Bar fights
Credit: Yuri Arcurs / Alamy

The best bar fight I ever witnessed took place in a tiny shitkicky bar in Wyoming, somewhere along the road between Sheridan and Gillette. Outside there was a faint skein of April snow on the ground. Inside it was Hawaiian night.

The bar was festooned with tropical knickknackery and paper palm trees, grass skirts were free for the taking, and the owners – a salty-mouthed blonde and her mother – were forcing everyone to wear leis, including me. I was in the company of a Canadian poet and a Wyoming painter, fellow artists-in-residence at a foundation down the highway; we'd been snowbound for a few weeks, and, like loggers emerging from a long stint in a lumber camp, we were itchy for a bit of fun. Some hot whiskey, some social chainsmoking, a smile from a hard-faced girl, perhaps a clumsy two-step, and maybe – you never know – the spectacle of a good-natured late-night fistfight.

It was a perfect place for all that. A singer-guitarist with a drum machine mixed Merle Haggard and Joan Jett into his sets. An old Indian in new blue Wranglers and a belt buckle the size of a 45-rpm record tore up the dance floor with all seven of the women present, with the exception of the owner-mother, who chose to dance solo with an oversize chef's knife raised above her head, as if baiting criticism or suitors or both. Besides us, the only other nonlocals in the bar were three itinerant sheepshearers from New Zealand – two drunk louts and a girl.

I got the full story only later. Allegedly, one of the Kiwi sheepshearers – a short, stout, vinegary guy – took to throwing roasted peanuts at the head of a local boy, one peanut after the other. The local boy had some tragic name – I swear everyone pronounced it "Art Fart," though it must surely have been Art Vart. In any case, skinny Art Fart – clad in a grass skirt with an impromptu bikini top made from coconut shells and twine over his shirt – finally tired of being pelted with bar peanuts, said words to that effect to the Kiwi sheepshearer (who was also, I should note, wearing a grass skirt), and, like that, the fight was on.

Smart money was on the Kiwi. He'd started it, had some solid farm muscle on him, appeared to have piss for brains, and, unlike Art Fart, wasn't sporting coconut titties. But chalk one up for the US of A: After the typical cuss-and-shove windup, Art Fart threw a lanky-armed punch that sent the Kiwi buckling to the floor, hula skirt and all. There may have been some subsequent tussling – a crowd swiftly circled them, blocking my view – but the decisive blow had been struck. The fight officially ended, as I recall, when the salty blonde charged from behind the bar with a pistol, though I wouldn't swear to that in a court of law; maybe she just threatened gunplay.

"We have to get out of here," said my poet companion. With a smile I refused, and there in that bar, as the Kiwis hustled their frothy countryman outside and into the giant RV that was their home during sheepshearing season, and as Art Fart ordered a victory round, I tried to explain to him, knuckleheadedly, what I'm about to attempt to explain, just as knuckleheadedly, to you: The spectacle of a good bar fight, properly executed and healthily ended, is not merely annoying boorishness. The best of them – an admittedly minor slice – are shaded with the elements of high art. Think ballet, with its orchestrated stepwork, and opera, with its epic, heart-on-the-sleeve passions, or any kind of gladiatorial drama. Naturally, these overlofty comparisons apply to boxing matches and run-of-the-mill fistfights, too, but the bar fight has a sublimity all its own. Because it's fueled by alcohol, it's usually a rank amateur's game, with all the unpredictability this implies, and unlike boxing and most angry fistfights, it's sometimes lacquered with a gloss of comedy. Flying peanuts, grass skirts – that sort of thing. For millennia saloons have served as comfortable petri dishes for sex and violence. I am either too honest or too unsophisticated to suggest that one can exist without the other. There is a mammalian side to all of us; on occasion it rears its head, snarls, makes a mess, acts the fool, howls at the moon, gives or gets a black eye.

Before we get rolling here, though, I feel it necessary to clarify my terms and to set a few ground rules. When I say bar fight, I mean this: one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat that occurs inside a saloon, or just outside its door. Except in those rare instances when a life is at stake, weapons have absolutely no place in a proper bar fight. In short: no knives, chairs, bottles, derringers, swords, or mounted billfish (a possible urban myth I once heard in Australia had a man attacking another with a marlin yanked off the wall), and absolutely no throwing opponents through plate-glass windows. (Let's call this last one the Charles Barkley rule, to dishonor Barkley's throwing of a man through the window of an Orlando bar in 1997 after the man had thrown a glass of ice at the NBA star. It's hard not to secretly admire Barkley, however, for his reply when asked if he had any regrets: "I regret," he said, "that we weren't on a higher floor.")

