In an eye-opening development last week sparked by taunting tweets, Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk agreed to engage in a mixed martial arts cage match, where Musk, 6-foot-1 and 51 years old, will step into the octagon with Zuckerberg, who is 5-foot-7 and 39 years old.
Online bettors have already given Zuckerberg, who is trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a 77% chance of winning the fight. But Musk, who owns Twitter and is CEO of SpaceX, once said he engaged in “real hard-core street fights” in South Africa, where he grew up. More recently, though, Musk posted that he eats a donut every morning and is “still alive.”
He also joked in a June 22 Tweet that he has his Zuck-takedown move planned. “I have this great move that I call ‘The Walrus’, where I just lie on top of my opponent & do nothing,” Musk jokingly said.
This unconventional showdown and escalating taunts raises questions: Is this a ridiculous display of testosterone-fueled primal behavior? Or is it a significant departure from the traditional boardroom decorum, giving a glimpse into the uber-competitive reality of the business world?
The concept of men resolving disputes through physical contests dates back to antiquity, as evidenced by the bloody fights in the Roman Colosseum. But haven’t we moved past these machismo displays in our supposedly evolved society?
“This is nothing new,” said Magdalena Yesil, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur, investor, and author. “It is not unique to Silicon Valley or our current times. Fights between powerful men to exhibit supremacy is a very primal behavior; it has gone on for thousands of years. Just flip through some history books.”
Indeed, this is hardly the first instance where titans of industry have exchanged eccentric displays that escalated through words, gestures, and dares. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had their own version of a “cage match,” albeit one fought with intellectual prowess and technological innovation. Oracle co-founder and CTO Larry Ellison fiercely competed with his former protege Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce. And going back in time, Thomas Edison waged an infamous battle known as the “War of the Currents” with Nikola Tesla.
Yesil, who as an investor once witnessed two founders get in fisticuffs in her office, added, “This is typical humankind behavior that has been part of our identity for many many thousands of years. Anyone who thinks we have really evolved past the primal behavior is kidding themselves. In my mind, what is sad is that our community is giving these two men an audience, giving their fight incredible coverage. We are acting just like the Romans and many other earlier civilizations, taking great joy in sitting in the amphitheater and watching men fight it out. Let’s evolve a little and ignore their behavior.”
Still, a literal physical match between corporate leaders communicates a curious message to the world. On one hand, it could be seen as a symbol of personal bravery and determination, traits that are admired in leaders across the globe. It communicates that these leaders are willing to step outside of their comfort zones and risk personal injury to prove a point, an embodiment of the risk-taking that is intrinsic to entrepreneurship. In that way, it communicates daring.
Conversely, this spectacle may be perceived as a lapse into the primitive culture of might-makes-right. It could — as Yesil notes — undermine the notion that our society has evolved beyond such brutish displays. Such a physical contest may inadvertently perpetuate the stereotype that leadership and strength are exclusively masculine traits, overshadowing the fact that successful leaders come in all genders, sizes, and capabilities. It communicates that physical dominance is synonymous with leadership.
Ultimately, the merit of a cage match between Zuckerberg and Musk is subjective. While some might find it entertaining or even inspiring, others will see it as a stereotypical display of toxic masculinity. Whatever is being communicated and hyped, whether “muscle over megabytes” or “technique over tweets,” one thing is clear: If the tycoons step into the ring, the world will tune in for the world’s most expensive play date.
Julian Guthrie is the founder and CEO of Alphy.
Reflect AI by Alphy is a SaaS platform that flags harmful language, including topic, tone, “isms,” confidence, mindset and appropriateness. Our AI language classifier detects risks in emails prior to send, flags conversational missteps (and successes) in video meetings in real-time, and upskills individual communication with targeted and personalized microlearning.