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"What we are though, is this: we are fighters."
The origins of the book lie in a discussion Robinson had a few years ago with LA Weekly editor Joe Donnelly, an acquaintance, about redesigning that paper's music section. But after Donnelly recounted a recent bar fracas, their conversations shifted to fighting. The result — a September 29, 2005 piece titled "Anytime, Anywhere: Hardcore provocateur Eugene Robinson searches for the almost-perfect punch" — serves as the basis of FIGHT.
The piece quickly caught the attention of HarperCollins, which invited Robinson to New York to discuss publishing a book devoted to fighting. Robinson wrote one as a tribute, a how-to guide, and a non-apologia for the fight. Or, as he calls it, "Zen and the Art of Kick-Assertainment."
FIGHT has gotten plenty of glowing reviews, with some comparing Robinson to James Joyce and Norman Mailer. But it has had a critic or two as well. James F. Sweeney at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland wrote that "Robinson is such a fan of fighting that he offers no real consideration of why violence is so popular or of its role in society."
Certainly some in the peace-and-love community will come away from the book wondering whether people can simply talk through their differences.
When asked about philosophical arguments against fighting, Robinson seems unconvinced. "These guys who don't support the idea of fighting are full of shit," he says late one night at the gym, sometime after riding the stationary bike and lifting shoulder weights but before his midnight run. He mentions Hitler and others who've refused to "recognize reasonable boundaries," over the years: "There are people who need to be stopped. And there is no amount of talk and negotiation out if it, there is no way out of it."
Robinson says he feels he has little to prove to anybody these days. While he dedicated FIGHT to his enemies — "Every single one of them. Without you, none of this would have ever been possible" — he doesn't seem worried about his critics. Although, when asked about those enemies, he says he wishes they all had one neck and his "hands were on it."
Embracing this love of the fight is by no means following the advice Robinson got while he was growing up in Brooklyn. His mom, Irma Norman, says she had long intellectual talks with her son about fighting and alternatives to violence dating back to when he was 4 or 5 years old. She told him that "people who fight are angry people," and that it would be better to discuss problems.
Robinson remembers the talks, but was never persuaded by her approach to conflict resolution. His response: "Aw, mom, I don't want to run away. If I run away I'll just be tired when they're beating me up. I want karate lessons!"
He ended up sneaking over to a local church for Shotokan karate classes. Still, Robinson and his mom agree he was a "gentle kid" who didn't fight much. He was more likely to be found sitting on the stoop with friends, having intense discussions about comic books and superheroes. And if they didn't agree, "Gene would debate and debate and debate until he would win," Norman says with a laugh. "He would wear his opponents down." She remembers one friend who never won an argument, and generally knew their discussions were over when she'd hear her son say, 'Ha! I got you!'"
While Robinson excelled at verbal combat, his entry into the word of competitive fighting started badly. "There was the first one where I got my ass kicked badly by a judo guy when I was 9 years old, which was wonderfully humiliating because I never even got to throw a punch," he says. "Because every time I stood up, the guy threw me down." Those gathered to watch were "laughing uproariously" throughout the spectacle. And there was his second fight, which he won with a sole punch. "And I was like, 'Oh, yes! Now this makes sense to me!'"
Growing up in New York City also taught Robinson the importance of choosing his battles. He remembers hearing about a man who chased down a purse-snatcher in Coney Island, only to be fatally stabbed with a sharpened screwdriver by the thief. "And the punch line for me was that the old lady had 84 cents in her purse," he says. "Now, old ladies should be able to go hither and yon without being molested, but at the same time I don't want to get knifed in the chest for 84 fuckin' cents."
Knowing when not to fight served Robinson well as a teenager — such as when, at age 13, he upset the girlfriend of a member of the Jolly Stompers gang as school was ending for the day. He describes the scene that ensued as straight out of the gang movie The Warriors. "And what is the expression about the greater part of valor? I hid in the bathroom!" he laughs. "Until at such time I thought it was appropriate to get the fuck out of there."
Calling that a "completely defensible action," he offers this survival tip: Next time you are in a building surrounded by people who want to kill you, you hide, too.