Sometimes conflict finds you when you’re not looking for it. We asked our sparring partners Peter Bonventre and John Jannuzzi to coach us out of a sticky situation.
I learned to fight when my family moved from a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. I was 10 years old, and one night at dinner in our new home, I asked my father, “What’s a guinea?” As if on cue, my eight-year-old brother chimed in: “Yeah, Daddy, what’s a guinea?”
I don’t recall my father’s exact response. Oh, he was angry, I can tell you that. And I can also tell you that my brother and I never again let anyone hurl that insult at us without getting into a fight. And there were plenty of fights, right through high school, where the no-nonsense Brothers of Holy Cross would step between two brawling students and order them to “take it outside” after classes.
My fighting days pretty much died with my youth. You grow up, and you grow fonder of your nose and teeth. You wise up, and you choose to avoid a fight with some trash-talking stranger because you can’t be sure the guy isn’t packing a knife or a gun.
That’s one hell of a good reason why you should always attempt to defuse an ugly situation. If you’re being hassled by some semi-drunk jerk in a restaurant or at a ball game, try to calm him down. Engage him in conversation. Maybe even compliment his shirt or his sweater or his cool Hells Angels leather jacket. Whatever you do, never show fear. Odds are, you won’t have to resort to violence. The guy refuses to listen to reason? Then walk away. Same scenario applies to that hot-headed buddy of yours who’s spoiling for a fight. Talk some sense into him or drag him out the door. If you’re gonna risk a busted jaw for someone, do it for your wife, kids, siblings, only those you love the most.
Still, the best course of action is to strive mightily to avoid fisticuffs. You are not Muhammad Ali. At times, you may wish you were, as did one of my colleagues, the late sports columnist Jim Murray. We were watching Ali sparring in preparation for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman when Jim turned to me and said, “I wish I could be Ali for 48 hours. There’s two women I’m dying to f**k, and three or four guys I’d like to kick the s**t out of.” Amen, brother.
The last time I got into an actual-honest-to-god real fight was a few years ago, on a crowded subway. A group of very drunk teenagers started harassing everybody in the car–throwing peoples’ bags off the train, yelling at passengers, all the types of unsavory annoyances you might expect. Eventually, they honed in on me and wrapped brown packing tape around my eyes and face. That annoyed (read: scared the hell out of) me. After trying to reason with them as calmly as possible, I just snapped and we started shoving each other and throwing punches. Everybody’s lost it before– you sort of just forget any logic and go from Bruce Banner to The Incredible Hulk at the drop of a hat.
Ultimately, never the best choice.
Since then, I try and remember a few things to help myself (and others) avoid the same fate. Most of the time, when people get heated about something, they’re acting out of an unusual place and aren’t thinking straight. Maybe they’re drunk, maybe they had a rough day at work, or maybe they just got put out by their girlfriend or boyfriend–it’s almost as if you’re talking to a different person. Understanding that is key. Things get said that are more reflections of their circumstance, rather than they’re actual thinking. Remembering that can help you avoid a lot of conflict. And maybe if I’d considered that before assaulting or being assaulted by a bunch of teens, I would’ve had a different reaction.
Of course, it’s a lot easier said than done, and when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to stay reasonable. At the very least, take that advice and intervene when you see fit. If your friends are going at it, kindly remind one (or both) of them that they’re just talking crazy. It works. Just hope they’ll do the same for you.