A broad swath of the local counterculture turned out for April’s epic fight between punks and hipsters, which went down at the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club on San Pablo Avenue. Set up as a series of boxing matches between members of two prominent scenes, it was a chance for onlookers to watch their skinny, shambling, beer-drinking, irony-loving, fixie-bike-riding, fashion-conscious, acidulous, and disaffected peers go toe-to-toe, and the results were marvelous: bruised limbs; bloody noses; a little swelling; fighters getting the wind knocked out of them. One hipster named Zachariah Keiler-Bradshaw guzzled three beers and smoked a grip of weed before entering the ring. After a few minutes, he went outside and puked.
The crowd loved it. Yet it turns out punks-versus-hipsters was just one in a spate of smoker matches at the East Bay Rats club this year, all of which have been wildly popular. Rats founder Trevor Latham has been hosting fights since 1996, back when the club was located in a different warehouse, without a real boxing ring — he said they used to make do by putting couches together. At first they staged only jiu-jitsu and submission-style wrestling, until Latham installed a rinky-dink wooden ring and got everyone to wear boxing gloves. Eventually he purchased a real ring for $2,000 at a local gym and designed it to approximate UFC standards. (At twelve-by-twelve feet, it’s a little smaller than the professional size but still big enough to fill the Rats’ entire backyard.) Only recently did Latham glom onto the idea of doing themed fights, wherein members of two different scenes would settle an actual, real-life turf war. But he surmises that even without that element, the boxing matches would still be a hit.
“I mean, what else are you gonna do at a party?” Latham asked, rhetorically. “Watch a show? Drink a beer? I try to have a little violence — something on fire, chicks in bikinis.” He said that after the Rats abandoned their couch setup and started promoting their events to the public, the fight club became a veritable institution.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that the current generation of twenty-and-thirty-somethings would be into boxing. Much has been made of hipsters’ fixation with nostalgia, and with a certain romanticized idea of lowbrow culture. One need look no further than the lumberjack shirts they wear, the Pabst Blue Ribbon they drink, or their taste for meat and bourbon. Boxing fits right into that sensibility. It’s an extremely old sport, and a metaphorical way of working out social conflicts — think of Joe Louis battling Germany’s Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in 1938 — and, at least in the Rats’ domain, a way of resolving personal beefs. More importantly, it’s primal, which is particularly attractive in the Digital Age: When so many of our relationships are text-based, and so much information exchange is done over the Internet, it’s refreshing to find a way of interacting that’s purely tactile and highly physical. After all, nothing says “fuck you” like a good punch to the face.
The masculine aspect of the sport deserves mention on its own. Lately, the crowd at East Bay Rats’ fight clubs has been evenly divided in terms of gender, and about as many women enter the ring as men — a fact that might come off as surprising. There’s no denying that the goal is to reach some kind of rawer, more rudimental form of masculinity, which is something we often miss in a society that requires most everyone to sit in front of a computer all day.
One might argue that fight-club proponents are rebelling against a society that no longer celebrates binary divisions of gender, but it’s actually even simpler than that. The truth is that we all want an experience that’s tangible and real, and not mediated by social networking. That’s why the gardening, foraging, and canning crazes all cropped up around the same time others became fascinated with hunting and fighting. Hipster culture may have started out being waifish and stylish, full of men and women who looked indistinguishably metro in their sweaters and skinny jeans. Now it’s clearly grasping at an element that’s absent from society at large.
And no one is better at creating a “bromosphere” than Latham, who learned to box at the Police Athletic League in Berkeley and at King’s Gym in East Oakland, which was also the training ground for famed local boxer Andre Ward. In Oakland, Latham has become a kind of Henry Winkler-type icon of blue collar, old-fashioned masculinity. He’s not only a trained boxer and the leader of a motorcycle gang, but also an avid hunter who periodically leads wild-boar hunting expeditions for those who truly want to get back in touch with nature (and with their inner bro). Plus, like many Rats, he’s a bouncer, which is why you’ll find him working the door at Ruby Room most nights (he co-owns the club with friends Tim Tolle and Alfredo Botello). That’s also why his favorite inside joke is about masturbating to Road House, where a tough bouncer (Patrick Swayze) is hired to tame a dirty bar.
Latham has found his own answer to the anxieties that many of his peers have, and because of that, he doesn’t have the same need for an escape hatch — he can sit at Ruby Room on a Monday night and read a biography of Steve Jobs with no sense of irony. That said, he has also carved out a parallel universe of sorts that doesn’t really jibe with the rest of modern society. Not everyone can live in a motorcycle warehouse, hunt wild boar, and host boxing matches in his living room.
Latham may be living the dream of some contemporary hipsters, but he’s living the dream of past generations of hipsters, too. It seems that primitivism and fantasies of class descent are recurring tropes for every counterculture: The Beats rejected materialism and got into Dharma; the hippies wanted to get back to the land; and the punks, who by many accounts still thrive, were all about living as simply as possible. It seems the more we advance as a society, the more we fetishize what’s basic and visceral and easy to feel with the human body. And maybe that’s best manifested inside a boxing ring in a dusty club.