A proper bar fight pits one man (or woman – but wow are those fights scary) against another, with the only outside involvement coming from pals or patrons attempting to stop the fight. Holding a guy down while your friend pummels him is evil bullshit; pummeling a guy while your friend holds him down is evil bullshit squared. The proper bar fight ends quickly, though there are exceptions (like John Wayne's epic brawl in 'The Quiet Man,' but then that's a movie), but when it's over it's over. Injuries – broken noses, fingers, hands, ribs, and jaws, along with assorted bruises and the famed cauliflower ear – are an obvious and common consequence, but their seriousness should never be dismissed. The rallying cry that a friend reported hearing a fighter bellow in a Tennessee roadhouse – "C'mon, I'll cripple ye!" – is okay to utter, but forbidden to enact. "The casualties in barroom fights are staggering," William Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch, and it's true. Type "bar fight" into Google and the results are sobering: "Bar Fight Leaves 10 Dead in Guatemala," "Student Dies Trying to Stop Bar Fight," "Bar Fight Ends in Stabbing Outside Local Club," "Five Men Shot After Bar Fight in Michigan." For the record, these grim variations and extensions fall far outside this essay's beery scope. However faint and friable it may be, I prefer to maintain a line in the sand between behavior that is merely bad and that which is sociopathic.

The history of bar fighting is, as far as I can discern, almost wholly undocumented, though a few historical tidbits can be found glittering amid the archival dust. The origins of the phrase "the real McCoy," for instance, are said, perhaps apocryphally, to be traceable to a turn-of-the-century saloon fight. As the story goes, an obnoxious drunk accused then welterweight boxing champ Norman Selby, a.k.a. "Kid McCoy," of being a fraud. McCoy, inventor of the notorious "corkscrew punch" that Muhammad Ali later claimed as his own, promptly and definitively beat the stuffing out of his accuser, who weakly admitted, as he clambered back upright, that he'd been laid out by "the real McCoy." Without bar fights, too, the history of the American west would be one very long episode of Little House on the Prairie. One of the enduring western myths is that gunfights were staged, quite formally, as cowpoke variations on European duels. More often, if not always, they were standard-issue saloon brawls that spilled out onto the street and resulted in the snap-crackle-pop of gunfire. Beyond that, however, the history of bar fighting remains locked among the men, young and old, who trade their smoky stories in private, twisting the fights' origins and outcomes to suit their egos and/or bleary memories. ("The guys who get beat up always deny they started anything," an ex-bouncer from Maine told me. "And if they got beat up by two guys, it's 10 in the retelling.")

Despite this hazy history, however, I think it's fair to make a few assumptions. The first is that the original bar fight surely happened within hours or days of the appearance of the first bar. (The scientific basis for this will be explored shortly.)

The second is that no culture in which alcohol is publicly served is immune to them. Even Tibetan Buddhists – widely, if perhaps inaccurately, considered to be more violence-averse than we hayseed Americans – have their share of bar brawls. In Tibet's Kham province, fights between Tibetan and Chinese drinkers are said to be commonplace; several years ago, in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, a fingernail discovered in a dish in a Chinese restaurant sparked a giant brawl, during which wine bottles were hurled at policemen trying to restore order. Stray fingernails are not typically fuel for fights in the U.S., but then we do not suffer from the sorts of geopolitical tensions that would cause one to suspect a restaurant of serving human flesh. In a similar vein, we are also not prone to bar fights caused by soccer club rivalries, as in Europe, though college football rivalries seem to take up a little of that slack. Suffice it to say that bar fights are not a product of globalization. When it comes to late-night scraps, we are the world.

The third assumption is that the unwritten chronicle of bar fights features a cast of mostly men, though women of a certain flinty temperament are also prone to bar fighting. In my lifetime I've witnessed two girl-on-girl brawls and both scared the bejesus out of me. Girls are not indoctrinated, by pop culture or society, with the vague code of fighting that usually – and I stress the word usually – keeps boys from pulling hair or gouging eyes. The term catfight is popularly applied to these fights, and it's an apt analogy; as with battling cats, there is rarely anything you can do to stop these fights, and it's best, from my experience, to simply run for cover when one breaks out. This isn't to suggest that such fights aren't worth witnessing. If you're accustomed to ladies of a genteel sort, there's a world-upside-down element to them, and they can sometimes have the frightening appeal of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I'm told that many men take pleasure in the spectacle of females fighting. Though this fetish falls outside my sphere of kinks, some overly red-blooded men get turned on by car wrecks or Christina Aguilera. Disaster, I guess, can have a certain pervy allure.

