. Gloves protect the hands but not the head, incentivizing combatants to throw more strikes. Gloves reduce blood contagion, instead causing cleaner injuries. A bloody bare-knuckle punch destroys the teeth, but a boxing punch destroys the brain. MMA fighters face brain injury too, though for different reasons and probably less often.

Perhaps MMA’s cathartic bloodletting will bring it to the top of the charts. The UFC is creeping up on boxing in terms of PPV sales, and McGregor tops the list, undoubtedly for the same reasons. It’s no wonder he challenged Mayweather. But for now, boxing is the “gentleman’s sport”, not because of the behavior of the combatants, but because the rules, which reduce the fighter’s arsenal to a very limited set of movements, naturally enforces gentlemanly-ness.

Riot following Bowe vs. Golota stoppage, 1996

When we watch boxing, our mirror neuron systems is constantly loading the intents of the fighters. We unconsciously simulate the fight in our brains. The intentions are absorbed and either released later in our boxing gym, or maybe they erupt on the spot. Boxing, and combat in general, clearly has a tendency to rile up the audience. Theoretically, if striking were removed from the equation, you’d have an even cleaner form of ritual for our combatants.

Many other combat sports fit the cleanliness, limitations, and aggression of boxing, but employ different weapons and rules. Kendo and modern fencing require skills that are beyond the average person, so they could be considered cleaner. Others, like airsoft and SCA, might be categorized as bloodier.


African wrestling. Credit: Vice
  • Very low chance of blood
  • No striking
  • Examples: Judo, Jiujitsu, Sambo, Senegalese wrestling

By removing striking and only permitting throwing or grappling, the audience is deprived of the cathartic punch of the Boxing ritual. Wrestling, by contrast, is a far cleaner affair. The audience’s violent contagion should be restricted to some broken bones, with minimal blood contagion.

The fantasy of living in a warrior society devoid of blood contagion has prompted some interesting films such as Johnny To’s Throwdown (2004). Compare this to the grim reality portrayed in a very different grappling film like Mamet’s Redbelt (2008).

Can we go cleaner? Do we need to? Can wrestling get out of hand and grow bloody? It can. Can we keep the clashing bodies, but eliminate the combat component altogether?


  • Rare chance of blood
  • No fighting (except hockey, in “fist fighting” above)
  • Heavily rules-based
  • Examples: Rugby, American Football, Roller Derby, Kabbadi

Contact sports are on the very clean end of the blood-ritual spectrum. The rules for fighting vary within these sports. Charging the mound has fallen out of style over time. American Football has low rates of fighting, likely because the clashing of bodies lets off more than enough steam for the players. And football/soccer has a hilarious incentive system. Takraw is a conduit for non-violent sparring.

FC Lokomotive Leipzig fans before their team’s encounter with SG Dynamo Schwerin in the East German FDGB-Pokal in 1990. Credit: Wiki

Sports players aren’t the problems in sports. It’s the fans who get out of hand (even the winners riot). Football Hooliganism (literally the name of its 8-mile long wiki page) is a global phenomenon. It reveals that a clean, non-combat sport like football/soccer will still have a massively contagious element.

Perhaps we’re so far from the blood end of the spectrum that the sporting event itself causes more problems than it solves. Or maybe guys will fight over anything, and football happens to be what they chose. We could still maximize the cleanness by totally departing from aggressive competition.


Chinese Wushu
  • Zero blood (except some WWE)
  • Combat is choreographed or friendly
  • Movements can be applicable
  • Controlled storytelling
  • Examples: Wushu, some Kung Fu forms, WWE, Lucha Libre, Pakistani Kabbadi, Kalaripayattu, Capoeira

In 1958, the communist party of China determined that the traditions of kung fu distracted the individual from his duty to the state. The Chinese State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports then created Wushu, a performance art combining kung fu and military poses, but emptied of kung fu’s more traditional, sacred elements. (Communist states tend to try and wipe out the sacred center, replacing it with the state itself. Strange things will often happen.)

Wushu, one of the most physically demanding sports on the planet, is on the clean end of the spectrum. While the combatants attack with fists, feet, and weapons, the movements are entirely scripted like an Olympic gymnastics routine. Wushu is as white-washed as combat gets. Nobody riots after a Wushu performance.

WWE’s Steve Austin and Vince McMahon

Ritual arts have a long legacy in their respective domains. Pro wrestling leagues around the world like the WWE, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Lucha Libre feature choreographed moves and scripted character drama. The stories before and after the match are an integral part of the fights. Pro wrestling is the ultimate stage drama because writers determine the narrative. Peking and Cantonese Opera function the same way. (The WWE isn’t always clean, however.)

The clean end of the spectrum might be home to some outliers. Capoeira isn’t scripted, and while its moves can be used in combat, the roda is a mostly friendly affair, and the movements of Capoeira call back to a significant part of Brazilian history. Wing Chun Kung Fu also has some application, but much of the ritualization in the art centers comes from its history. Animal styles of kung fu feature a similar sort of physical storytelling.

The Blood-Ritual Spectrum Overview

Bloody: Paying down blood debt despite high risk of violent contagion.

Less Bloody: Strict rules of battle reduce spread of violent contagion.

Clean: Cathartic entertainment with heavy restrictions on blood.

Cleanest: Ritualized storytelling without fear of violent contagion.

The audience plays a huge role in this. Cathartic entertainment is what they came for, but the intents they load have to go somewhere. We’ll cover this in the next post.