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We Need to Talk About Sucker Punches

They are lame, even if we don’t always admit it.

On Wednesday night, with the Florida rapper XXXTentacion on stage and mid-song at the Observatory in San Diego, a yet-to-be-identified assailant smashed him unconscious with a right hand. A melee followed, someone was stabbed, and XXXTentacion accused the venue's security guards of setting him up. The animus is rumored to be a beef between XXXTentacion's friend and tour-mate Ski Mask the Slump God and San Diego rapper Rob Stone, and it fits with the antisocial patterns elsewhere in XXXTentacion's life: he's facing charges—to which he's plead not guilty—of strangling and beating his pregnant ex-girlfriend. He's previously served jail time for robbery and aggravated battery.


That doesn't make it okay to run up from stage right and throw haymakers at his face. A sucker punch—cowardly, dangerous, pathological—is pretty much always indefensible. It says nothing good about us when we defend it.

We still do though. I was horrified when Montana congressman-elect Greg Gianforte body-slammed and sucker-punched a Guardian reporter for asking a relevant, indoors-voice question about the Republican party's toxic healthcare legislation on election eve. But after an MSNBC reporter told a Montana gas station clerk what happened, she replied, "My kind of politician." Montana then elected him to the House of Representatives and the conservative media echo chamber implied that the reporter was a coward because he didn't respond to unprovoked aggression where he does his nonviolent job. (Also, fuck Gianforte for shedding crocodile tears and making a token donation to the Committee to Protect Journalists when he should be in jail: attacking the unsuspecting disqualifies you from public office. And here's a free idea for enterprising YouTubers: a Brazilian-Jiu-Jitsu-For-Reporters channel.)

But hey, I'm a hypocrite too. When a protestor snuck white nationalist Richard Spencer on the streets of Washington, D.C., after Donald Trump's inauguration, I laughed. I ignored the voices denouncing the attack and defending Spencer's right to air ugly white-nationalist bullshit (even while scorning its substance). It wasn't the state punching him, I thought, so it wasn't an erosion of the First Amendment. But all the Tweet threads and Internet chatter about the efficacy of Nazi-punching that followed edified that Spencer deserves a table—rickety as it is—at the marketplace of ideas without the threat of violence. I didn't endorse Trump's brain-dead sycophants attacking protestors on the campaign trail. I couldn't justify what I despised just because the agendas switched.


There's no parallel to the sanctioned violence of boxing and MMA. When two consenting, doctor-approved adults fight each other, each has a fundamental sense of what's possible, and someone throwing punches at your face is expected, maybe even welcome. That anticipation gives you the chance to clench your teeth and diffuse the energy of the blow. Mutual combat almost completely prevents one person from ratcheting up aggression without the consent of both parties.

Fighters sucker-punch each other too, though, and then things start to look ambiguous. When UFC featherweight Cris "Cyborg" Justino struck strawweight Angela Magana at the UFC Athlete Retreat for trolling her on Twitter, Cyborg found broad support on the UFC's roster even as she caught a charge of misdemeanor battery, the suggestion being that the First Amendment protects snark and online venom until one pro face-puncher insults another. It's easy to embrace our values when they benefit us, and even easier to suspend them when a person we hate gets their face turned into a punching bag.

But cheering some sucker punches and jeering others is a bobsled down a slippery slope, especially because of the potential consequences. According to the FBI's most recently available statistics, 624 people were killed in 2015 because of hands, fists, and feet. (For what it's worth, that's another straight year of decline from 745 reported fatalities from those weapons in 2010.) Last month in Vegas, a 45-year-old father of five was killed after being randomly struck by a stranger at a bar.

And no one respects a boxer or an MMA fighter who attacks after the bell—a cowardly thing that signals pathology. An extreme case is James Butler: in 2001, the boxer lost a decision to Richard Grant (at a benefit event for police and firefighters killed on 9/11), knocked out Grant with a right hook after the fight was over, and served four months at Riker's Island as a result. A few years later, Butler killed sportswriter Sam Kellerman (brother of boxing analyst Max Kellerman) with a hammer and set fire to his apartment.

Awful people (and good people who behave badly) should be beaten through ideas, the courts, their own self-destruction, or a fair fight—not while they're just standing there, microphone in hand, when a fist comes from out of frame. There's no honor in smashing the unsuspecting, even when they seem to deserve it.