Young men are the predominant combatants in any saloon fight, since the tempers of older men take much longer to come to a boil. (Regarding alcohol and youth, Plato warned, "It is wrong to add fire to fire.") Tim Sylvia, the former heavyweight champ of the Ultimate Fighting Championship league, told me that he used to pick fights in Maine bars when he was 19 or 20 "just to prove my masculinity." Young men feel they have much to prove; older men, as a very general rule, tend to feel more comfortable in their skins.

This is not to suggest, however, that old men are immune to beer tempers. Many years ago, in a Deep South beer joint, a white-haired man of about 70 threatened to kick my ass because he suspected I was a "beer spy." The full story emerged after I'd denied the charge and was able to calm him down: He claimed he'd found a condom floating in a capped bottle of Budweiser. He'd notified Anheuser-Busch, he said, and they'd agreed to ship him a free case of Bud if he would just send them back the bottle in question. "I told 'em that'd be fine so long as either Mr. Anheuser or Mr. Busch called me to apologize," he said. "And, lookit, I told 'em they'd have to call me at night because I ain't about to sit by the phone all damn day." Because I'd been alone at the bar, scribbling away at some piece of writing or other, he'd assumed I was a spy dispatched by Anheuser-Busch to find and reclaim that dread bottle. I'm not sure what I would have done if the old man had actually attacked me – hard to envision a happy outcome there. In the end, though, he apologized and fetched me some homegrown beefsteak tomatoes from his truck, which, to this day, are the best tomatoes I've ever eaten.

If you ask a bartender the cause of a just-fought brawl, during that excited hush that settles upon a saloon in the moments after the combatants have been tossed, chances are he'll answer, "They were just drunk." And chances are he'll be right. (Bartenders, I've found, usually are.) The science behind this is rather simple: By depressing the central nervous system, alcohol acts as a disinhibitor, making us feel more freewheeling and incautious. This is why, after four or five drinks, you have the courage to approach the laughing blonde in the dizzyingly see-through blouse, but also why you might feel sturdy enough to take on the six-foot-six meathead who won't stop wagging his tongue through his fingers at your girlfriend. "We call that 'beer muscles,'" says Sylvia, the UFC champ.

Recent scientific research has added an interesting wrinkle to the alcohol-violence connection. According to a study published in the January 2003 issue of the medical journal 'Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research,' acute administration of alcohol can induce a rapid increase in testosterone – four times the normal amount, in some cases – in the brains of rodents. The implications for human behavioral and endocrine pathology seem clear: The more you drink, the more your social inhibitions dissolve, but also the more your testosterone amounts – the dipstick level of your cojones, so to speak – may rise. A chalkboard equation, then, might look something like this: C2H5OH (ethyl alcohol) = negative inhibitor neurotransmitter abilities + 4x testosterone levels = Popeye, on a shore leave bender, giving Bluto a big black shiner for goosing Olive Oyl's skinny little rump. Argh argh argh.

Scientific evidence notwithstanding, that bartender would be only half right. If mere drunkenness were the cause of barroom brawls, happy hour at T.G.I. Friday would be the most dangerous 60 minutes on the planet; you'd have to step over bodies just to order a Tom Collins. If you liken a bar fight to, say, an exploding can of gasoline, then bloodstream alcohol is surely the gasoline; there's no disputing that. But for every such explosion there's a spark that makes it go boom. As Seneca wrote, "Drunkenness does not create vice. It merely brings it into view."

What's the most common spark? To answer that we have to first divide bar fights into two distinct categories. One we'll call Psycho Fights. Plainly put, these are fights that happen because someone in a saloon is a psychotic asshole, and they include fights prompted by out-of-the-blue utterances like Whatthefuckyoulookinat? or Yougotaproblemwithme?. Psycho Fights don't actually require a cause; the presence of the psycho is cause enough. "A lot of guys go out looking for fights," says Sylvia. "They're pissed off at something their wife or girlfriend did, or about something that happened at work. When that guy is looking for a fight, he can't be talked out of it." Bullies are bullies, and they're always uninteresting. Our interest here lies more in the causes of the second category of bar fights, which I hesitate to call Rational Fights, since of course no violence is rational, especially after seven Coors Lights and two shots of Cuervo. Let's just call them Non-Psycho Fights.

