On Wednesday night, director-slash-gym owner Peter Berg climbed into the ring. But instead of squaring off against some fledgling prizefighter, Berg stood across from Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, authors of Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. Kotler and Wheal were the second guests of Wild Card West Boxing Club's Call & Answer speaker series, Berg's attempt to use the gym he opened in 2013 as the fulcrum to, as he puts it, take people out of their comfort zones to initiate dialogue and elevate interesting conversations. It's a concept, Berg says, that comes straight from boxing itself.
What was the genesis of the speaker series?
It came about when I decided to open a boxing gym. I’ve always been a big fan of the culture of boxing and boxing gyms in particular. I’ve always boxed, and whenever I go to a new city, the first thing I’ll always do is find a local boxing gym. It’s a fascinating way to learn about a community. You have millionaires with criminals with housewives with pro fighters with stock brokers with cops. It’s a very eclectic group. When I opened up Wild Card West boxing gym in Santa Monica, it was my hope to create a thriving boxing gym with a good professional component. But also, especially in Los Angeles, it’s often hard to meet people out of your immediate social group or business group. People tend to be much more isolated. But we’ve got police officers and firemen and rock stars and celebrities and Russian fighters and Polish fighters and Mexican fighters and Filipino fighters. We’ve created this real mix. I’ve always hoped to turn that mix into something more than just a physical experience. I’ve found that oftentimes, the most interesting conversations I have are just sitting around the gym after everyone's trained, talking about politics or marriage or sports or whatever with this eclectic group. I had this vision that we could elevate that not by just having parties but by creating a more intellectual experience and bringing in speakers who could speak not only to our gym but to the extended family of our gym. That was appealing to me, to use our gym as a spot to initiate dialogue and conversation and thought. So that’s kind of how it was all born.
Do you see the speaker series as the formal, in-depth version of the conversations that happen around the gym?
One hundred percent. I would find at our gym, we'd be talking about police issues, issues about police assaulting African Americans. But in that conversation there were three members of the Santa Monica SWAT team, two Latin fighters, one of whom served eight years on gun charges, two black fighters from South Central L.A., and two housewives from Brentwood. I couldn’t help but note this is a really interesting conversation. Had it not been for that location and that gym, I don’t know that that group of people would’ve ever gotten together.
Tell me about the first conversation.
The first we had was with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who’s a psychologist who writes books on the psychology of violence and killing. He lectures special-op groups and Navy SEALs and Delta forces. Very well respected. In the middle of the conversation he got in a heated argument, well more of a heated conversation, with [agent] Ari Emanuel about gun control. It was a wonderful debate they had in front of 300 people. That was the kind of conversation that was hard to have in Los Angeles, or hard to have without breaking down into name-calling and hostilities, but to have civil conversations about these kinds of issues felt interesting and felt like the kind of thing I wanted to be involved in.
Are there rules?
I think respect, whatever line people draw respect at. There's no name calling, there's no one walking out. There's civility. These are meant to be spirited, dynamic conversations. I’m open to bringing in fairly controversial speakers. We've talked about bringing in some members of the Ku Klux Klan after all the attention the KKK got for their alleged support of the Trump campaign. My feeling is let's listen to these people, let's hear what they have to say. Let us form our own opinions. But by ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist, we're doing a disservice to all of us. We're looking to have some fairly hardy conversations.
That sounds like it could get pretty real.
I hope so. Clearly we’re living in a world where people are often scared to get real and to have these kinds of conversations and to say what they think. Then we form judgments and opinions based on our fears, not based on our intellect. One of the things I like about boxing is it's always been a great way to confront your fears. And that's what you find out when you get in the ring and spar. Everybody's nervous, everybody's scared, but you push through it and generally feel better and more educated about yourself. It’s my hope that through some of these conversations we can all move away from our fears and into slightly more informed opinions.
How would you expect that to happen?
I would hope that at the end of the day, people would be provoked, they would be pushed a little out of their comfort zone. Again, the reason the speakers are speaking in a boxing ring is because, well, not to turn this into some corny metaphor, but boxing is about moving out of your comfort zone and being open to a new experience. There's an equality to this sport. Everyone's the same in that ring. And I want that same equality and respect to be afforded to whoever's speaking with the goal that we move out of the comfort zone of our assumed patterns of thought and behavior and are at least open to listening to other people. Regardless of how apparently offensive. It's not like everyone's offensive.
Who comes to these things?
One of the great things about it is we don’t charge anything. In Los Angeles, every time someone gets invited to something, they kinda wince because they assume they’re gonna be asked for a lot of money. And the fact that we don’t charge, we're open to anyone, and it’s free. That right there brings out a lot of people who might not normally come. So we've had anyone from top Hollywood studio heads to actors like Mark Wahlberg and some others, to a lot of pro fighters, to some homeless guys who live in the alley behind our boxing gym. [Last time] we were packed. We can hold about 300 people, and we had people standing in the parking lots listening to the PA system when Grossman spoke.
Based on the topics, you have what sound like masculine topics. What else do you want to cover?
The next speaker is a female named Jill Leovy who wrote Ghettoside. I wont say it’s a less-masculine subject, but it’s a remarkable book about how African-American crime is not prosecuted the same as non-African-American crime historically, and how that would translate to South Central L.A. and what happens to a culture when they feel as though the justice system doesn’t treat the crimes committed against them, their culture, the same way. In a world where everyone's talking about Black Lives Matter, and Colin Kaepernick behaves the way he does, this book is an extremely multi-perspective look at this problem. We’re obviously very supportive of law enforcement with our gym, and we're a home to dozens of police officers. This is an issue worth discussing and looking at. Jill wrote an incredible book and it really shines a very intelligent light on this subject. We're not gonna restrict the speakers to male issues or male speakers.
There’s a stigma that Hollywood doesn’t read. Is this supposed to turn that on its ear?
I think so. It’s an unfair label that Hollywood gets, or that Hollywood subscribes to any one political agenda. It’s just generally not accurate. But the other problem is that this city is very isolated. Because there’s a car culture, you’re surrounded by steel going from point A to point B. It’s very hard to meet people that are not like you. What we’re able to do with the speaker series, and the gym in general, is to allow people who would never ever be in the same room not only be in the same room but share in an intellectual experience. That's a good thing.