In order to gauge the top three causes of Non-Psycho Fights, I surveyed a wide swath of bartenders, barflies, bouncers, lawmen, and other folks with some connection to saloon life. Some of the answers were too local for my purposes ("Him," one upstate New York bartender said, cocking a thumb at a surly solo drinker), while others, like the top-three list I received from a retired Mississippi lawman, had a ring of poetry to them: "Women, property lines, and dogs." (The other list that could double as a country music album title went like this: "Drunks, women, and drunk women.") Fully tabulated, nonetheless, my survey results broke down as follows. Cause No. 1: women who are present in the bar. Cause No. 2: women who are not present but vividly remembered. Cause No. 3: old grudges that don't officially involve women but might involve them if you scratch down deep enough.

Cause 1 includes acts of "chivalry" – protecting a woman's safety or honor – but also encompasses acts of rabid jealousy, e.g., pummeling your ex-girlfriend's date. Cause 2 is so closely related to Cause 1 that an argument could be made to merge them, but there is a distinction: In the first case the fights start suddenly, with the attacks unplanned. A lout insults your date; you take a swing. Your ex strolls in with a bumblefuck insurance salesman; you take a swing. Or, conversely: You, an insurance salesman but certainly no bumblefuck, walk into a bar with a hot divorcée on your arm, only to find yourself sucker-punched by her red-eyed ex. But Cause 2 produces a slightly different kind of fight, one generated by unhealed romantic wounds, by conflicts that have simmered for a while. To the unschooled observer, a fight that breaks out in a bar because some guy took offense at the song another guy played on the jukebox might seem random and ridiculous. If you'd known that the guy who played the song had stolen the other guy's girlfriend a half-decade before, and that the song he'd played was the Aerosmith ballad that had been on the radio when the poor fella first unsnapped her bra that night by the lake, it might make more sense. "The season of love is that of battle," Darwin wrote. The roots of these fights run deep.

Which leads us smoothly into Cause 3: old grudges. You see this less in big cities than you do in small towns, where the tight confines of the county limits mean that you're forced to come face to face, on a regular basis, with the dickhead who fouled you in that high school district finals game way back when, a foul that, though the referee didn't call it, caused you to (a) miss the game-winning shot, (b) lose your chances for a college scholarship, (c) lose your cheerleader girlfriend, and (d) go to work for your father at the grain mill and marry ol' Brenda who got fat as a house after the kids were born and never does nothing but watch Dr. Phil and complain about the way your boots smell. Years later that same dickhead beats you in a casual game of pool, and it's all too much to take. You snap. (Pool tables, by the way, were a popular survey answer; notable also-rans included politics, athletic allegiances, and, yep, jukeboxes.)

Not long ago, at the Dunes Saloon in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I ran into the novelist Jim Harrison, who offered me this theory: "Most bar fights can be traced back to someone's dog getting shot 20 years before." Some urbanites among you might cry bullshit – it's difficult, though amusing, to imagine two fellows tussling over a dead bird dog in Manhattan's '21' Club – but I can attest to its limited accuracy. Several years back, in Mississippi, a man shot and killed my German shorthair pointer – long story, not worth rehashing. But if I ever come across that bastard in a saloon...well, I swear I'll knock him halfway to next Tuesday. I have warned my wife and lawyer of this pledge, along with the owner of the bar where this knocking is most likely to occur. None of them approves, but the bar owner is a dog lover, so I suspect he'll overlook any damages.

A dirty truth: most bar fights are just noisy non-events. The average barroom brawl lasts about two to five seconds, according to Peyton Quinn, a former bouncer in "problem bars" who now operates Rocky Mountain Combat Applications Training in Lake George, Colorado, where he instructs bouncers and other security types in the finer points of fistfighting. (Literally, it's the school of hard knocks.) "Bar fights are generally very sloppy affairs," says Quinn. "Once that adrenaline rush hits, people tend to lose fine motor control and just flail at each other – often ineffectually." UFC champ Sylvia seconds that judgment: "In bar fights you don't see strategic fighting at all," he says. "Just a lot of haymaking. Usually the guy who gets in the first punch is the winner."

The typical bar fight, then, can be easily choreographed: It's a sucker punch that may or may not be followed by a second punch, but rarely a third. A number of fights go quickly to the floor and become dusty wrestling matches. This often happens when the victim of a sucker punch, dazed and weakened, tries to ward off any further blows by tackling his opponent. Punches thrown in close quarters don't have much oomph to them, so the tackler attempts to give himself a respite via sloppy grappling. This isn't a recommended tack, however. "Personally, I hate to fight on the ground," Quinn wrote in 'A Bouncer's Guide to Barroom Brawling,' his 1990 primer on bar fighting. "For one thing, if a guy has any buddies or you have some enemies around, they will often start kicking your head and ribs while you're on the floor and otherwise preoccupied." By and large, however, bar fights are settled by a single punch, one angry whap to the head that defines and decides the evening.

Which is not to suggest, of course, that there aren't variations. Smart bar fighters, says Sylvia, hit their opponents smack in the nuts. "Best place to strike," he counsels. Goofy types who are destined to fail attempt intricate martial-arts moves, something Quinn strenuously discourages. Some guys pull hair and bite: Mike Tyson's chomping of Evander Holyfield's ear may have been a freakish anomaly in the boxing ring, but in a particularly rabid bar fight, c'est la vie. I might also add two intriguing variants on bar fighting tactics that I've come across in my readings. During America's frontier days a noteworthy fighting technique was to get your opponent's bottom lip between your thumb and fingers and then yank it down like a stuck window shade, half-severing the lip from the face. This is obviously an abomination and has no place here except as a gruesome point of interest. A description of the other tactic appears in Raleigh Trevelyan's recent biography of Sir Walter Raleigh. As a young rakehell, Raleigh grew tired of a "bold, impertinent fellow" in a tavern and, after popping him one, "sealed up his mustache and beard with wax." To my mind this facial-hair waxing clearly violates bar fight decorum, but it is kind of funny.

I like to think that I was once involved in the perfect bar fight. This was about eight years ago, in Mississippi, back when I was spending nine or 10 hours a day in a second-story saloon on the town square, a time in my life for which I bear a certain hungover nostalgia. My opponent, in this case, was my best drinking pal, a longhaired South Carolinian a year or two my junior. The cause of the fight was, naturally, a woman – in this case one present in the bar. For a while she'd been my girlfriend, and then she wasn't, a change in status that I seemed unable to reconcile in my head. No one else had much liked her, and the judgment of pals was that, by splitting with her, I'd escaped a grim future – a judgment endorsed, adamantly, by the South Carolinian. Yet I was drunk, moony, unsure, second-guessing my fate as old Tom Waits songs crackled on the bar's hi-fi. An hour shy of last call, the ex approached me in the bar, and, forgive me, I thought this might be my one thump-hearted chance to woo her back. That's when the South Carolinian appeared, butting into the conversation in a way that I might liken to a circus clown crashing a Middle East peace conference. Scram, I told him. He scrunched up his face and made nonsensical noises. The ex-girlfriend, who'd long lamented my lack of maturity as well as my choice in friends, rolled her eyes and made motions to leave. I mean it, I told him. He crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out to one side. I grabbed him by the neck. He grabbed me by the neck. We began throttling each other, muttering mean curses. No punches – just throttling, growling, bared teeth. I don't recollect how long this went on, but at some point we looked up, simultaneously, to see the entire bar population frozen in a baffled stare, watching us choking each other. And the ex? Nowhere to be seen. We looked at each other, sighed, shrugged, dropped our chokeholds, took two stools at the bar and bought each other beers. We've pledged to finish that fight, and perhaps someday we will. In the meantime, though, we drink in peace.

The Tavern House Rules

Seven Steps to Successful Bar Brawling

1. Never hit anyone in the head with a closed fist, unless you've taped your hands and are wearing a set of boxing gloves (and if you are, champ, good luck holding your mug). Closed fists equal broken fingers. Keep your hand open, striking with the heel of your palm.

2. Make loudly clear to any potential witnesses that you don't want to fight, even if you do. This will serve you well if the police get involved. And stay keenly aware of your surroundings, whether that means gauging the potential involvement of your opponent's pals or eyeing possible escape routes. "Always," says UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, "know the exits."

3. Don't kick, and never attempt any martial-arts witchcraft in a bar fight. "Above all," says ex-bouncer Peyton Quinn, "never declare to your adversary that you are a black belt. This will almost always encourage him to attack you."

4. Keep your hands up to protect your face. Ninety percent of bar punches are roundhouse swings to the head.

5. When a bartender or bouncer gets involved, the fight is over. Period. Block any last-minute punches from your opponent, but don't throw any. If there's time, apologize to the staff and tip them gloriously before your exit. If you're being hustled out the door, don't resist, and keep apologizing.

6. Never lose your head. What Quinn calls the "frog brain" can be a nasty thing; it can make you irresponsible, slipshod, or unduly harsh. Rage will not only make you look like an idiot – it will also get you hurt.

7. Never start a bar fight. Finish one, yes. But never start one.